Cometh the Fruitcake

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, 19 October 2003

A client-to-be rang up to make an appointment. He was a little coy on the phone with my secretary and so protocol was breached. Against policy that had been tried and trusted for decades, she gave up trying to make head or tail of what he was saying, and put him through to me.

“What is it you’d like help with?” I said. “It’s difficult to explain,” said my client-to-be in a detached, strangely soothing voice. “It’s an idea I have for something. Do you know, it will make me a millionaire.” So far, so barking, but one learns as a lawyer only to be rude to other lawyers, never clients, still less clients-to-be. “That sounds very interesting,” I said. “But what is it that you’d like me to do?”

The line went quiet. There was a deep sigh and then my interlocutor said: “It’s the idea, the idea that I need help with, don’t you see?” I had no idea what he was talking about but felt that to admit so palpable a lack of perspicacity would be compromising. Besides, work was quiet. “I see,” I said. “When would you like to come in?” My enigmatic acquaintance told me that he needed an appointment as soon as possible. “Tomorrow at 12.00?” I ventured. It was set in stone. My secretary shook her head when I told her. “He sounds mental,” she said. “Haven’t you got better things to do?”

As the morning dragged on I felt an increasing sense of unease. Why had I agreed to see this man? As had been so delicately observed, he sounded like a fruitcake. And fruitcakes are not known for being good payers. In the midst of these ruminations, the phone rang. It was my secretary, saying that my client-to-be wanted to speak to me. “I need some guarantees,” he said. “Of what?” “Of the fact that you’ll keep secret what we discuss.” This was ridiculous. I pointed out that solicitors owe lifelong obligations of confidentiality to their clients, that we’re like doctors in this regard, only ever disclosing details of our patients’ conditions when compelled to do so by some higher authority, such as a judge, or the Law Society, or a local barman. To no avail. The client-to-be insisted that I sign a confidentiality agreement. “It’ll be worth your while,” he said.

Against my better judgement, I agreed. They’re simple enough documents so I ran one off and filled in the blanks, undertaking to keep secret everything and anything he might tell me. I told him he could read and sign it when he arrived. “OK,” he said, “See you in half an hour.” So we were still on for 12.00.

Cometh the hour, cometh the client. He was a squat individual with grey hair and a fey disposition. “Delighted to meet you,” I said, as he scrutinised the confidentiality agreement. “Please explain what you’d like help with.” He stared at me with a quizzical air, all the time clutching the agreement. “It’s about this idea I’ve got,” he said. “No one else has ever thought of it. It will make me a very rich man.” I see, I said, but what can I do? “I need you to protect it,” he said, and I noticed faint lines of sweat around his temples. “Can you tell me what it is?” I said.

The sweat ran faster now. He shuffled in his seat and wiped his brow. No, he could not, it was too dangerous, what if someone heard, what if I disclosed it to someone, what if my secretary walked in as he was telling me? I reminded him of the confidentiality agreement, didn’t that make him happy? He looked at it and his mouth twitched by way of an involuntary smile. No, he said, it was too great a risk, this idea was unique and so alluring that no one could resist it. In fact, thinking about it, he had made a mistake, he would go home and think things through. He stood up and walked away with the confidentiality agreement, that which bound me never to disclose what he had told me (if he had told me anything, which, of course, he had not), that which obliged me to keep secret even the fact of our ever having met, and, moreover, that which could be effortlessly adapted to protect his idea in subsequent commercial negotiations.

There are some people out there who make sharks look cuddly. And they’re not all lawyers.