Lawyer of the Month: Neil Hay
It could be tempting after two decades of establishing a successful reputation in a particular sector of the law to continue to plough the same furrow and enjoy the degree of regularity that brings.
Not so for Neil Hay who pivoted, as he puts it, from 20 years working in legal aid defence toward a new focus on white collar and private crime, which swiftly opened the portal to a host of fresh opportunities.
The Edinburgh-based lawyer describes 2023 as “an outstanding year” for the expanding private crime team at Levy & McRae Solicitors, one that saw it ranked tier one by The Legal 500.
Mr Hay, who is something of a pioneer in private crime work in Scotland, was named as The Legal 500 Scottish Crime Solicitor of the Year and is the only Scottish criminal lawyer to be recommended by the Spears 500 index for his expertise in private crime cases.
He says that demand from clients requiring a premium service continues to grow and the team has also expanded its network of clients throughout Scotland, England and Wales and further afield.
The reason for that crucial pivot was largely to do with the constraints of legal aid, which he had found sadly frustrating in the paucity of opportunities it offered. “It seemed that no matter how hard you worked and how many more cases you attracted, it didn’t really improve the business which every year got squeezed a bit more,” he says.
Some years ago, qualified as a solicitor advocate and working with MTM Defence Lawyers, he began to examine private crime more thoroughly. “I effectively started a private crime service with MTM from scratch, picking up some cases along the way and then with an assistant, a PA and another lawyer working with me I grew a team.”
Having spoken to several law firms he believed that Levy & McRae would be a good fit for his practice. “It traditionally represented a white-collar clientele – lawyers, doctors, accountants, company, directors, business owners and high-profile people in government politics or media.
“Plus high-net-worth clients: people who through their endeavours had built some kind of successful company or small business empire. And of course, there were those who were perhaps titled, from ‘old money’.”
Two years ago he took the decision to move to Levy & McRae with his entire team, keeping all his existing clients and working full time in Edinburgh. “The plan here is that, if we’ve not already done so, we intend to establish the premier private crime service in Scotland,” he says.
He now has a very substantial referral practice and has become the solicitor of choice for leading law firms in Scotland, England and internationally (including magic circle firms), instructed by clients in Europe, the Middle East and the United States.
“I’m largely referred by lawyers at leading firms in Scotland and am fortunate to have a good referral practice from England and Wales for clients acquiring Scottish criminal law advice – a new client was referred from an attorney in Maryland in the US just before Christmas.”
He continues: “There’s a market in Scotland for people, whether from elsewhere in the UK or sometimes overseas, who have criminal law problems while here. We had a gentleman who was involved in a very serious road traffic fatality and was facing a High Court prosecution for death by dangerous driving so there is an interesting aspect to our practice at Levy & McRae which is also quite unusual.”
One degree of commonality the cases which his team at Levy & McRae takes on share is a requirement for confidentiality. “Our clients demand a discreet service, seeking to avoid the glare of publicity that can often come with court proceedings, particularly for people who operate in the public eye whether they’re sports personnel, politicians or even a high-profile business owner.”
Nobody, he stresses, wants a prosecution. “The best outcome for a client is always for them to avoid court or if proceedings have started, to have them discontinued.
“And we’re very fortunate with the clientele we are dealing with, being able to provide the very highest levels of service and care and preparing every case to give us the best opportunity of winning and succeeding, whatever success looks like for a particular client.”
This level of service is, he says, the firm’s and his team’s USP. “Service is key to what we’re doing, whether it’s traditional criminal allegations or white-collar financial work – fraud, embezzlement, theft, money laundering and the Proceeds of Crime procedure.”
He has increasingly been eyeing opportunities in London and travels there to work from an office in Chancery Lane two or three times a month. “There are quite a few Scots who work in London during the week and come home at the weekend to see their families,” he says.
“A number of these are now separated away from their families and perhaps facing domestic criminal allegations. While video meetings had been around for some time, even pre-Covid they weren’t usual in the kind of work I do, where meetings tend to be face to face for obvious reasons.”
A lot of his work for businesses, though, is simply advisory: “I’m currently working for a trading company based in Asia. While there is no representation required they have a business interest in Scotland and we’re advising them to ensure that what they are doing here is perfectly legal and doesn’t breach any aspect of Scottish criminal law.”
He describes his practice as having been revolutionised in recent years and central to that has been doing his homework assiduously.
“It’s been a complete change for me from training and working in the legal aid system, dealing with perhaps 10 or 15 cases in court every day to largely – though not exclusively – an office-based job because the key to success in criminal cases is preparation and I’m able to give my cases an entirely different level of that than I used to.
Mr Hay studied history and politics at the University of Dundee then took an LLB at the University of Glasgow and diploma in legal practice at the University of Edinburgh. When not engaged in the meticulous preparation necessary for the team’s practice, he says he has decided to return to the gym three times a week.
“I’m loving that and it’s a new thing for me in middle age though I don’t mind a glass of wine either,” he says, adding that he has recently bought season tickets for Hearts FC.
The day job is an exacting one and doesn’t always place him in an easy or comfortable position: “There are stresses and strains – we have some very demanding clients and exceptionally high expectations.
“But I have the security of knowing that in every case I have the time and resource to prepare properly that’s a nice place to be – I’m looking forward to new and exciting opportunities this year.”