Maintaining the illusion

Times Online September 29, 2006

Sometimes I think that being a lawyer is like being a builder. Often, a builder’s own house is full of jobs that need to be done. These jobs are, in fact, destined never to be done, because a builder spends all day building other people’s houses and cannot find the energy to apply hammer and nail in his own domain. Instead, when he gets home he cracks open a lager and watches the football, or, if he is a politically correct sort, reads Pablo Neruda and cooks his partner (male or female) a meal. In short, he does anything to avoid being a builderonce his identity as such has evaporated behind closed doors.

And so it is as a lawyer. When I was a fully paid up member of the profession – rather than the dilettante I have become now – I would do almost anything to escape my role once out of the office. Sometimes I took this policy a little too far and tried to avoid being a lawyer when in the office, where I would read Neruda instead of preparing for court or flirt with secretaries in the secret room where all the secret files were stored. Out of work, such was my common man’s mien that people often confused me with the part-time sheet metal worker who lived at the end of the road, or, when drunk (when, unaccountably, my clothes would fall off in public places), with a putative male stripper. Neither was true. I was simply a lawyer on the run, anxious to cut loose.

But while my own antics may have been indicative of a worryingly schizoid mind that would one day meet with calamity, I shared with many of my brethren a sense of despair when the law was applied to my own life. Yes, I should be able to do the conveyancing myself – after all, I am a highly trained solicitor – but would I? No chance. Get another lawyer to do it. Did I read the small print on agreements to buy cars, scrutinising them for sneaky swindling clauses incorporated by other highly trained members of the profession? Well, I tried, but usually got bored after the first few words and signed on the dotted line. Did I check the terms and conditions of credit card agreements? Not once. What of bank loans? I signed away, to my heart’s and bank manager’s content.

This policy of denial did not result in the disasters that might have been expected. Indeed, until a few weeks back so little had come of not bothering to read legal agreements that had any bearing on my life that I began to wonder if the law was a mirage. Could it be that the reams of paper deployed so as to represent the entire agreement and nothing but of a given contractual nexus were worth no more than the recycled paper they were printed on? Surely not, for if that were the case lawyers were an illusion and their efforts no more than the illusory work of a collective of highly paid illusionists.

Needless to say, the law is not an illusion and reading the small print – or, indeed, creating it – can be a useful thing. I learned this in my dealings with an art gallery owner who has just gone into liquidation. He was the most charming of men, and I was happy to help him in a variety of ways, none of them contractually codified. Cometh the liquidation, cometh the liquidators, cometh the bailiffs – and cometh my own claim, among many, for some modest recompense for services rendered.

"Do you have an agreement with Mr X outlining what you did for him?" said a polite woman at the liquidators. No, I’m afraid not, I replied – it was all done on a handshake. "Do you have any invoices?" No, again – there was no need, for surely Mr X would pay. After all, he said he would, didn’t he? "Is there anything in writing to back up what you have told me?" Er, no. "Well, in the absence of any documentary evidence to substantiate your claim I am afraid we cannot entertain it," said the polite woman in an extra-polite way.

I am not talking about thousands, and, indeed, once the liquidators have done their bit I suspect I would be so far down the ranks of creditors that my payment would be virtually negligible. But it is the principle of thing. At least, if I had utilised years of training as a lawyer – if I had applied the kind of advice I have given to clients – I would have drafted an agreement and asked Mr X to sign it. He probably would have done, for charm is as charm does, and my claim would now be being processed. As they say at the National Lottery, you’ve got to be in to win.

But I am not in, and nor will I be, because, like the builder who neglects his own property, I had neither the energy nor the desire to apply the law to my own life. This is not a mistake I intend to make again. For all that the law might be illusory, it is better to work hard to maintain the illusion. There is little worse than a builder whose house has fallen down, especially one sitting amid the ruins reading Pablo Neruda.