Citywealth speaks to Robin Rathmell, of US law firm Kobre & Kim about protecting assets of UHNWs in the case of government forfeiture.
Tell me about your role at Kobre & Kim.
My role is to coordinate the global defence of my clients’ assets, typically in the context of white collar criminal or commercial litigation cases involving allegations of fraud, dishonesty, or other misconduct. UHNWIs and HNWIs have unique litigation issues in these cases because, in addition to their number one priority which is the safety and security of themselves and their families, they tend to have substantial assets in intricate structures around the world. Those assets are often the target of asset forfeiture by governments or claims by litigation opponents. My job is to ensure that those assets are protected by all lawful means through a robust litigation strategy in all of the relevant jurisdictions.
How has the private client industry changed?
My field has seen a major increase in government attacks on client’s assets. For example, through the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has launched more and more civil forfeiture cases related to foreign conduct, where the money in issue has flowed through the U.S. banking system but the assets and people concerned are overseas. My clients are seeing an increasing number threats to their foreign assets as the long arm of the DOJ keeps stretching. And this is by no means confined to the government agencies. In civil and commercial litigation, adverse parties are starting to realise that they need to attack assets around the world rather than just suing people. The upshot is that, as litigators representing private clients, we need to be vigilant to global litigation risks and prepared to defend assets in any jurisdiction around the world, and often in several simultaneously.
What lessons have you learnt?
I was a barrister at Serle Court in London for several years before joining Kobre & Kim. This was fantastic because it gave me grounding on the courtroom side of litigation, and I had opportunities to hone my courtroom advocacy skills throughout the first decade of my legal career. This helped me immensely when I crossed the Atlantic, and the professional divide, joining Kobre & Kim. Here I learned the client management side of the profession, which is immensely important in the private client world, and got a broader perspective on cases than the sometimes-blinkered “heat of battle” view you get from the courtroom. As my career developed at Kobre & Kim, I focused more on global strategy and as a partner I now concentrate on trying to deliver solutions for my clients that are realistic and useful, supported by my wonderful colleagues around the world.
And that is my most precious lesson: look first at the problem the client is facing. All too often, litigators are tempted to rush to court in our “home” jurisdiction. The more I understand private clients and the issues they face, however, the more I realise that just as often the solution to their legal problem lies beyond the “obvious” jurisdiction: it might be a media strategy, it might require introducing clients to asset structuring lawyers, and it might require alternative legal actions in other jurisdictions. Private clients’ assets tend to be in complex structures, and it’s important that we’re flexible and responsive to that.
What interesting cases have you been working on?
A South American family was exposed to major litigation risk as a consequence of several difficult commercial litigation situations and government asset forfeiture threats to their assets. We developed a litigation strategy that not only protected the assets, but also negotiated the resolution of the disputes through repatriation to the original jurisdiction of a relatively modest proportion of the total funds. This was an exercise in both client management as no client wants to lose assets, and adversarial negotiation among three governments and several commercial creditors, all of whom wanted to take every penny the client had. Resolving everything in one fell swoop, and seeing the look of relief on the family’s faces when they knew that their lives could continue, and when the parents realised their kids would be provided for, was a particularly satisfying moment from the last year.
What are the obstacles to successful litigation?
I am involved in several of the largest asset forfeiture cases in the world. All of them involve offshore assets held in trusts sought by major governments. The words “offshore trust” typically result in eye rolls and wry smiles from prosecutors and some judges. It’s our job to explain to them not only that they are legitimate asset holding structures, but also that they are independently owned and operated by trustees. Sometimes it becomes necessary to litigate this point, both in the jurisdiction where the potential prosecution is taking place and in the trust’s jurisdiction. These disputes, and the need to work with multiple lawyers, make for a challenging but rewarding litigation landscape.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Focus on clients’ problems and how you’re going to fix them, and don’t lecture them on the law.
What’s the impact of Trump’s presidency on the private wealth industry?
I have not seen an impact thus far. Asset forfeiture actions continue unabated, and the global assault on the offshore financial centres appears not to have diminished. I don’t foresee major changes as a consequence of one particular President.
How do you relax after a long day?
I have three beautiful kids under four years old, and a seven-month-old German Shepherd puppy. I go to the office to relax and come home to work.