From Zion shall go forth the law - to London

Trevor Asserson  photo: Jonathan Bloom

Trevor Asserson's life and career had several twists before he built one of Israel's most remarkable law firms.

It's late morning. A pastoral, quiet one-way street in the capital. Trevor Asserson, a bespectacled lawyer, calm and with the appearance of a polite English gentleman, opens the huge wooden door to his house. The old stone-built house is spacious and well-lit, and, despite a complete renovation, preserves its Jerusalemite character. Our footsteps echo from the arched ceiling, until we come to the library graced by a high gallery and a trove of books on history and religion.

"This is my favorite place in the house," Asserson says, in English. "I'm more comfortable speaking in my native language," he continues, half-apologetically, and then answers a telephone call, in English. The caller is an Israeli lawyer who is working on a contract of an American company drafted under English law and who has to file a lawsuit in English for breach of contract. This is where Asserson comes into the picture. A British lawyer based in Israel certainly makes it easier to file a lawsuit in England. "I work in England, even though my office is in the Azrieli center in Tel Aviv," he says.

Forever England

"My firm is an English firm in every respect, except that it is located physically in Israel. We work exclusively with overseas clients and on overseas cases. It's as though we took an entire firm from England and put it in Azrieli. When you enter our offices in Azrieli, it's as though you have arrived in London. The atmosphere is completely English and all the employees are from England, apart from a few from the British Empire. We work vis-a-vis firms in England all the time, and all our work is in English.

"I grew up in London, in a non-religious family. Later I became religious, to my parents' chagrin. My father was a businessman. He ran various companies, including a well-known music company towards the end of his career. My mother didn't work, but she volunteered at the BBC from time to time. She would deal with complaints to the station from members of the public, and when someone famous went on a radio broadcast she would serve them coffee and that kind of thing. I have one sister living in London. It wasn't a wealthy home, but we didn't lack anything

"My father was very ambitious for his children. He wanted me to be a doctor or to go into business or be in the City of London. He never spoke about law. He sent me to private schools, because he wanted me to be an English gentleman. He wanted to save me the difficulties he experienced growing up as a Jewish child in London. He was always worried that someone wouldn't employ me because I was Jewish. In the school my father attended there was a quota, a maximum number of Jews that could be accepted. And in religious studies the teacher would relate how the Jews killed Jesus, and look accusingly at the Jewish children. My father felt the antisemitism, and tried to avoid it for me, but as a child I felt it too. In the first boarding school I attended, the boy sitting beside me asked if he could borrow my pencil, and when I told him I was using it, he said, 'Don't be a Jew'. He didn't know I was Jewish. I was in shock. Many boys used 'Jew' as a term of abuse.

"When I was a child, no-one knew that I was Jewish. I didn't talk about it with my friends, I showed no outward Jewish religious signs, and I went to church very morning with all the other boys. It was part of the school timetable, so I went."

From history to law

"I never thought about being a lawyer. I didn't know what I wanted to do; I had no direction at all. I only knew that I wanted to study at a good university, at Oxford or Cambridge. I didn't think beyond that. And I wanted to do something that would help people, because I thought that just making money was not a good ambition. I was an idealist. I wanted to change people's lives. I wasn't interested in working with wealthy people, but with poor people - I had no idea how.

"I won a scholarship to Oxford, which was a kind of sign of superior ability. The money wasn't the important thing. The scholarship was worth about 50 pounds a year, it was token, but it was a status symbol. It meant I could wear a long gown at the university, like the graduates. It gave me prestige as soon as I arrived at the university, and not just when I left. And then I had to decide what to study. I wanted to study English literature, but my history teachers recommended me to study history, so I studied history, and that's how I first gained exposure to the world of law.

"I learned about the English revolution, and during my studies I learned about the history of John Wilkes, who wanted to enter Parliament but didn't want to swear an oath, because he didn’t believe in the oath. He was elected to Parliament and refused to swear, so they threw him out. He didn’t give up, and tried three times to enter Parliament, and was elected again and again, but every time they threw him out again, because he wasn't prepared to swear. So each time, a legal case about the matter was heard again, dealing with human rights.

"It was the first time I had seen a legal case, and it very much interested me. It was fascinating, because it was a case concerning the development of the history of England and of Parliament as a place of freedom of expression and human rights, and I found it riveting. But I still didn't turn to law straightaway.

"At that stage, I decided to follow in my father's footsteps, and go into business. Having an Oxford degree opened every door in England. I applied to several giant companies, such as Unilever, looking for work, and in the end I joined American company Mars, the chocolate maker. I did an internship there with a view to a management position. But after a few months I saw that it didn't interest me, and I decided to try to switch to the law.

"I applied to the ten largest law firms in England, to see whether they would give me a training contract, and nine of them did."

Finding Judaism

"Although I had been accepted for training by the largest firms, I still didn’t embark on a legal career. I decided to study at a yeshiva. A year before the end of university I had traveled to Israel. It was my first time here, and it changed my life. I traveled with my girl-friend, and, to cut a long story short, I found myself spending a shabbat with a family in Kfar Habad who turned out to be related to me. I knew that there was someone religious in my family, but I had never met him. I was astounded to be sitting with a relative, and that it had happened by chance. The host brought out his wedding album, and I saw my family in the photos. It was amazing. That's where I started the process of becoming religious.

"A year or two after that trip to Israel, at age 23, I started wearing a kippah, to my parents' embarrassment. I studied in a yeshiva for a few months, and only after that did I finally start on the law. There was a one-year post university course in law. I was accepted to the course, studied law, and began my training period."

"I was invited to do my training at the most prestigious firm in England, but after I explained that I needed to leave the office on Friday's at three or four in the afternoon at the latest, and in winter even at two, they didn't accept me. And so almost at the end of my studies I was left without a training contract, and I became depressed.

"In the end I applied to a few less good firms, but well-known ones, at which Jews also worked, and I was accepted as a trainee. After the end of the training period, I decided to be a litigator, and I applied to the firm of Herbert Smith, which is still the number one litigation firm in England, and they accepted me. This time, though, I didn’t mention that I was religious. I thought that that was the only way of being accepted at that firm, and I counted on being able to get by. My very first day there was a Friday, and I had to sign a contract saying that my work hours would be from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. So I said, 'I'm not prepared to work until five, because in the winter I have to leave early on Friday.' They almost threw me out that same day, because I had concealed an important detail from them, but one of the partners said that he was prepared to take responsibility for me, and in the end I worked there for nearly three years.

"After about three years I decided to leave, and go into pro bono work, because I wanted to help poor people. There are firms in England that are paid, very poorly, by the government to help people who have nothing. Money didn't interest me. I was an idealist, and I only wanted to use my ability and experience to help people. I was accepted at one of the largest firms specializing in this area. I worked there for five years, and became a partner and the head of the largest department in this field in England. That was the first law business that I built. When I arrived there, I had three years' experience and five files, and by the time I finished I had more than 2,000 files."

Aliya, motivated by weather

"The moment I arrived in Israel for the first time, I felt as though I could breathe for the first time in my life, because I hated all the overpowering formality of the British. Most people in Israel think I'm terribly British, and I really am completely British, but I myself didn’t feel that way. As soon as I arrived in Israel, I felt very comfortable, even though I still wasn't religious. I understood nothing about Judaism and knew nothing about Israel.

"I liked the weather here very much too. I hate the weather in England. Cloudy all the time. Sunshine was something we had heard of but hardly saw with our own eyes. I wanted to be here, in Israel.

"After I turned thirty, I decided that I was going to move to Israel, to find a wife and to live here. And I came. My parents didn't like my decision. My father was concerned that first of all I had thrown away all the expensive education I had received, when I decided to become religious; then I threw it all away again, in his view, when I left the best firm in my specialty and switched to working pro bono; then I threw that in the trash as well, when I decided to move to Israel. But deep down I think that he simply didn't want me to live in another country.

"At 33, I moved to Israel, met my wife, and did an internship at Herzog, Fox & Neeman. I wanted to carry on working there, but at that time I didn’t speak a word of Hebrew, and I was a litigator. You can't appear in court in Israel without Hebrew, and it wasn't a natural fit for me to work in commercial law, in which English-speaking lawyers were in demand, so I left Herzog, and decided to return to England. For my wife, it was a disaster. I took her from her home to London, a place that was strange to her, where she had never lived; I had no work and we had no money; and our first daughter, who was born in Israel, was two months old. But in the end we went back.

"At first, it was very hard for me to return to the labor market in London, but after three years I was already head of the international litigation department in one of the most prestigious firms in England, and I opened several branches of the firm in other places, in France, Sweden, Holland, Germany, and elsewhere. But I felt that being a Jew in England was like being in a corner of the basement, instead of being in the center of the Jewish world.

"When we returned to Israel, I decided to set up an independent firm. I knew that I wanted to work in English law, to continue working internationally, and that the firm should be English. That was a completely new idea. Fortunately, one of my biggest clients from England decided to go with me. The client was the Czech Republic, which was conducting a half-a-billion euro lawsuit, and the firm at which I worked in England had to let them go, because of a conflict of interest with another client. So I took advantage of the opportunity. I approached the Czechs and proposed that they should hire me as their lawyer, even though they had to leave the previous firm.

"But I told them that they needed to know that my new firm was located in a somewhat strange place. They thought there was 'no problem' if the firm wasn't in central London but further out. When I explained that my firm was in Israel, in Jerusalem, they didn't understand how it would work out, but they decided to go with me all the same. And so I started my new firm with a huge case, of more than two billion shekels, which ended in a settlement after the first hearing, and with great success.

"I opened the office completely by myself in the apartment of a friend in Rehovot. He let me use a desk in his office for free for a few months, and we agreed that I would give him a little of the profits, if there were any profits. From the fee I received from the first big case I had sufficient to pay people a good salary, relative to the Israeli market, and I started to recruit lawyers. All of them from Britain. At first it was hard. Lawyers weren't willing to come to Israel and work here. They didn’t know what it would do to their careers. But the firm started to gain a reputation, and lawyers from England started coming to Israel specially to work here. Today, we are forty lawyers – five in England and the rest here."

British-Israel relations

"Britain has a confused relationship with Israel. As far as the commercial aspect is concerned, Israel is considered a land of opportunity. The City of London welcomes ties with Israel; many Israeli companies are listed on the AIM exchange in London; the British armed forces have close links to Israel, including collaboration on capabilities and information. That relationship, I'm told, has never been better.

"On the other hand, the British Foreign Office maintains its hostility to Israel, and instead of strengthening ties between the two countries, it strives to strengthen ties with Arab countries, because it sees them as more natural and effective allies for Britain. So it's not surprising that Britain drafted a UN resolution against Israel; and it's also not surprising that the prime minister, Theresa May, has taken care to emphasize that she supports Israel ever since that incident."

Brexit

"Britain leaving the European Union, Brexit, is liable to be a disaster. It could be that this move will be the start of a 30-50 year process in which Britain declines and stops being one of the world's mightiest economic centers. If, however, the European Union should collapse, and there are forces moving in that direction, the UK could benefit from having been the first to leave the sinking ship."

Leisure

"I spend most of my time at work, and the rest I spend with my daughters and my wife. All-in-all, I'm a very boring person. Almost the only hobby I have is reading books. Most of the books in my library are history books about various countries. For several years, I have mainly read about the US, and that's still the case.

"I also want to return to my other hobby, which is dealing with complaints to the BBC when it publishes things about Israel that are incorrect, and cases connected to the defense of our country's reputation. I take them on as a hobby. For example, there is a new law in Europe requiring labeling of food products from the territories, that is to say, mentioning the occupation. A British company that imports most of the kosher food there approached me because the government had requested it to change its labels. That's something connected to Israel's reputation, to the economy, so that's my hobby, to deal with cases like that."

The Legal 500 ranks Asserson Law Offices among the top firms in Israel, and Trevor Asserson among the top individual lawyers, for Dispute Resolution: Mediation and International Arbitration.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on May 15, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

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Trevor Asserson  photo: Jonathan Bloom
Trevor Asserson photo: Jonathan Bloom
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