A good judge of character

After thirty-five years at A&O, solicitor-QC David Mackie is leaving to become a judge. Jon Robins finds out why

David Mackie QC, soon to become a full-time judge and presently the longest-serving partner at Allen & Overy (A&O), recalls the moment he decided upon a career in the law. “It was when I realised that I was going to be a very, very bad air-force pilot,” he says. “I was landing a Chipmunk aeroplane in Cornwall and I came around three times to land the plane, but each time I couldn’t land the thing.” Apparently, the problem was an unhelpful cross-wind that he had to fly directly into in order to make his descent back to terra firma. “It was then I realised I was pointing the plane the wrong way,” the solicitor-silk continues. “I decided I was going to hurt myself and other people if I was going to do this for a living.”

It was an epiphany reached some 36 years ago and, it is fair to say, aviation’s loss has been the law’s gain. Mackie was one of the first solicitor-advocates to make the rank of silk. Now his full-time appointment as a Mercantile Circuit judge at the Central London Civil Justice Centre marks the start of a new career on the bench.
So will the 58-year old lawyer miss the cut and thrust of litigation? “I don’t know anything else,” he says. “I’ve never done anything other than private practice.”

Mackie joined the firm at the start of his career in 1968 when the would-be pilot chose between two City firms. “Allen & Overy was paying £25 a week more than Linklaters,” he jokes. And since 1988, the solicitor has headed A&O’s litigation department.

“One thing I notice as you get older is that everybody else stays the same age and so I have been on the receiving end of impertinent correction by 25-year-olds for the last 30 years. That is probably going to stop,” he continues. Should any A&O trainees want to patronise an eminent silk, they have until the end of the month before he joins the judiciary.

Mackie has been remarkably loyal to A&O. “Well, I’ve been very happy,” he says. What does he make of the firm’s onward global march? Mackie claims not to have been involved in the firm’s strategy, but he says he is “amazed and delighted” not just by the skill, but the sheer nerve of the firm. “Like everybody my age, I am a grumpy old man about some things, but I’ve never had any reason to be critical of the way the firm has carried forwards,” he says.

There has been some press speculation as to the size of the whopping pay cut that Mackie will undoubtedly take by choosing a new career on the bench. One report believed it to be in the region of £800,000. In actual fact, according to Mackie, the magazine in question overstated his judicial salary. Anyhow, he was not motivated by the money when he started his career and he is not now. “I actually joined A&O because it was interesting work,” he says. “At the time there was an 83 per cent tax on partners.”

Peter Watson, managing partner of the A&O litigation practice, says that Mackie is “irreplaceable” and claims that he is responsible for “engendering” the firm’s litigation style of “intellectual force tempered by pragmatism”. Andrew Clark, a former managing partner of the litigation practice and a trainee of Mackie’s, calls his colleague “an institution in the best sense of the word”. “David has a huge love of the law, but he’s also a great client lawyer who has brought on a generation of lawyers here,” he says.

Watson regards his colleague as “the lawyer of choice for individuals and major institutions facing a crisis”. Mackie acted in a number of high-profile cases ranging from a case relating to the seizure of US hostages in Iran in the 1970s, to the collapse of major institutions, such as the International Tin Council in the 1980s. He is also known for his defamation work. He represented Lord Aldington in his libel battle with Count Nikolai Tolstoy, who was ordered to pay the former Tory party chairman £1.5m libel damages in 1989.

More recently, Mackie has played high-profile roles in most public inquiries. He acted for Lord Howe in the Scott inquiry into the sale of arms to Iraq and for Sir Edward Heath and Lord Carrington in the Saville Inquiry into the events of the Bloody Sunday killings. A busy schedule of large arbitrations across the world has also kept him busy.

Then there is Mackie’s judicial career. He was the third solicitor-advocate to take silk in 1998. He had been sitting as an assistant recorder since 1988, and became a recorder on the South Eastern Circuit in 1992. He was appointed a deputy High Court judge in 1999.

It is an impressive CV, but if you ask the self-effacing silk to nominate a case that sticks in his mind, he refuses to talk himself up. “David hates any form of self-promotion,” notes Clark. Instead, Mackie offers a case with zero historical resonance, but which clearly had a deep personal impact.

The case from the 1980s involved a personnel director in a company, a war hero, who complained that he had been unfairly dismissed.
Tragically, he killed himself after his failed compensation claim. His wife later killed herself. Mackie was acting for the company. “It was just awful,” he recalls. “We reached a solution that was perfectly legitimate in legal terms, but it was one that set him back.”

Last year, Mackie received a CBE for his services to pro bono work.
His first involvement with law centres began in the 1970s and to this day he remains a volunteer at the Royal Court of Justice’s Advice Bureau, where he is deputy chair, and at the Battersea Advice Centre. He also heads A&O’s pro bono work. Mackie believes that the work-for-free ethic is now “a central part of the values” of not just his own firm, but other major City firms too.

The lawyer is a keen advocate for the role of the City lawyer in the pro bono movement. He says: “The legitimate concerns and suspicions of the small firms around the country about pro bono have been overcome by the way the work has been handled and by the Government’s approach to funding legal services.” He does not feel the City’s pro bono initiatives undermine legal aid. The advice he and his fellow volunteers give tends to be for “one-off special cases” that would not attract public funding. “It is about providing an elastoplast, helping people write letters and giving basic advice,” he says. “A trainee writing these letters can have as great an effect adding to the happiness for some of these people as a QC doing a high-profile case in court.”

While he is that rarest of breeds, a solicitor-QC, he resists debating the usefulness, or otherwise, of the rank. “I’m not sure I’ve any useful views on the subject,” he says. So, why did he apply? Mackie applied in 1997 because, as he puts it, he felt “at something of a disadvantage” in international arbitrations when he came across a QC on the other side. “Once the first couple of people applied successfully, I thought I’d have a go and got lucky,” he says. The title has helped with his arbitration and public inquiry work. “It would have been difficult for a solicitor to have done that if he didn’t have those two letters after his name,” he says.

As a leading solicitor-QC, he has a lot of respect for the advocacy skills of the bar. “There are some very good solicitors, but there’s a certain amount of kidology going on,” he says. “If you appear against some of these people it is only then that you realise how extraordinarily able they are. I wouldn’t want to be too chauvinistic about this, but I have seen English-speaking lawyers all over the world and I don’t think that it gets much better than a good English barrister in a good English court.”
David Mackie QC