Robert Hunter is an internationally acclaimed trusts, fraud and asset-tracing solicitor with over 35 years’ experience. He is also profoundly deaf. He discusses what law firms could do better dealing with colleagues with sensory disabilities
Why did you decide to become a solicitor?
I drifted into it after talking to a friend who had chosen law as their degree (I hadn’t). It was a critical decision made without any proper reflection.
What is the biggest obstacle you have overcome in your career?
Tiredness. At various times, I would work late into the night and at every weekend for protracted periods. ‘All-nighters’ before injunction applications or hearings where I was the advocate weren’t fun either.
Tell us about your most interesting case.
I always quite enjoyed suing fraudsters who sell high-yield investment frauds where the victims are persuaded that there is some secret, risk-free way of making huge profits. For some years, I kept coming across the same people engaged in selling scam investments of this kind. The world that they inhabit always fascinates me. Fraudsters are often like children – they are very suggestible. So, they secretly convince themselves that they really can make huge returns on mythical investments whilst spending the money they take from investors at the same time.
Disabilities really aren’t a big deal. Most of it is just good manners
It’s the same process a procrastinating schoolboy goes through when he tells himself that he can do his homework on the bus to school the next morning. He convinces himself, but at the same time knows it is untrue. Of course, the day comes when the investor wants their money back and the fraudster doesn’t have it. Then the fraudster is somehow genuinely indignant about being accused of the fraud, while knowing at the same time that they have committed it.
Who is your private client role model?
As a litigator, Sofie Hoffman of my last firm, Edmonds Marshall McMahon. She has a great balance of common sense, intuition, academic ability and people skills, and she ends a dispute the minute she can get her client a good deal.
Describe a hidden talent.
Knowing what I’m not good at. The legal profession is jam-packed with people who assume that because someone has one skill, they have others too. For example, we elect our best lawyers to manage firms, even though they may be dreadful at it. Conversely, partners who are not successful lawyers might turn out to be excellent managers, though they rarely get the chance to find out.
Another common problem in the private client field is assuming that people who are at good at solving technical legal problems have good judgement. Many of my larger cases have resulted from lawyers making that very assumption. Hubris is the legal profession’s most dangerous malaise.
As a deaf person, do you have any advice on what law firms could do better, in terms of their approach to clients and colleagues with a sensory disability?
Just treat disabilities as practical matters. Don’t make a big palaver of them, and respect the disabled person’s experience in how to deal with it. Disabilities really aren’t a big deal. Most of it is just good manners – for example, ensuring that a disabled person is included in the conversation as you might for someone who is not a natural English speaker. The problem is people’s attitude to disabilities and their assumptions about those who have them. That is where I’ve seen things that have really disappointed me. Most people in law with hidden disabilities don’t disclose them.
I founded a charity, City Disabilities, a few years ago. We find disabled mentors for disabled employees in the professions in London. The mentors are usually in the same line of work as the mentees and have the same disability. Mentees can then talk to someone who understands the sense of isolation and anger that people’s reactions to disability can bring. We also help employers on matters of ‘disability etiquette’ if they’re unsure. We take no donations and we charge nothing. We are simply here to help. Don’t forget the Law Society’s Lawyers with Disabilities Division, either!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
It wasn’t given to me, but the Socratic notion that the wisest people know the limits of their own wisdom is probably the most important advice anyone could have.
What is your pet hate?
Dogmatism. We live in an age where too many people are sure that there is a clear and simple answer to questions on which many thoughtful, well-informed and sincere people disagree. The complexity of the modern world is such that the future is always uncertain, even when you confine your predictions to specific arenas such as the stock market. The wisest opinions in politics (and litigation) are often premised with phrases such as ‘I could be wrong, but…’ or ‘You may know more about this than me, but…’.