My double life

Times Online, June 23, 2006

My dual identity as a lawyer and writer does, occasionally, cause confusion. Sometimes, particularly when libel reading newspaper or magazine copy, the writer emerges, champing at the bit to tweak the inelegant and fix the infelicitous. This is rarely a good idea, since the journalists with whom I am working, though aware of my double life, expect me to act simply as a lawyer. The last thing they want is their libel lawyer for the night quibbling not over questions of legal liability but expressing angst over lacklustre prose.

Conversely, when penning a feature, the fact that I am a libel lawyer by trade rears its uneasy head. I find myself scrupulously avoiding legal risk, or at least minimising it, or, worse (much worse), creating it. Then I have to get my libel lawyer’s blue pencil out, and start all over again. But where I get really confused is when writing about lawyers. This almost invariably means I have to ring them up, and, when I do, wearing two hats can become a fraught and tricky thing.

The problem is that I ring lawyers up in a spirit of journalistic bonhomie. I do not expect them to respond like lawyers, and, for the most part, they are easy enough to deal with. But a few always act as if they are in court. What should be a straightforward interview turns into a piece of murderous cross-examination, as when I rang a well-known libel lawyer to ask him about the allegations slewing around about Heather Mills McCartney.

"Why are you calling me?" were the lawyer’s first words. I told him that I was researching a piece on the libel laws, specifically whether they would be of any assistance to Mrs McCartney. "I know who you are," was his response. This is always gratifying, for so often, wearing my freelance hack’s hat, no one knows who I am. "Jolly good," I replied. "Do you have a few minutes for a chat?"

"I know exactly who you are," said the famous libel lawyer. "Excuse me?" said I. "You are a lawyer as well as a writer. How do I know that whatever I say will not be used against me?" I confess that I was bemused. What on earth did he mean? This I asked, as delicately as I could, hoping that my interviewee might feel better for the catharsis of explaining himself. "You know exactly what I mean," came the reply.

I was flummoxed. I had not predicted such paranoia in one so feted by his peers. I opted to ignore his ominous words and carry on. "Do you think Mrs McCartney has a decent claim in libel?" I asked, as ingenuously as I could. There was a long pause, and then my charming interlocutor damned me unceremoniously. "I recall the piece you wrote about Mr David Beckham," he said. "I am sure you are aware of that to which I refer. I believe I am right in saying that my colleague, O, was misquoted. You, as a lawyer, should be more aware than mere journalists of the dangers of falsehood and inaccuracy."

I cast my mind back to one of various pieces I had written in which the illustrious England captain may have appeared. I think I had indeed once quoted O, the relevant part of whose original quote had been something like: "The case raises all kinds of issues about privacy." This I had altered, for reasons of word-count, to: "The case raises many privacy issues." I pointed out that it seemed a little harsh to chastise me for so minor a change.

"A quote is a quote," said my resolute anti-conversationalist. "If I am going to speak to you about this matter, I want your undertaking that you will not change a single word I say. Moreover, I want copy approval. For the avoidance of doubt, I require your written confirmation that this is acceptable." I said I’d drop him a line, and we agreed to talk further another time.

To date, I have not written as requested. I don’t think I will, either. Some lawyers take themselves far too seriously, and when they do, it is best to ignore them. Mind you, others have a rather different approach. Some time ago I used to file firm profiles for The Lawyer magazine. These entailed talking to the senior or managing partner of a practice, and asking him a series of questions about the kind of firm he presided over, what its turnover was, what its ambitions were, whether it was on track to fulfil them. A tried and trusted cliché of a question was: "What is your five-year plan?" I once asked this of the senior partner of a firm in the north of England, an amiable man with an absurdist streak. His response was: "Five-year plan? That’s a good idea. I’ve never thought of one of them. Let’s see now – how about a five-year plan to have a five-year plan?"

I am not sure whether the writer or lawyer in me made me ask him for something a little more serious, but given that he had so admirable a sense of humour, this wasn’t the quote that I used.