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Law Society fire: I was one of the diners told to evacuate

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Around 150 firefighters battled blaze over weekend at historic building on Chancery Lane

Firefighters attending the Law Society’s Chancery Lane HQ — Credit: @LondonFire (Twitter)

At approximately 10:40pm on Saturday the alarm was raised that the Law Society headquarters on Chancery Lane in London, Holborn, was on fire.

Up until that point, around 40 Junior Lawyers Division (JLD) committee members and other legal figures had gathered in the Grade II-listed building for the annual chair’s dinner to hear about some of the projects and policies the body which represents the interests of over 70,000 law students and junior lawyers intends to carry forward this year.

The conversation was flowing, as was the alcohol-free Prosecco and wine (the JLD was observing ‘Dry January’). We had just completed the evening’s three-course meal and were looking forward to some further networking when the fire alarm sounded and I, along with around 25 other diners (some members had left early), were told by staff to evacuate. We later found out another 11 residents were evacuated from flats nearby as a precaution.

We vacated the David Lloyd George room on the Law Society’s ground floor, calmly retrieved our belongings from the cloakroom on our way out and headed outdoors to the unmistakable waft of smoke. We initially huddled outdoors in the cold by the building’s front entrance before moving to the meeting point located at the cloisters opposite the Law Society president’s residence just off Bell Yard where we awaited further information.

As it turned out, around 150 firefighters on 25 fire engines attended the blaze which continued on into the early hours of Sunday morning. In a statement the London Fire Brigade said much of the roof of the six-storey building and part of the fifth, fourth and third floors were alight. Thankfully no injuries were reported.

Assistant Commissioner Dom Ellis, who was at the scene, said:

“This was a very complex fire due to the age and layout of the building. Firefighters worked throughout the night in very challenging and arduous conditions to prevent the fire from spreading to key areas of the historic building, while also trying to prevent water damage. Crews remained on scene throughout Sunday damping down and cutting away. They also carried out salvage work to minimise damage to the building.”

Paul Tennant, the Law Society’s chief executive, thanked the fire service for their efforts and praised staff for their calm response to the incident, adding:

“It is too early to comment on the cause of the fire or the extent of the damage but clearly we are extremely upset that this has happened to this wonderful and historic building.”

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The ordeal wasn’t as harrowing as some media reports suggested. We weren’t forced to “flee for our lives” as the Mirror had reported at the time and my table thought the alarm was just a fire drill when it first sounded. But when reality dawned on us we began to worry as the building is so symbolic of the legal profession. I was particularly concerned about the Reading Room and library, as well as the Common Room which is where my law student ball had taken place a few years ago.

As of this morning the fire is under investigation and the cause is unknown. The Law Society occupies 113 and 114 Chancery Lane and it is understood most of the damage has occurred to the top of building 114. A Law Society spokesperson said:

“What we know at this point is there was significant damage to portions of the roof of 114, to the staircase on the upper floors and to the offices located on those floors. Fortunately the fire was contained and did not spread to 113 Chancery Lane which houses some of the more well-known rooms such as our library, the Reading Room and the Common Room.”

They added that the bulk of the Law Society’s 400 staff are working remotely while assessment of the damage continues.

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