Law firm of the year: Stephenson Harwood

Small is beautiful for the regulatory litigation practice, representing banks in high-profile cases

Tony Woodcock, partner at Stephenson Harwood

OpRisk Awards 2016

Over the past decade, Stephenson Harwood's regulatory litigation practice has made quite a name for itself, representing banks and bankers in some of the highest-profile cases involving operational risk, institutional failure or alleged financial fraud.

"All the major financial scandals have seen us representing a significant institution or individual," says Tony Woodcock, London-based partner and head of the practice.

Woodcock's personal experience in the field dates back to the 1995 collapse of Barings Bank, after which he represented the bank's board. More recently, his firm acted for the chief executive of UK-based banking group HBOS following its failure in 2008, as well as successfully challenging the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) over its investigation into the Tchenguiz group of companies.

Currently, Stephenson Harwood is advising 12 traders and senior bankers in connection with alleged manipulation of Libor and foreign exchange markets, and is just beginning work linked to similar charges around Euribor.

Over the years, we've accumulated a significant body of experience in how banks are run, and what the risks are that have damaged them or brought them down
Tony Woodcock, Stephenson Harwood

"Over the years, we've accumulated a significant body of experience in how banks are run, and what the risks are that have damaged them or brought them down," says Woodcock.

Part of the reason for the firm's success, Woodcock believes, lies in its relatively small size: "In larger firms, partners and associates become very siloed... Members of our team are as comfortable working on an enforcement action brought by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) as dealing with interviews under caution by the SFO and the criminal process."

Woodcock adds he is "careful to recruit people with the right sort of character". Such individuals need the gravitas to win the confidence of clients who may be facing serious allegations, the empathy to understand the personal dimension of their clients' predicament, and the tenacity and thick skin to defend clients under investigation and in court against powerful regulatory bodies, often on a global scale.

He also places a premium on keeping abreast of regulatory developments. "There's a programme here I personally sponsor to ensure that all of us – me included – are kept on the top of our game in terms of technical law and best practice in the financial services industry."

There is no shortage of emerging legal and regulatory developments that are likely to trouble the firm's financial services clients. Woodcock notes that it is now six years since the UK Bribery Act was passed, which made it an offence for a commercial organisation to fail to prevent bribery. "I expect to see some activity relating to enforcement by the SFO on that."

Duty of care

Meanwhile, the FCA's new Senior Managers Regime is bedding in, which imposes a higher duty of care on senior managers in the financial sector. The UK government is also promising to introduce an offence of corporate fraud, which would make a company automatically liable for fraud unless it can show it had taken steps to prevent it.

Woodcock adds that the latest anti-money laundering directive from the European Union "will create plenty of work", and that the regulatory response to cyber crime and data protection failure is also giving some of the firm's clients sleepless nights.

But despite the occasional case of overreach from the regulators, Woodcock acknowledges the importance of vigilance. "We have to have a financial services industry that is squeaky clean. That means you need to have a tough and fearless - though fair – regulator."

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