‘You pay a price for putting your head above the parapet’

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By Mark Lewis on

In the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series, media lawyer Mark Lewis explains how the phone-hacking scandal forced him to make some tough choices about what sort of life he wanted.

My first experience in a solicitor’s office on a holiday job in 1986 should have told me all I needed to know. The partner sat in front of me on the phone to a client saying, “We’ll eff them on that and eff them on this…effin, bloody, effin crooks…”

He then asked me what I thought. I replied, “You swore a lot”.

The partner responded: “Lazy man’s vocabulary – now go and find out about a ‘distringas’ order.” Two days later, I was able to tell him that they had been abolished in 1875.

Times were different then. The partner earned a fortune through his property company and law was a secondary way of making money. Still, it seemed possible to make enough as a lawyer to have a comfortable life. I used to look at the jobs advertised at the back of the Law Society Gazette hoping that one day I would earn £30,000 a year.

What I never knew was how much work was required, how hard the profession was and how much harder it would get. In my day, the most difficult part of becoming a solicitor was passing the professional exams, which involved rote learning an enormous amount of core material. At which point, unlike today, securing a training contract (or “articles of clerkship” as the process used to be called) was fairly straightforward. Nevertheless, it was still a big leap to go from law school to advising the unsuspecting public. At the time, I was fixated on providing the “right answer” to clients. But as time went by, and I realised that in every case at least one side is wrong, I relaxed a bit. Sometimes several QCs, a judge, a Lord Justice and a couple of Law Lords can all be wrong.

My career found its way into the fields of defamation and privacy as much by a quirk of fate as anything else. My senior partner had passed me a slander case that ended at trial, which led to a libel case that ended at trial, which, eventually, led to me joining George Davies Solicitors in Manchester as a partner. Their most high profile client was the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), for whom I acted in the well known case of A v B C & D (all that studying and I was back to the alphabet I knew aged four).

In 2007 I saw the chief executive of the PFA on the news as a victim of voicemail interception by Glenn Mulcaire, a private investigator who used to do work for the News of the World. It was around the time that Clive Goodman, the royal correspondent of the News of the World, had received a phone hacking conviction. It seemed to me that if it could be shown that the paper had been responsible for Mulcaire’s actions, then there would be a damages claim. The first barrister I spoke with about this said, “can’t be pleaded”. But a second thought that it could.

In July 2009, The Guardian ran a story about how widespread phone hacking had been. I thought that we should try to provide representation to more of the victims, but George Davies Solicitors thought otherwise and gave me an hour to decide what I wanted to do. I chose to carry on with the phone hacking cases. And so that Monday morning, at 11am, I was no longer a partner. In one sense, it was a disastrous career decision. But it effectively set me free to do what I thought was right. Almost two years later I ended up representing the Dowler family. What a privilege.

So why bother with law? Used properly, being a lawyer doesn’t just give you a cushy lifestyle, but also a chance to make a difference to people’s lives. Your skill can be sold to the highest bidder, but there is nothing more satisfying than helping the underdog stand up to the bully.

You pay a price for putting your head above the parapet, though. After being released from my old firm’s partnership, it wasn’t until 2011 that I earned the magical figure of £30,000 a year. Worth it? Of course.

Mark Lewis is a partner at Taylor Hampton