When top litigator Trevor Asserson left London and his partnership at one of the world’s largest law firms to start again in Israel, he admits it was a total risk. But, three years on, he has established a lucrative foothold in the global legal market and is “absolutely flooded” with work.
Mr Asserson, 52, founded his eponymous law practice in 2005. His aim was to take advantage of cheaper operating costs while still providing the same standard of service.
Asserson Law Office is an English firm offering solely UK legal advice but located entirely offshore. Based in Jerusalem — but with a UK website, address and telephone number — it is believed to be the only UK firm that is based entirely outside of the UK.
“People today are more used to the concept of having services based in other countries and sending parts of their businesses offshore to cut costs. I decided to do it with an entire office,” says Mr Asserson, the former global head of litigation at Bird & Bird. He has also worked at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. “I started with just me and one potential client. Apart from that I had no idea whether anyone would instruct me. It was an unusual model.”
Now, with a team of 12 highly experienced lawyers — and growing at an annual rate of 40 per cent — Asserson is poaching clients from some of London’s legal heavyweights. “Over the past few weeks I have had clients who have approached us as an alternative to Olswang, Bird & Bird, Berwin Leighton Paisner and SJ Berwin,” he says. “These are the kind of firms that people are going to and then also looking at us.” Why? Because Asserson provides the same standard of legal advice at a fraction of the cost.
By London standards, the firm’s overheads are exceptionally low. “The two main expenses for a law firm are the lawyers and the property. Israel is a much cheaper country for both.”
Mr Asserson earns enough money to cover his rental costs within the first working half an hour of each month. He says: “Rent [in Israel] is almost free compared with London rates, which is a big headache for London firms.”
Such savings are, in turn, passed on to clients, with fees that are more than 50 per cent less than London rates.
“Three-and-a-half years ago, I was charging £520 an hour. This would probably be even higher today — between £600 and £700 an hour.” At Asserson, he is charging around £250, depending on the client. They include major US, Israeli and European banks, plus many high-profile individuals. The firm has worked on several cases with a value of more than $100 million. One of their biggest cases — acting for an offshore hedge fund — was valued at $500 million.
The firm is profitable because Asserson’s team of lawyers are willing to forgo London wages to live in Israel. He recalls: “When I fixed one of my trainee’s contracts, it was so far below the minimum allowed by the Law Society of England that the society asked me to prove it was a fair wage.” And yet, they are paid at the top end of the Israeli market.
The company, which is regulated by both the Law Society of England & Wales and the Israel Bar Association, is benefiting as clients seek ways to cut costs in the recession. “We are probably getting a new piece of property litigation every three or four weeks, or sometimes once a week.”
The only problem, he says, is finding enough lawyers to do the work. “I am so desperate for people that I have called someone back early from maternity leave.” In 2007, Asserson hired David Prais, a commercial property partner at Addleshaw Goddard, and he has plans to lure another senior London lawyer by making an improved salary offer.
“Starting a property department from Israel was questionable, and starting it from scratch, during one of the worst depressions in the property market that anyone can remember, was even more so.” It was profitable within 12 months. “This is proof of the business model.”
Mr Asserson has turned Israel’s lower cost base into a vehicle for growth that has the potential to shake up the legal markets both domestically and internationally. He is confident the country can become a platform for international practices in other disciplines. “I don’t think there is another country in the world able to attract such highly-qualified professionals willing to take a pay cut in order to change country. This places Israel in a unique position to develop this model into other spheres.” He adds that, due to the time differences, his team have done two hours’ work before many of his UK clients have woken up.
Mr Asserson says he has no intention of competing in the Israeli market. His firm does not advise on Israeli law. He advises new or potential olim to hang on to their skills, making them the foundation of their aliyah, rather than competing toe-to-toe with Israelis.
Mr Asserson lives in Jerusalem with his wife and their two daughters; Eliana and Avital.