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Trevor Asserson, the Founder of Asserson, on Building an Offshore Law Firm in Israel and Applying the Start-Up Nation Mentality to Professional Services

Trevor Asserson is the founder of Asserson, a UK law firm that is based in Tel Aviv. With accolades from Chambers and the Legal 500 and a powerful reputation for taking on establishment institutions, Trevor has been recognized as one of the UK’s leading litigators for many years. He has a wide range of commercial litigation experience but specializes in complex cases that are often multi-jurisdictional. Prior to establishing Asserson, Trevor worked at Herbert Smith, Europe’s leading litigation firm, and subsequently as the Global Head of International Litigation at Bird & Bird, one of Europe’s largest multi-national firms with a premier reputation for IP, Telecoms, and IT law.

ZERØ: Can you tell us about the origin story of Asserson and how it’s grown in the last 15 years?

Trevor: The origin stems from the fact that I wanted to live in Israel, and I promised to move there before my oldest child reached 13. Once I was there, I had to find something to do, so I decided to try to set up an English law firm in essentially the wrong country. I had no idea whether it would work at all, whether I would have any clients, or whether anyone would trust the idea, but that’s how I started.

Before corona, we were just about to hit 50 lawyers. Unfortunately, we have two on furlough right now and had to let one go very recently. But essentially, we’ve grown organically over the period and through serendipity, where someone good came along. My attitude was, if someone’s a great lawyer, take them and make sure that we manage to keep them busy and give them something interesting to do—and that’s tended to work.

ZERØ: Do you primarily tend to advise companies based in the UK or in Israel or some combination?

Trevor: It varies from year to year, but we have clients from all over the world, including Russia, China, India, Australia, South Africa, Central Africa, some Arab states, South America, North America, and many European countries. However, that said, the majority of our clients are either based in Israel or the UK, and it’s probably 50/50.

ZERØ: Which characteristics enable you to compete on that global scale?

Trevor: I think the correct question is really to is to ask how the other law firms are still competing with us because we have so many built-in advantages. The first thing is that we’re based in Israel, which is an attractive place to live, particularly for people living in England, which is a miserable place to live. But also, for English-speaking lawyers around the world. Israel is a great place. It attracts fantastic and very bright people. But also you have to have something a little bit extra if you’re prepared to change country—and pretty much everyone in our office has changed country. That takes a certain amount of daring and a certain amount of get-up-and-go, literally, and a certain amount of can-do attitude, which, generally speaking, you don’t find amongst lawyers. Lawyers are the dullest people on the planet, pretty much, but we [at Asserson] are slightly less dull because we’ve got a bit more to us. And we also have had the challenge of building a U.S./UK law firm in Israel, which is a completely new, fairly innovative idea. So. So I think that we’re very able to compete in terms of the service because of the quality of the people that we’ve attracted.

ZERØ: What have been some of the challenges that you faced as a foreign firm operating in Israel?

Trevor: Initially, there were some logistical problems. People have to go to the country that we’re litigating in, both the UK and U.S., which means some travel. Clients have to believe we can do it. But the world has increasingly gotten used to electronic communications, and COVID has accelerated that process. It was a process that was moving along at a nice pace, and it’s suddenly gone into a different gear. All of that helped us. When I first started, people asked how we could actually help them in the UK, and I had to persuade them It wasn’t really a big deal. Today, they don’t even ask the question. It’s just taken for granted the fact that we’re in Tel Aviv doing English law. It’s just no big deal.

ZERØ: Apart from the superior weather in Israel, what are some of the advantages of operating there?

Trevor: The reality is that, in order to come and live in Israel, one will almost certainly be Jewish or married someone Jewish. For Jewish people, living in a country where they are not the minority is wholly unique and increases the quality of life in a way that is very hard to explain. For Orthodox Jews specifically, which a lot of the office is, the alignment of one’s religious timetable and secular timetable is also very nice. We have very strong connections overseas from where we come from and a kind of cultural affinity. And we’re all excited by the fact we’re doing something really novel, which gives us a team spirit that infuses the whole firm. It’s very rare to have a firm of lawyers where everybody in the firm has such an incredibly overlapping set of cultural affinities with one another. It’s a very exciting place to work. And I think that is actually one of the features of the firm that gives us an edge, that clients feel a certain sense of excitement about what we’re doing. It sounds almost incredible for lawyers to be excited about anything, but, but we actually do have them.

ZERØ: Apart from moving to Israel from an English-speaking country, what makes a lawyer a good fit for Asserson’s culture?

Trevor: Cultural alignment with our ideals is important. We feel excited that we are building a bridge between Israel and the rest of the world in a sense.

The reason our clientele is so international is that the most popular legal system in the world is the English legal system. For example, if you have a Chinese company contracting with a Russian company, they almost certainly won’t want each other’s law, but they will very possibly agree on English law. The English courts are busy with international and foreign disputes all the time. When I was based in England. I had I acted for governments and multinationals all around the world and had very few clients based in the UK. Having that internationalism baked into our culture is important. We’ve also been lucky enough to attract people of really high caliber who are also motivated to build a law firm in Israel. The concept of what we’re doing excites them. Those are the qualities we really look for.

ZERØ: How do you find these lawyers? Do they tend to find you when they’re on the hunt for a job, or do you find them?

Trevor: It’s a bit of both. We have a very active internship program, where we have interns from around the world. We have a scholarship program with a university in Australia, where the Australian University actually pays for one of their best students each year to come and do an internship with us. We also have about 20 or 30 interns from the UK each year. And we also have people knocking on the door. This week, someone who graduated from Yale with high honors just knocked on the door and told us that he’d just arrived in Israel and needed a job. said, I haven’t met him yet, but those kinds of people can turn out to be super, and we’ll take them in if they’re good and find work for them.

ZERØ: Have international firms opening offices brought new competition, and how do you stand out specifically among these other global law firms operating in Israel?

Trevor: So far, with these firms, they tend to refer the work that comes in back to their lawyers in the UK or U.S. The guy on the ground is not going to do the work. We’re the only firm of our kind that actually will say, the lawyer that’s going to handle your work is here in Tel Aviv, and you’re going to sit with them and with an associate or trainee, whatever level is right for what you need. We have experience, and our whole team is here. No one else is doing that, and that gives us a real edge.

That said, the other firms that are coming here are sort of a proof of concept. They accept that what we’re doing can be done. So we say, “Bring it on.” The more, the merrier. I think Israel can be a hub for providing international legal services for countries around the globe. From a time zone perspective, your Indian clients love the fact that we’re two hours ahead of England. Similarly, we have clients all over the world, ranging from China to Egypt to Dubai. Being in the same time zone as other countries in the Middle East is a benefit, and the quality of service is as high as in England.

ZERØ: What are your growth plans?

Trevor: COVID has been a challenge and some sectors have been suffering. I don’t know exactly where we’re going to get to as a firm. I see no reason why we won’t get to 100 lawyers—we’ve already hit 50, and we have more and more people knocking on the door. Our aim is to be a fantastic example of what a law firm in the startup nation can do. The level of achievement that Israel has had in the tech field should be present in professional services as well. There should be fantastic accountancy firms, banking advice firms, and investment advisory firms. We’re trying to lead the way with law in both the U.S. and England by saying to clients that you can come to Israel and get real quality advice.

One story: We act for a large infrastructure company, which builds roads and bridges and buildings.. They found us by approaching an advisor who they have who is a lawyer who knew us and had used us. They had a particular problem and weren’t happy with their lawyers, so they asked for a recommendation for someone good. The guy said, “Well, you’ll think that I’ve lost my mind, but I want to recommend you an English law firm in Tel Aviv.” Now this is a non-Jewish company. They probably never heard of Israel. They certainly wouldn’t be able to find it on a map. Three years later, we are now their only law firm. They had been using about 10 or 12 different law firms, and they got rid of the other ones because we do all of their work. And no one from the company has ever been to Israel. We go and visit the CEO and all the senior directors, we run their board meetings; we are completely inside their business and helping them at every level. What they find in us is energy and excitement about our work and our quality, and where we are just doesn’t matter to them.

ZERØ: Do you have any particular plans to expand on the U.S. side?

Trevor: I would say that our most aggressive expansion is likely to be on the US side. We actually have a U.S. law firm.  We were actually just talking about a new claim today, where some of the biggest names in the U.S. corporate world come into play in a banking case and possibly a fraud claim. This will be headed by our Head of U.S., who is a partner who came out of two of the largest law firms in the U.S. Once he was in Israel, he requalified as a UK lawyer, so he’s now been dual qualified for about 10 years. And we have a Harvard Law graduate who’s joined us fairly recently. We’re going to try to get the full sweep of all of the top law schools to match the kind of people that we get from the UK. The U.S. has a very strong relationship with Israel and is obviously a huge market, so I feel that’s where we need to grow. We’re currently speaking with three U.S. lawyers with a view to them joining us over the next few months.

ZERØ: My last question, and the one I ask every guest, is what you think are the characteristics of the law firms of the future?

Trevor: Because of COVID, there will be a tendency to believe that you can be a virtual law firm and that you can sit in your attic and become a lawyer. When I started the firm, I felt very clearly that you can be a firm in a different place because I was used to that. I was accustomed to having clients from all over the world. But you do need to have the team together. If you’re a trainee, you learn a lot from sitting with another lawyer while they’re conducting a meeting or drafting a response to some letter or something. We’ve found that the people who suffer most from COVID are not the senior lawyers. They’re the junior lawyers who aren’t getting the same level of training and supervision and learning. So I think that the law firms of the future will need to find ways to enjoy working from home and distance working, but nevertheless be totally dedicated to training their lawyers and investing in them.

One of the things we’ve always done is invested in lawyers having further training, doing additional degrees if they want additional courses, and being trained in a very intensive way on the spot. I think that what’s going to happen is the law firms of the future are going to be the ones that can really provide exceptional service, which means that their response time is quick. The quality of the work that they do is good, they don’t over lawyer it, but they provide they understand and provide what the client wants. That will separate the weak from the strong.

To add to that, people tend to seek lawyers for advice, and a lot of clients listen to this advice and then decide to do something different. A good lawyer is a lawyer that can not only work out what the right thing to do is but manage to get their clients to do it. This means they have to have courage, because a lot of either very wealthy entrepreneurs, which is typical client, or senior executives of major corporates, another typical client, or individuals like film stars, are headstrong. Effective lawyers need to have the strengths and personality to stand up to them and say, “No, you can’t do that. You must do this.” That quality is a quality that you can’t really learn in school. But if you have the quality to move countries, and you have the quality to try something a bit different, and you have the strength of character to do that, then you may have the strength of character to be the kind of personality that can be a really useful lawyer to your clients. And I think that is going to be a kind of quality that will make people stand out in the future.

 

Author

  • Bernie Toledano

    As ZERØ’s Head of Marketing, Bernie is responsible for overall marketing strategy, brand management, and lead generation initiatives. Prior to joining ZERØ, Bernie was the AVP of Marketing and Communications at a global real asset investment firm, where she led and operationalized the marketing strategy across several subsidiaries and built the company’s marketing technology infrastructure from the ground up.