Where "errors" can lead you

In 1977, I was an associate at what was then the 2nd largest law firm(1)  in France, and was made partner on the same day as six other associates at a very young age(2). Most of the other associates were older, and one of them was a tax lawyer, Robert Caubet, who had been a manager at Coopers & Lybrand. The firm was headed by a temperamental senior partner(3)  (also a tax lawyer), who had co-founded it. After one year, there was a clash between Robert and the senior partner, who told Robert to leave the firm. I was the only one among the other junior partners to protest against the uncollegial way this was done. Probably I was stupid or too young to realise I had sealed my own fate. In any event, I soon found myself also asked to leave the firm, one or two months after Robert had left. We had stayed in contact and Robert suggested starting a partnership of 2 lawyers. Since we had been partners before, I agreed, and we opened our new, fledging firm on 1st January 1979, with only one secretary. We had decided that if it was unable to attract any clients after 2 months, we would close it. It attracted one, then many great clients, and it grew profitably during 25 years to 11 partners and about 20 associates. Robert retired in 2004 and I do not remember having ever had an argument with him.

Another, more recent story has to do with a difficult client. He approached me (as I am an arbitration specialist) to handle a court action (before the Paris Court of Appeals) for annulment of an arbitration award which had sentenced his company to vacate commercial premises without the usual compensation for eviction. I agreed, and we also agreed on my fees. He paid part of them upfront, and I wrote draft pleadings stating why the arbitration proceedings were procedurally flawed and why the award had therefore to be annulled on these procedural grounds. He however insisted that I add a whole chapter on the merits of the case and the incorrect way the arbitrators had reasoned to reach their decision to order the company to vacate the premises. I explained to him that this was not necessary, not provided for in our agreement on fees, that I was not a specialist of the termination of commercial leases and that I had no time to do it anyway. Was this an error of mine? Should I have done what he wanted? In any event, he was furious and refused to pay the remainder of the agreed fee amount. I withdrew from his case and he appointed another lawyer, to whom I passed on my draft pleadings. The ex-client then filed a complaint action against me with the Paris Bar, claiming malpractice and seeking the reimbursement of the initial part of the fee he had paid. I resisted and was able to prove that the Paris Court of Appeals ruling in his case (which his company won), was solely based on the procedural arguments raised in my draft pleadings. His complaint against me was rejected, and he was sentenced to pay the remainder of the agreed fee amount, as I had counter-claimed. Although I had gone through some unpleasantness, I felt vindicated.

The last example is a classic a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma: I was counsel to a party in an international arbitration taking place in Paris under ICC Rules and the chair of the arbitral tribunal was a German Colleague. During the hearing, he felt he was doing too much work for not enough fees and he asked the ICC to request a further advance of the arbitrators' fees from the parties. My client and I felt this was not justified, but the risk of objecting was of course that this could turn the chair and possibly his co-arbitrators against my client. After some deliberation, my client instructed me to object, and eventually the ICC ordered the parties to pay a much smaller additional advance on fees than the one asked for by the chair. The end of this story is that the arbitral tribunal found in favour of my client in the award, but it got less than what it had claimed. I am unable to affirm this is a consequence of the decision we made to object to the greedy chair's wishes.


(1) Goldsmith, Delvolvé & Partners  

(2) 27  

(3) Jean-Claude Goldsmith

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