The fencing QC who gets straight to the point

“Business crime cases are fascinating,” says Robert Rhodes QC, “because that is where the worlds of commerce and crime meet. For a lawyer, I don’t think there is a more interesting area in which to practise.” Robert should know, as an expert in business crime and fraud who has been instructed in some of the most celebrated – and certainly high-profile – cases over three decades.  En route, he has built up wide-ranging expertise which he offers for the benefit of direct access clients as well as to instructing solicitors.  

Robert had originally intended to specialise in tax work but was advised to acquire more general experience. Indeed he did, doing a mixture of civil and criminal work, and found that he particularly enjoyed the advocacy aspects of the profession. 

Early on in his career, Robert was instructed on some fraud cases and found that this was much to his liking – especially as it harnessed his advocacy skills. He enjoyed the combination of intellectual challenge and using his powers of persuasion. “It was particularly satisfying being able to outthink your opponent,” Robert says, “or, to use an apt metaphor, to pick his pocket before he realised what had happened”.  (In fact, fencing may be a better metaphor: Robert was an international fencer in the 1960s). 

His first break came in 1976 when he was junior counsel prosecuting the directors of the Israel-British Bank in a huge fraud case. As Standing Counsel to the Inland Revenue (now Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) between 1979 and 1989, Robert was also instructed on many tax prosecutions.

But he was also involved in some notable defence cases, none more so than his representation of Guy von Cramer, an associate of Peter Clowes, which resulted in an acquittal for his client. The case arose out of the insolvency of Barlow Clowes, and resulted in Peter Clowes being convicted for fraud and theft and sentenced to imprisonment for 10 years. Another notable feature of the von Cramer case was that Robert made a closing speech that lasted six and a half days.  

What made it all the more interesting for Robert was that throughout his career he has acted for both prosecution and defence, which gave him an all-round perspective of this area of law. He took on cases involving all aspects of business crime, including civil and criminal fraud, tax investigations, bribery and money laundering. He took Silk in 1989. 

As a result of his reputation for business crime cases, Robert broadened his practice to include regulatory work and, in turn, being invited to head panels hearing disciplinary cases involving bankers and accountants. 

As someone sitting in judgment rather than representing one of the parties, Robert became increasingly convinced that most issues could be resolved more quickly.  In hearings, he insisted that both sides focus on the real points at issue, thus condensing proceedings. 

Robert’s reputation extended further still. He took on cases in other jurisdictions such as Hong Kong and was also asked to lecture on business crime and company law to audiences in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, among other places. Robert was the first English Silk to be instructed in a capital drugs appeal in Singapore. In fact, that rekindled an interest Robert had long had in Asia (he studied Oriental Studies at Oxford). He also has rights of audience in the Dubai International Financial Centre (which has its own jurisdiction within Dubai).

Robert also qualified as a mediator and an arbitrator (he is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators). He is on several Far Eastern mediation and arbitration panels. In his capacity as mediator, he always tells the parties to the mediation that mediation not about right and wrong, it is about finding a resolution to the dispute. “’What is the best deal you can live with?’, I tell them,” Robert explains. “‘If you can’t live with the deal, then litigate’.” 

All of which begs the question: with such a flourishing practice, why does Robert take on direct access work? Robert gives several reasons in response: “Direct access is another string to my bow. I am interested to help people who otherwise might not have access to legal advice. And, frankly, the more work you do, the more interesting life is.”

He only accepts direct access instructions on two conditions: the first is that it must of a certain size, and the second is that the case does not require a solicitor. Not that he invariably accepts cases when these two conditions are satisfied.  If he feels that the case does not merit hiring a silk, he will always recommend to the client that they instruct a junior barrister. “I always see if there are ways to help reduce the clients’ costs – seeking legal advice can be very expensive, after all.”

He has established a good way of working with direct access clients that has served him well:

First, he always responds quickly to any leads, acknowledging receipt and indicating when he will be able to get back with a time of meeting. 

Second, he usually offers a free first meeting, to discuss in general terms the nature of the problem, but not offering legal advice.

Third, he is direct and to the point in his advice – so that the client knows exactly where they stand. That does not always make him popular, he says. “Sometimes clients get upset when I give them advice they are not expecting, but there is absolutely no point in telling them what they want to hear rather than what you think.  That is not why they have sought your advice.”  

Finally, once instructed, he devotes his full attention to the client, whatever the case.  “I roll up my sleeves and get on with it.”

He admits that direct access has its frustrations and that potential clients can be unreliable, saying they will instruct and then not doing so, but Robert is philosophical. “You also have to be sanguine about the fact that you offer your help to a direct access client and then you may not hear from him again. A lot of direct access clients let you down, but that’s life!  That is more than offset by the number of good instructions you receive.” 

Robert Rhodes QC - Direct Access Mediation Barrister