HSF partner Robert Hunter, who is profoundly deaf, tells Jonathan Rayner how he carved out a career as a City fraudbuster.
Solicitor Robert Hunter has achieved success in what he terms ‘the un-touchy-feely’ world of the City while unable to hear what clients, colleagues, judges and other lawyers are saying. He is recognised as an internationally acclaimed trusts, fraud and asset-tracing solicitor. He acts for banks and wealthy individuals. He also represents, pro bono, the elderly and vulnerable. And he achieves all this while being profoundly deaf.
Hunter tells the Gazette that he was in his mid-teens when he began to lose his hearing and that the condition became progressively worse. Nonetheless, he was admitted to the roll in 1984 and made up to partner at magic circle firm Allen & Overy (A&O) in 1990. Those were less enlightened times, he says, and three or four years later the question of his hearing ‘reached crisis point’. But the firm’s management team had learned how to deal with disability and insisted that all staff followed its lead.
‘What followed may have been mere political correctness, but it felt like daylight compared with struggling on my own,’ recalls Hunter. ‘Partners who had previously shown no interest in my plight began to speak louder to me. Associates did the same. Others started to transcribe telephone conversations for me as they happened so that I could respond immediately. I was able to carry out my own advocacy in court with the same support. I used amplification devices and learned to lip read as best I could.’
The bedrock of his career has been involvement in fraud litigation, both prosecuting the fraudster, and tracking and recovering stolen assets. He gives the example of a financial institution that has been defrauded in the UK. ‘Speed is of the essence,’ he says. ‘You spring an injunction on the offender without notice, ordering him to surrender his passport until he tells you where the assets are and allowing you to search his property. You can also apply to cross-examine him.
‘You might find that the stolen assets have been moved to other countries so you will have to work with lawyers from those countries to freeze them. It is common to be litigating in several jurisdictions at the same time. Often you will discover that he has tried to hide the assets by giving them to friends or putting them on another company’s books or in offshore trusts. Again, you need to freeze them. In fact, asset freezing is the biggest part of the job. A recent fraud conference devoted 80%-90% of its time to asset freezing.’
Do fraudsters conform to a stereotype? Hunter says they commonly have ‘manipulative personalities’ and can be ‘enormously charming’, which is very much a tool of their trade. ‘They are often narcissistic,’ he adds, ‘with framed news clippings on the walls boasting of their previous crimes. Many give donations to political parties as a form of attention-seeking. And any fraudster worth his salt can simulate depression or anxiety.’
He gives examples of the latter, with fraudsters pleading that they must leave the country to adopt a child or care for a dying father. Others have a wife who ‘slit her wrists last night’ and needs their urgent attention. Others allege impropriety in the investigation, accusing one of harassment, bullying or ruining their reputation. ‘Cancer is a common reason given for not being able to sign an affidavit,’ says Hunter. ‘You have to be polite, but firm – and careful. In 30 years I haven’t come across a genuine case where cancer was a reason to show compassion. But there will always be a first time.’
BORN Bunbury, Western Australia
EDUCATION Minster Grammar School, Nottinghamshire; York University, psychology, 1977-1980; Trent Polytechnic, conversion course and Law Society Finals, 1980-1982; City of London Polytechnic, part-time MA in Business Law 1983-85, University College London part-time LLM 1983-85
CAREER Malkins, London, articles, 1982-1984; Allen & Overy, London, solicitor, associate, partner, 1984-2009; Herbert Smith Freehills, partner, 2009-
KNOWN FOR International fraud litigation
Some clients are high-net-worth individuals where the family is engaged in ‘often painful’ trust litigation. These cases are usually linked with mental capacity, he says, and can involve claims of undue influence being applied to vulnerable elderly relatives. Typically, some family members want the money now rather than waiting for it, or are afraid that the elderly person controlling the purse strings might change the will to favour the local cats’ home or the cleaning woman.
Of course, some high-net-worth clients do change their will, but in favour of fraudsters. The fraudsters’ modus operandi is to ‘ringfence’ victims, says Hunter, so they lose contact with friends and family. The fraudsters reinforce this by making up stories about how friends and family are plotting against the victim, who in time comes to look to the defenders for protection. ‘It’s a form of Stockholm syndrome,’ Hunter says. ‘The hostages are the wealthy victims who identify with the people [with] power over them – the fraudsters.’
High-net-worth individuals, particularly elderly ones, are also frequently targeted by gangs selling ‘valuable investments’. Hunter recalls a case where a wealthy couple in their late-80s bought carbon credits in the Amazon basin that would not mature for 20 years – by which time they would be centenarians approaching their 110th birthdays or, more probably, dead. ‘Humanitarian and green projects are favourite scams,’ says Hunter. ‘They appeal to the good in people. Gangs often swap the names of the most gullible people, who are targeted again and again.’
Other individual victims of scams may not be rich at all. Hunter recalls a case in Newcastle upon Tyne where two professional criminals ‘commandeered’ a block of flats and told residents that they had been authorised by the landlord to collect the rent, which they promptly pocketed. The same fraudsters identified an elderly woman living in the flats suffering from alcohol-related dementia. They persuaded her to divorce her husband and give them power of attorney to look after her affairs, whereupon they sold her engagement and wedding rings and then her other properties. It cost Hunter two weeks’ annual leave to get judgment and recover the stolen assets. He says the fraudsters were not convicted and ‘are probably still pulling off the same scam elsewhere’.
Hunter, who has a degree in psychology, will talk to victims to help them come to terms with what has happened. ‘In films or on the TV, the victims are usually the bad guys who are stupid and greedy,’ he says. ‘The sense is they got what they deserved. But in real life, people are being punished for their kindness. After all, it is an act of kindness to trust someone. People should never be ashamed of being kind and we should never laugh at someone who has been kind. Fraudsters are bullies, really. It’s an itch I can’t scratch, but I’m outraged at the way they humiliate as well as steal from their victims.’
Hunter was not always determined to succeed as a lawyer. ‘I was set on becoming an accountant,’ he says, ‘a profession at which I would have been criminally incompetent. Luckily, I went out for a drink with a friend who was reading law, and even the next morning it still seemed a good idea. My mother had also done a law degree as a mature student. I have never regretted the decision. I have come across exceptionally talented lawyers in firms of all shapes and sizes. You must never make the mistake that because you work for a big City firm you are always going to be better than the competition.’
He is reported to have an interesting sideline – building an aeroplane in his basement. ‘I most certainly am,’ Hunter replies when asked to confirm this. ‘It’s likely to take me a dozen years to complete, whereas an experienced and talented builder – of which I am neither – could do the job in two years. I have got three weeks annual leave coming up so, with a spot of matrimonial negotiation, I might be able to make some progress. And before you ask, yes, it will squeeze out of the basement when completed.’
Finally, Hunter returns to the subject of deafness. Does he have any advice for deaf students considering a career in law? ‘It won’t be easy,’ replies Hunter. ‘Like all sensory disabilities, deafness can be isolating, particularly if you choose a career in the un-touchy-feely City of London, where the environment can be inhumane. It can be done, but you must focus on and develop other skills to compensate for your deafness. For instance, I have had to grow more sensitive to people’s facial expressions, the way they are sitting, how they interact with one another. I have also learned to go on long after everyone else would have reached their embarrassment level by asking the same question over and over again until I’m sure that I have understood the answer.’
He refers to a talk he gave in March titled ‘Working with a disability in a City law firm – a personal view’, and the rules that he tries to live by. He says: ‘First, don’t choose a firm solely on the basis of how you think it will treat your disability. You are a prospective lawyer who happens to have a disability, not a disabled person who happens to want to be a lawyer. Unless you see it that way, nobody else will. Be guided by what firms actually do, not how they see or describe themselves. Ask to speak to someone with a similar disability to see how things really are.
‘Second, build a network. Keep in contact with other people with disabilities. Treasure your friendships with enlightened colleagues and listen to them when they disagree with you. The same is true of PAs and support staff, who can often display far more common sense than well-respected lawyers.
‘Third, and finally, there are certainly challenges if you want to pursue a career in the City with a disability, but for most of the time it is a question of getting your head down and getting on with the job, like everyone else. That is exactly how it should be.’