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En garde!

En garde!
Philip Lee ALL PICS: Cian Redmond

Founding partner of Philip Lee LLP

Philip Lee is founding partner of the eponymous firm, with offices in Dublin, London, and San Francisco. The former European Masters fencing champion speaks with Mary Hallissey about life at the sharp end.

"Most lawyers become lawyers because they want to change things,” says eminent trade and EU lawyer Philip Lee, who runs his own very successful firm in Dublin 2.

“It’s frustrating for me that I still see the things that I want to change, and that gets me motivated and passionate – but then, on Monday mornings, I dream of staying in bed, swimming, or going cycling! I would like to work less, but I am passionate about delivering change.”

Lee always knew he wanted to be a lawyer, from a very early age, because he saw the law as effecting necessary change in society. 

En garde!

En garde!

And he has achieved a lot in his distinguished career. 1993 was a big year – he founded his own firm as a sole practitioner and married Una Hand. One was naïve; the other extraordinary good fortune, he quips.

By some miracle, he says, the practice has now grown to a staff of almost 200, with 37 partners, and was named Irish Law Firm of the Year in 2019.

That same year, he won the gold medal for fencing in the European Masters. The latter is the big success, he says!

Shake your moneymaker

Philip was at the forefront of the shake-up in global trade, which began with the World Trade Organisation agreement in 1994. He helped negotiate the import rules for bringing bananas into Europe. And the European social contract and its values are dear to his heart.

He enjoyed studying law at UCD but focused mainly on the extracurricular activities. Thanks, he believes, to being a good French speaker rather than any academic competence, he won a scholarship in 1979 to study at the College of Europe in Bruges. It was an amazing year and a real life-changer, he says.

“I am an absolutely passionate believer in the wonders that the creation of the European Union has done for humankind, and for Europeans in particular,” he says.

In Bruges

Philip subsequently won a scholarship for a summer programme in American law in the University of Leiden. Bruges left him with a career dilemma: “I had the chance to be a stagiaire in Europe, which might have resulted in a legal career in the European Commission or some other EU institution.

"Entry to the commission was far less competitive then than now. No doubt now, my CV would not pass the first hurdle. But I had an apprenticeship with a very unusual lawyer, Max Abrahamson, who was a global leader in international arbitration.

“I greatly admired him – I thought not to work under him for my first job would be a mistake, but it did mean sacrificing my European ambitions, so that was a kind of crossroads.”

Philip worked very closely with Abrahamson as he travelled the world, with Max acting as an advocate in international arbitration, particularly on large construction projects.

“I probably blame Max to some extent for creating in me a belief that solicitors should be advocates. If you are a lawyer and an expert in an area of law, you should, I believe, present your own cases when the opportunity arises. I am proud of the fact I have acted as an advocate before the CJEU and the WTO appellate body, as well as running many large arbitrations.

“I’ve always had some discomfort with the tradition in Ireland of the split profession. I don’t think it’s healthy for solicitors not to believe that they are the experts in the law that they practice, but admittedly few of my colleagues share my views.”

Then the recession of the 1980s hit and Philip sensed that there wasn’t going to be a future in construction law.

Into his shell

“I was lucky – my mother spotted an ad in The Irish Times for an in-house position, which turned out to be with Irish Shell. I had great fun in that job. I loved it, but they probably thought I was a rubbish lawyer because, after two years, they suggested I become a manager.”

Philip credits Shell with giving him great training as a manager, but eventually he realised that what Shell could give him was not what he wanted. His career priorities were being part of a community, being his own boss, and controlling his own destiny.

“There was something about the legal analysis involved in being a lawyer that my brain missed,” he says about his decision to leave the corporate shelter of Shell and wing it on his own innate abilities.

“I wanted to be admired for what I could do, rather than for who I represented as a company employee,” he says, despite the glamour of a job in his 20s with endless travel and daily briefings on troop movements and crude-oil prices.

Going bananas

Then came an offer to take on the complex problems that Fyffes, the Irish banana importer, was dealing with in Central America. These difficulties included armed militia destroying banana cargo, derailed trains, kidnappings, and death threats.

Being completely naïve, Lee plunged right in: “The American companies did not want a European company establishing a foothold in Central America, where America had dominated the industry – and the region – for close on 100 years,” he explains.

“We were going into a hotbed of, to some extent, corruption, because the military controlled both industry and politics, and were funded by the US through the illegal payments managed by the infamous Oliver North.

”Before I arrived, every year there’d be a strike by the banana employees and the strike would end with them being shot. So, it was a rough territory. I had a special-forces-trained bodyguard who went everywhere with me, who was eventually murdered, which was very distressing. He had been my guardian angel. This was Wild West-type work, but I probably lacked sufficient ‘cop’ to realise how dangerous it actually was.

“If I went out of my hotel to go for a jog, my bodyguard was with me. He looked after me very well and kept me safe, but I’ve no doubt there were conversations about getting rid of this troublesome lawyer, because the company we were operating against had its own internal army.”

Dangerous situation

“It was a complex and dangerous situation. The saviour was the EU ambassador for Central America, who had considerable influence. We set up an arbitration with the Honduran Government to try and bring peace to what was becoming a highly dangerous situation.

“Having the EU in on my side made a difference, because the US banana companies wanted a good relationship with the massive EU market, as the single European market lay ahead.

"At one stage in the week-long negotiations, in a dark and cigar-smoke-filled room in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran Minister for Finance took me aside and explained to me that the arrival of a European company doing business in hard currency and competing against US dominance would do more for his people than all the efforts over many years by the UN and EU.”

Hot potato

Following the adventures in Central America, Lee was tasked with finding an EU import regime that ensured a balance between the bananas grown by US companies in Central America, and the trade from former colonies in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific – the ACP countries.

“That took us several years working with others in Fyffes, including Patrick McCann SC, to design a system to regulate how trade in bananas would operate in Europe when the single market was introduced.

It is worth remembering that the Treaty of Rome establishing the European communities was delayed by over a week by the Germans because they wanted a special protocol to protect bananas coming into Germany.

Why? Because during both world wars, bananas never landed in Europe. For this reason, bananas had a huge emotional resonance with German people and, though it may be hard to believe, were a political ‘hot potato’!

“We eventually created a complex regime that protected many banana-producing countries, some of which depended on the banana trade for over 60% of foreign earnings. Without the regime we negotiated, these countries faced certain bankruptcy.”

Out on his own

Despite management offers at Fyffes, Philip Lee knew that practising law was what he wanted to do. So, he set up his own firm, despite not having worked for any great period in private practice in Ireland.

One of his first major clients was the ACP group of banana-producing countries. Philip tendered to represent them in disputes before the WTO.

“I am proud of the fact that I was the first private lawyer ever to appear as advocate before the appellate body of the new WTO. Before that, no private lawyers were allowed argue a case before the WTO. It had been reserved for lawyers who were in full-time employment of governments. That was an appalling approach to law, deeply unfair to small countries who wouldn’t have in-house legal specialists in trade, unlike the EU and the US,” he comments.

“It was highly complex and the biggest case in the history of trade. I represented the 77 ACP countries. In total, 130 countries were involved in the dispute.”


Subsequently, he began lecturing on international trade law at UCD as a visiting professor and wrote a book on European public-procurement law for Butterworths.

“I had had this divergence between working for Max Abrahamson, a construction-law arbitration specialist, and my love of European law. The two of them merged harmoniously in the new rules about awarding government contracts, because the biggest ones are always construction contracts,” he says.

The book’s publication led to a flood of instructions from Irish public bodies – “there was really nobody doing that area of law in Ireland at that stage,” he says.

“I went from bananas and oil to sewage treatment plants, roads, and waste-treatment plants – a little less glamorous. I did a lot of work, particularly on city-council projects such as the Port Tunnel, drainage and sewage schemes, and waste-to-energy schemes.

“We also accounted, at least for the first decade, for probably 80% of the legal challenges in the High Court to Government contract awards. But it distracted me from what might have been an alternative career as a specialist in international trade law – an area I still find fascinating – and a topic, the understanding of which, led me to set up a charity to develop trade capacity in Ethiopia.”

Getting lucky

“Luck was with me. I managed, in the early days, to get brilliant lawyers to join me. Jonathan Kelly, Andy McConnell, Damien Young and Alice Whitaker joined very early on. It was they who made the firm a success. Suddenly, the firm grew from a half dozen to almost 200.”

The firm’s core philosophy was, and is, to create a supportive environment for lawyers to work in.

“By way of example, we have just today finished a wonderful course on how to prepare women going on maternity leave, how to communicate with them on leave, and how to prepare them to come back to the firm afterwards, with a wonderful trainer, Sarah Courtney.

“The firm is still small compared to some of the bigger law firms, but there’s plenty of work. I would always try to maintain a good relationship with my other colleagues; I don’t necessarily see them as competitors. I see clients as people that I want to work with, and it’s really my relationship with the client that matters,” he says.

Lasting legacy

In his spare time, Philip is a keen fencer, a sport he has pursued since the age of six.

“Perhaps, in my case, the sword is mightier than the pen! I was chair of Irish Fencing for several years and was, until last May, the reigning European Masters champion. That was and is a big thing in my life. I am still awaiting the freedom of the city and an open-top bus tour of Dublin city!”

He’s also exceptionally proud of his children, and their social and humanitarian work. One is a deputy counsel at the ICC Court of Arbitration in Paris, another is working as a volunteer with refugees in Lesvos, while another is working in Nairobi with a French charity.

“My legacy, if any, on this planet will be my children,” he concludes.

Mary Hallissey is a journalist with the Law Society Gazette.

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