The difficulties faced by RPC partner Parham Kouchikali — who arrived in Britain aged eight unable to speak English — have stayed with him in a positive way in his professional life
I think it’s a useful exercise for each person, now and then, to look back over their life to date; to see the successes, the failures, the obstacles and the triumphs. It gives perspective and acts as a catalyst for future growth and change.
I came to this country aged eight at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, not speaking English. We moved initially to Birmingham (where I picked up a Brummie accent for a year or two) and then Harlow, Essex.
I then applied to Aylesbury Grammar School where I fell short of the 11 plus exam requirements. However, the deputy head, who in some ways changed my life, took a punt on me. He said he would give me a chance because I scored high on the IQ exam.
There were more obstacles at school. One I recall very well was failing to be selected for the smartest class which studied Latin. I remember a teacher saying to me that she didn’t think I could cope with the demands and that it was for my own good. I am very grateful to her as the desire to prove her wrong was the biggest motivation for me. It made me focus on a goal, push myself and work really hard. As a result, I did very well at my GCSEs and A-Levels and got into Oxford.
I was also lucky to have great role models. Other than my mother (who has always been an inspiration), my uncle — the brightest man I know — instilled in me a discipline, sense of wonder and ability to think. He never let me off the hook and always asked the most important question: “why?”. He taught me chess, the best game for any aspiring litigator: you need to have a clear strategy, read your opponent’s future moves, calibrate your own moves accordingly and, sometimes, do the unexpected.
I developed a love of literature during my teens and became interested in the works of great writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ernest Hemingway, William Somerset Maugham and Gabriel Garcia Marquez — to the extent that I almost studied English at university. But I wanted to do something more vocational. And having developed a passion for words, which is the trade of lawyers, this meant law.
At Oxford, I was thrown into the deep end and taught to think in a totally new way and independently arrive at answers to questions that, at first, appeared far too difficult. I then moved to Linklaters where I did my training and worked up until my move to RPC, as partner, earlier this year. During my training contract, I remember people advising me to become a transactional lawyer when I wanted to become a litigator. But I stuck to what I was passionate about and then came the financial crash of 2008. Suddenly, all CEOs and boardrooms wanted the litigators in the room.
Today, I think there is a toxic mind-set in society that is about instant gratification, cutting corners and expecting everything for the least amount of effort. The side effect is that many young lawyers are not persistent enough and fail to get that tough skin which they need. They never understand that difficulties and set-backs are actually great springboards. The best advice I can give is to work hard and put in the maximum effort you can but don’t be overly concerned with the outcome. The work and effort will not go to waste even if you don’t, at first, get the outcome you want.
My background has stayed with me in a positive way in my professional life. It means that I try to put things in perspective and broader context. This is something that is incredibly helpful when advising clients reach the best outcome. Often I return to the question my uncle asked me: “why?”. I also try not to worry too much, which is something that lawyers spend a lot of time doing. As dispute lawyers, we are constantly thinking about tail risk and what can go wrong. But when you are always thinking about the future, you are less focused on the present. Just like chess, you need both.
Parham Kouchikali is a partner in RPC‘s commercial disputes group specialising in financial dispute resolution. He spoke last month at ‘Why the legal profession needs people who see the world differently: Legal Cheek Live with Lord Neuberger‘.