Men of letters

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, 26 October 2003

Solicitors enjoy themselves in correspondence. To some, libel lawyers in particular, the joy of penning a hymn to the grave damage that one’s celebrated client has suffered is exceeded only by the prospect of faxing it to the other side at 5.00 on a Friday afternoon. What joy as one leaves the office, secure in the knowledge that an editor’s weekend has been ruined by an unanswerable request for hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation. Such added pleasure to well-deserved weekend wine, as one contemplates the angst-ridden asceticism of the author of an (allegedly) libellous article, rung up by his editor just as he was about to head to the pub.

“I’m afraid we have had a complaint,” the editor says. “It’s about that article you wrote suggesting that Don Alonso Perez de Guzman el Bueno was a murderous kleptomaniac.” The editor pauses, perhaps for effect, perhaps to turn off his computer. “They say that a failure to pay them a sum which compensates their client for the untold distress he has suffered will result in them inexorably pursuing us for aggravated, exemplary and special damages.”

The author scratches his head. ‘Inexorably’? How can they do anything ‘inexorably’? Doesn’t this mean that they will do so mercilessly, implacably, pitilessly? Isn’t something done ‘inexorably’ more appropriately rendered by the hand of God, rather than a mere solicitor, however talented? Be that as it may, the writer suddenly remembers. Damn, it was that piece that he knocked up in half an hour, following a tip from Bengie the Binman. “I hope we can stand it up,” says the editor. “Have a good weekend.”

The writer slinks off to check his non-existent notes. Sure, Don Alonso admitted in an interview in Hello! that he had stolen, age 14, a sherbert dip from the local newsagent, so too that he had once killed a slug. But ‘murderous kleptomaniac’? This will be hard to prove. On Monday, the writer confesses all. There was no theft, no murder, only an idée fixee which now makes him the Raskolnikov of the newspaper world, alone to skulk amidst the newsroom terminals, haunted and forlorn. His fate is as inexorable as the grovelling apology that besmirches the newspaper’s pages one week later.

Sometimes, though, solicitors enjoy themselves a little too much. There was the delightful case of the two provincial lawyers handling some conveyancing between two old ladies. They both worked in the same small town, attended the same parties and knew each other well. To enliven the quotidian, they indulged in a spot of banter. A series of letters flew back and forth, headed ‘Re: Your Old Bat’ or ‘Re: My Old Bat.’ Text would follow along the lines of: ‘My old bat today instructs me that the fixtures and fittings do not include the light fittings in bedroom three.’ His friend would reply: ‘I note your old bat’s instructions and have relayed them to my old bat. I expect to be able to confirm whether they are acceptable once she has had her hair done. My old bat points out that she saw your old bat with another old bat yesterday, and wonders whether your old bat could confirm who this old bat is. I must add that this is wholly peripheral to the sale of our respective old bats’ properties.’

Unfortunately, somehow a secretary managed to send one of these letters to one of the clients, who promptly complained to the Law Society. The result was that these two shining exemplars of fun in the workplace were inexorably found guilty of ‘conduct unbefitting to a solicitor.’

And just as every dog must have its day, sometimes those who pen outlandish demands for compensation are bitten back. One well-known firm once wrote to Private Eye, ending with the usual flourish: “Mr Arkell’s first concern is that there should be a full retraction at the earliest possible date and he will also want his costs paid. His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply.” To which, the magazine wrote: “We note that Mr Arkell’s attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you could inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.”