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Clifford Chance’s litigation over ‘unspoken pacts’ in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and what he would change about the profession


Clifford Chance, Head of Global Litigation, Matthew Newick grew up in Malaysia and Singapore before moving to New Zealand at the age of 14. He began his legal career with the large Kiwi law firm Chapman Tripp in 1987.

In the early 90s he joined Clifford Chance and was promoted to partner in 1999. From 2013 he led the litigation and dispute resolution practice throughout Asia Pacific from Hong Kong, before returning in the London office in January head of litigation and dispute resolution later that year.

Why did you become a lawyer?

I liked to watch law shows on television, and I always preferred languages, writing, analysis of reasoning, etc. So I thought I’d make a better lawyer than a doctor or a banker. It really is as simplistic and sad as that. I was just really incredibly lucky to have loved him for 35 years. But that was luck rather than judgment, I’m afraid…

Who has been the biggest influence on your career?

If I had to pick one person, there was my very first mentor when I started out as a litigator. He taught me the basics of the litigation toolkit: the power of preparation, the need to absorb all the details while keeping the big picture in mind…also how far in business and in life, fairness and decency as a human being will get you.

He was a brilliant lawyer, so fantastic at the little things, like pointing out in a presentation in court, or in front of an audience, or in a letter where you want people to go.

Unfortunately, he died of leukemia while I was working with him in those early years. He was still in his thirties. And I remember I still have this very clear image of the last time I saw him, it was him lying on his deathbed, holding his hand, talking to him and crying all the way home in the office.

This experience marked me a little, to see that everything could be removed at that age. So he’s probably been the biggest influence over time, but there’s been a lot. He left a strong impression on me, and I tried to follow that.

Why did you choose litigation?

The company I was with in New Zealand did not have a formal training contract like we do in the UK. But they had a rotation system. I got to the end of my second rotation, which was corporate, and I was like, “Wow, I love this.” And the crew liked me and wanted me to stay, but the company said no. So I go and try litigation and 35 years later I still like it. I often wonder what my career and my life would have been like if I had decided that I was going to be an M&A guy forever and had been allowed to – definitely one of those moments of sliding door.

What is the most memorable case you have worked on and why?

I was a brand new partner and this was the biggest deal going on at [Clifford Chance] at the time. It had to do with the copper trade scandal in the 90s. It was large scale, with a lot of high stakes; extremely complex from a legal point of view; a colorful market with lots of colorful characters… We had absent witnesses, uncooperative witnesses… a bunch of interesting procedural issues along the way. It really had it all and in the end we got a very good result for the client.

What is the professional moment you are most proud of?

The one that stands out for me dates way back to the beginning when I was still a baby avocado. I was asked to take on this case for one of the firm’s major banking clients, and it was a three-day trial in the high court. I would fly all the way to the bottom of New Zealand, which is basically the bottom of the universe, to defend this case in front of a guy considered to be the grumpiest judge in New Zealand and against a fairly experienced opposing lawyer. It was complex, it was difficult but I won it against all odds. I don’t know how I did it, but I succeeded. The epilogue to this comes about 20 years later when I was dealing with another case, and this case that my little old man had done in the deep south of New Zealand, was cited as one of the authorities .

…And the worst day?

The first day of this [copper] case, I walk out of court with the client’s president through Lincoln’s Inn Fields around noon. We’re talking about the deal, structured commodity derivatives, very intellectual stuff – when we walk about six feet from someone performing a sex act on another person. It was the weirdest moment because none of us recognized it, we just kept talking about copper derivatives. It was excruciating – a moment of studied nonchalance. None of us ever talked about it. I think we had some kind of unspoken pact.

What advice would you give to young beginner litigators?

When I look back on my own career, the times I grew the most were when I was forced out of my comfort zone or volunteering.

When I was asked to go to Hong Kong to rebuild the firm there when we lost two top partners in the mid-2000s, or when I offered myself for the role of global leader, for example. All these moments have two important characteristics: one is that they scared me. But the second is that they gave me a little more confidence. They allowed me to take the next step, because they allowed me to evolve. I think that’s a good lesson for everyone. You don’t grow when you navigate or do things that seem easy and straightforward to you. This is when you’re really tense and need to raise your game.

Best and worst trait?

Some people I may disagree with myself on this, but I like this best: I’m direct. I don’t have the patience or the intelligence to play politics…I’m ready to have difficult and frank discussions with people. In some ways, that might also be my worst trait. According to my family, one of my worst traits is my upside-down smile, as shown in this photo. (I promise I’m smiling inside.)

What annoys you most about being a lawyer?

There are a style of behavior that I find very trying. It’s that habit that if you can use a ten letter word instead of a five or four letter word, it’s somehow smarter or more persuasive. In my view, the opposite is true.

If you’re stuck working late at the office, what food do you order?

It would be this dish called Nasi Lemak, which is a Malay dish, meaning coconut rice. It’s a breakfast dish and I was pretty much weaned when I was growing up in Malaysia. This is my absolute desert island food. Fabulous stuff.

Favorite box? There’s an Australian show called Rake from about five or six years ago, which is about this very charismatic but incredibly chaotic Australian lawyer who seems to get himself into unthinkable scrapes.

If you could instantly change one thing in the industry, what would it be?

Make partnerships and senior management within companies more representative of the societies in which we operate. If someone could just wave a magic wand and do it overnight, that would be a huge win. I think back to when I was in the profession and we talked about the same issues since I started. We’ve made progress, but it’s been excruciatingly slow… But I think we’re at an inflection point now.

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