Rushaine Cunningham built a legal practice that crosses multiple jurisdictions

Building a law firm is always a challenge, but when the aim is to create a legal practice spanning multiple jurisdictions, the task becomes formidable. It requires legal expertise and entrepreneurial acumen, a deep understanding of different legal systems, and the ability to navigate the cultural nuances of different territories.

Pioneering vision

This was Rushaine Cunningham’s plan when he created Cunningham Law on Antigua and Barbuda a few years ago. His idea was ambitious and unique – to create a commercial law firm that operates across multiple jurisdictions in the Caribbean. It’s a vision that goes beyond practising law within the confines of a single jurisdiction and seeks to offer legal services that spans vast territories within the English-speaking Caribbean.

“I enjoy that we have a very interesting business development objective, and it’s very atypical,” Rushaine laughs. “In the Caribbean, we usually have law firms that are solely based on one jurisdiction. But we were always intent on developing a multi-jurisdictional practice and a multi-jurisdictional firm.”

Cunningham Law currently operates in seven jurisdictions across the Caribbean and intends to open more as the practice expands: “It’s one of the major focuses of the firm and our growth plan from the very start. From inception we had that in focus.”

Grand vision

Rushaine’s focus on the Carribean started with a grand vision while studying for his law exams. Originally from Jamaica, he rationalised that if he could set up in his home territory, what about everywhere else? This vision was nurtured during the years spent studying law and became a reality after being called to the bar.

“I had this vision back in 2009 when I was doing my A levels. I just had this grand idea that I wanted to be in a law firm that was practising everywhere in the region. I was like, ‘wow, let’s see if we can actually do this’. I was called to the bar in Jamaica and in my first year of practice I relocated to Antigua. I remember when I first had the idea, there was no model I could follow. To this day, I think I have known only one other law firm that has tried to set up a Caribbean-wide practice.”

Breaking new ground

Setting up a multi-jurisdictional practice in the Caribbean is no easy task. The region, though united by a shared history and culture, comprises different independent jurisdictions with their own laws and regulations. To establish a law firm successfully across these different territories, Rushaine had to navigate the complexities with skill and entrepreneurial zeal.

“I thought why not do this at the height of the pandemic in October of 2020, when everyone was suddenly using Zoom and Teams for their meetings. It was ideal timing.”

“At the time there was no end in sight for the pandemic, but I decided to take this leap of faith. I remember my former boss said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? We’re in a pandemic. We don’t know what’s going to happen’. I said, ‘Yes, I’m very sure’. I figured that I didn’t want to waste, for want of a better description, the opportunity in the crisis .”

Power of collaboration

An essential part of this ambitious journey is collaboration. Forming strategic partnerships with colleagues in other territories and collaborating with them on matters has been a critical strategy. From one collaboration, another opportunity emerges, leading to a referral, and this cycle continues, contributing to the growth of the firm.

Rushainetook advantage of the benefit offered by the regional law schools and the Council of Legal Education: “The Council is established by a Caricom Treaty and governs three regional law schools; one in Trinidad, another in Jamaica, and the other in the Bahamas.”

“All three law schools follow the same curriculum. They’re governed by the same council, they issue the same certificate, and are based on the treaty that establishes the council. What this set up allows for is, once you have obtained the certificate from one of the three law schools, you are able to practise in any of the English-speaking Caribbean territories.” Nevertheless, most trained attorneys in the region seldom tend to practise in territories outside their established physical location: “Historically, you’ve always had practitioners who would work in a very ad hoc manner across multiple territories. They would do a case here or a case there, but their primary focus would be on one territory. The difference in starting Cunningham Law was to focus on multiple jurisdictions and generating business and work actively in all the territories that we are called in to practise.”

Despite the treaty and all the territories having similar laws, there are nuances – with some stark differences: “What makes it easier is if you understand how to approach research. If you have a very clear understanding of how to do deeper research, then you will always find a solution to a problem.”

IR Global network

Rushaine believes professional networks such as IR Global offer opportunities for greater collaboration on a wider scale. These networks provide a platform to connect with professionals across different jurisdictions, opening up avenues for new opportunities and referrals. Being part of such networks is a crucial part of the growth strategy for the law firm.

“Basically, IR Global is a very simple idea,” Rushaine says. “It’s all about collaboration. This is exactly why I was attracted to being a part of IR Global. It’s not just the opportunity to network, but when I looked at the background of IR Global; the assessment process for membership; the calibre of professionals within the network. This was something that made it very attractive.” “Before I joined IR Global I was approached by other professional networks and I just did not really jump on board. With IR Global I’ve been able to bridge strategic partnerships with colleagues in these other territories and collaborate with them on legal matters. One collaboration leads to another opportunity, leads to another referral. That is literally how it has grown.”

Cunningham Law (Caribbean)

Together with the primary focus on corporate and commercial law, Cunningham Law also has a litigation and transactional practice. “Yes, again, I’m ambitious, so it’s a mixture. I guess the focus is primarily on corporate and commercial, but we also do probate, real estate, and are looking at other areas.”

“The reasons for this mix are simple really. When you look at the Caribbean as a region, given our relatively small size, it is not always possible to specialise in a single area of law or to select only two areas of law for specialisation.”“So, to maintain profitability as a business, you have to be able to offer a wide range of services – like any other business. It doesn’t prevent you from identifying niche areas or primary areas of focus, it just means that you have to do more than perhaps those firms in other geographical areas who may be better able to limit their practice.”

Client acquisition

Identifying target clients is a key aspect of the firm’s business development strategy. The focus is on businesses that already have a regional Caribbean presence. Once these businesses are identified, the aim is to offer them comprehensive legal services across various territories.

“How do you identify your target clients and how do you then approach those target clients? In my mind, target clients mean the industry of those clients, the calibre of those clients, as well as the reach of those clients. So I had to figure out for myself, if I am going to be a Caribbean-wide practise, who are going to be my target clients? What are the industries that these target clients are going to be based in? How can I offer an almost one-stop shop to these clients?”

“I took full advantage of that during the pandemic. I ensured that I had a great online presence. LinkedIn became my best friend and I was able to position myself virtually. You make connections, jump on a phone call and it almost becomes seamless. What I also found when I just started was that referrals were also a very big part and still remain a big part of the business development strategy.

Expansion plan

Given Rushaine’s entrepreneurial zeal – and he sees himself as an entrepreneur as well as an attorney – what are his future plans? “We are in the process of expanding our team because I quickly appreciated that once you’re positioning for this work, you also need to ensure the internal systems are in place. You need to ensure you have the capacity to produce the quality of work in a timely manner that clients expect. It is a constant check and balance.” “As an entrepreneur, it’s never something that you do for today. It is done forever. How do I keep my finger on the pulse of the business? What else do we need? What changes do we need to make? I fully appreciate that this is what it means to be an entrepreneur.” “While physical expansion in terms of offices is still under consideration, the global emphasis on remote work cannot be ignored, and so immediately our focus is on building a strong team that can deliver quality work across different jurisdictions.”

Fine balancing act

Despite the demanding nature of the job, for Rushaine, it’s important to take time out for physical activities such as swimming and working out. These help to maintain his physical health and also contribute to his mental well-being, which is important to him. “I guess what I love to do best outside work is open water swimming – in the seas around Antigua. I swim twice a week and have a competition coming up soon. For me, I find it to be very relaxing.”

“In addition to that, I work out four times a week. So that is balance for me, that is getting out of the office and just being physical and trying to work on my mental health.”