Seduced by the law

5 Minutes With South African Lawyer, Brian Kahn
May 11, 2017
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I had a call from a client at 4am this morning and I spent an hour on the phone with him, but it was fascinating. It allowed me insight into his thinking around the issue and it gave him the opportunity to ‘vent’. Anyway, he knows that I am an early riser,” says Brian Kahn, founder and Principal of Brian Kahn Inc. Attorneys (BKI).

It is this commitment to being available to clients at any time 24/7/365, which has enabled Kahn to run a successful attorneys’ practice for almost 50 years. In a form of reciprocal loyalty, some of his clients have been with the firm for over 40 years—many are second-generation and, in a few instances, third-generation clients.BKI was first established in 1969. “I opened up my law firm at 2pm on the day I was admitted as an attorney—with a secretary and just one client. It had always been my intention to run my own practice,” explains Kahn.

Today, this boutique law firm has 18 staff members who specialise in corporate commercial law and dispute resolution. The architecture of the firm is such that it enables the staff to consult widely and draw on the best-of-breed experts when a client requires highly specialised advice.“Assume, for example, that a client requests assistance with a complex transfer pricing issue. The tendency within very large law firms would be to find someone internally to advise on the matter. However, in some cases, auditors are better qualified, have greater expertise—and more hands on experience—when it comes to transfer pricing, and so we wouldn’t hesitate to invite an auditor who we know has the expertise to be part of the team working on the case. We are boutique by design and our clients benefit as a result,” explains Kahn. This collaborative approach extends beyond the borders of South Africa. Kahn says, “About 15 years ago, I took the view that the source of any international work was unlikely to be companies abroad but rather law firms overseas. We pursued a deliberate strategy of developing relationships with legal professionals in the USA, Canada, UK, Europe and the Middle East, and this approach has been remarkably rewarding for all parties.”

BKI has formed various strategic alliances (formal relationships) as well as ‘best friend-type’ relationships with a substantial number of law firms abroad. These relationships also provide a safety net for BKI’s South African clients as it is able to broker introductions for local clients who then have a “name and number to call” when doing business abroad. BKI is proud to be the only South African member of Consulegis, an independent network of international law firms. Kahn is delighted that his firm had an opportunity to organise and host a 2015 Consulegis Conference in Cape Town for 115 lawyers from around the world. “Many of the participating attorneys, from as far west as Mexico and California and far east as Japan, had never visited South Africa before and Cape Town did a superb job,” he says. Having practised as an attorney for almost 50 years, Kahn has witnessed a shift in the field of commercial law. Commerce itself has become more complex and sophisticated. “In my parents’ day, deals were often sealed with a handshake but the opening of trade internationally and the formation of trade blocs have required a greater alignment of different legal systems. Today, the legal issues are more complicated, but our boutique offering means we are well-placed to confront these complexities.”One of the reasons why Kahn remains seduced by the law is the fact that his firm does not just practice a narrow sliver of corporate law. In addition to providing legal advice, it has become a strategic partner for many of its regular clients.

We are often called upon to play devil’s advocate so, when a client shares his or her strategic intent for their business, we provide a sounding board and often challenge the perceived wisdom and thereby assist them in developing better informed—and stress-tested—business decisions. My favourite clients are ‘thinking’ clients who engage me in a debate around possible scenarios. Those who participate in an engagement are also more inclined to take responsibility for the outcome of the matter,” he explains. Kahn continues, “As a lawyer, you have the opportunity to become knowledgeable about so many different disciplines. I can’t think of another profession that presents so much creative and intellectual opportunity and stimulation and I tell candidate attorneys they should endeavour to learn at least one new big thing each day they practice law.Another thing that Kahn is fond of teaching young attorneys—something that is based on his considerable local and international arbitration experience—is that they need to be smart enough to have three or four faces and know which to present in which circumstance. “Almost everything about the practice of law—whether hostile or not—involves searching for the tactical or strategic advantage. The need to learn as much as possible about the opposing party and thereby identify if their Achilles heel is crucial, as this will almost always determine the best way to approach the mandate—whether transactional or hostile.

“One of the challenges that young lawyers encounter is having to accept that, while you might think that if your client is right, justice will prevail and you will win the case, the reality can be very different. With the passage of time, you learn that life is far more nuanced and the issues are almost always grey, rather than black and white,” he says.Throughout the life of his practice, Kahn has dedicated himself to the development of home-grown talent and his mantra—“our firm’s assets go home at night”—is never forgotten. Because so much emphasis is placed on fostering a particular culture within the law firm, Kahn will always recruit staff who are a good fit in terms of personality and outlook rather than attorneys who, while extremely accomplished, do not share the law firm’s ethos and culture. “Our value system is our DNA,” says Kahn.

In addition to providing attractive provident fund benefits, the law firm has facilitated access to home ownership for all its previously disadvantaged staff members. It has also been active in corporate social investment initiatives for over 40 years—contributing to amongst others a number of child-centric projects. Kahn does not have any particular role models and there were no other lawyers in his family when he made the decision to pursue studies in the subject. “Because I started my own law firm the day I qualified, I haven’t had the benefit of being exposed to other styles of leadership. My leadership style evolved over my years in practice and probably took a little longer than it would have, had I been closely mentored,” he explains.

However, he does consult other senior attorneys or experts for advice as required and is adamant that he is not shy to ask for help or perspective.In the early years, he tried a few criminal cases but disliked that field of law and so his specialisation in corporate law and arbitration developed in response to requests from clients.The wide range of commercial legal services that BKI offers to businesses in almost every sector today is a testament to the firm’s eagerness to meet the needs of its clients as well as Kahn’s continuing fascination with the profession and his insatiable appetite for new knowledge.

Given that the pace of change in commerce has actually accelerated and that new technology, which encourages online transactional business, has raised new questions around legal jurisdiction, it seems doubtful that Kahn plans to slow down anytime soon. As Kahn puts it, “The people who are here are on the bus with us.” Considering the fact that many staff members have been working at BKI between 10 and 34 years, it must be a good bus!

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