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11 September 2000
Essex Court Chambers' stand-up man, Gordon Pollock QC, has come a long way since being turned down by Coudert Brothers 30 years ago. Bal Khela finds out what makes him tick
It was a little like the man from Decca turning down the Beatles. When a young and green Gordon Pollock applied to Coudert Brothers in the US some 30 years ago, he was summarily rejected. "I was interested in Coudert Brothers because they were the pioneers of overseas branches, but I was told I'd need a professional qualification before I'd be taken seriously," he says.
Undeterred, Pollock turned to the bar, and the rest is history. Now part of the fiercely competitive elite of silks which includes Jonathan Sumption and Lord Grabiner, he is the maverick to his rivals' more establishment-led personae. But the significance of the trio lies not in each individual's status; rather, their rivalry personifies the rivalry between their sets - Pollock's Essex Court, Grabiner's One Essex Court and Sumption's Brick Court.
Pollock's importance to Essex Court Chambers is as great - if not greater - than ever. As Essex Court's senior clerk David Grief points out: "Gordon may be daunting, but he's passionate about the success of chambers."
Each of the trio of silks has their partisans. Pollock supporters like the fact that he does not suffer fools gladly. Allen & Overy partner Guy Henderson says: "There are two types of intelligent people: those who make a case sound breathtakingly complex, and those who make it sound breathtakingly simple - that's the difference between Sumption and Pollock."
Pollock says: "I would certainly agree that my objective - certainly in arguing and dealing with a case - is to try to simplify as much as possible, and to cut away the surrounding undergrowth so that the ultimate issue stands out reasonably starkly. But whether or not it is true to say that Jonathan deliberately sets out to complicate matters is another question."
The careers of Pollock, Grabiner and Sumption have inevitably overlapped. The International Tin Council litigation in 1990 - a pivotal event in all their careers - was the first time the three barristers were brought together. "This really was the most important case in my career," says Pollock. The council, which was set up to operate an orderly market between producer and suppliers, was created by treaty. When it went bust, a large number of tin traders and brokers found they were owed a great deal of money. It spiralled into complex, multi-sided litigation; more than 20 member countries successfully fended off an action brought by creditors.
It was Tin Council, and then Lonrho, where Pollock pulled off the hitherto unimaginable feat of persuading the Law Lords to recuse themselves, which propelled Pollock into the limelight. Oddly, Pollock now tends to play down the Lonrho case. He states that it was not a turning point in his career. "There have undoubtedly been situations in which judges might possibly have been challenged but weren't, because it's regarded as not playing the game," he says. "But Lonrho was a very unusual situation. I am not in favour of challenging judges without there being pretty reasonable grounds for doing so."
Since then, headline cases have included acting for Sony against George Michael - a trial where Pollock's natural belligerence was beautifully employed - and the current Noga hearing.
Despite his legendary outspokenness, Pollock's mood nowadays is mellow. Ensconced in his large room at Essex Court adorned with Dutch 19th century romantic paintings ("I'm quite proud of them, although they're not to everyone's taste"), the only trace of impatience is his constantly fidgeting hands. Is this really the man who called a One Essex Court silk "stupid" and another opponent "a puff adder on speed"? Is this really the man who had a series of run-ins with Michael Crystal QC, head of chambers at 3-4 South Square?
His room may be an oasis of calm, but it does not take much to get Pollock animated. It seems that the buzz of the courtroom is still a major motivation. "When everything suddenly kicks in when in court, it's a marvellous feeling," he says. "One of the greatest pleasures in life is the moment when you become aware that you've turned the court, and they're looking through your lenses."
Now aged 57, the obvious question for Pollock is: what next? "There comes a stage, particularly as you get older, when your enthusiasm for a three to four-month case that involves the endless analysis of accounts wanes," he says. "Therefore, if you can find an excuse for not doing it, you don't."
Two things are clear: the first is that Pollock is unlikely to become a judge unless there are some wholesale reforms of the judicial system, and the second is that he has no intention of becoming a working peer à la Grabiner.
Sources close to the golden trio claim that Pollock, Grabinerand Sumption have all rejected proposals to go to the bench. The compulsory retirement age and the thought of having to go out on circuit has proved to be an effective deterrent. Not only that, but the drop in earnings would be significant. They are the highest earners at the bar, all occupying the £1.5m-2m bracket - although Grabiner's earnings would have dipped considerably since his elevation to the House of Lords. Compare these earnings with the paltry £125,000 salary for High Court judges.
Neither would Pollock's individualist temperament give him the patience for a political life. "It's a route he [Lord Grabiner] has taken, but it's not a route I wish to take. Being a working peer is not my idea of a fun-filled life," says Pollock dismissively. "I mean, it's just cannon fodder. I don't think much of the current, or the last, government, as most are useless, no matter what their political stripe. Just look at the state of the Underground - it's a disgrace, along with the infrastructure of this country."
Revealingly, Pollock is more impressed by another great maverick - the new London Mayor. He says: "Ken Livingstone seems to focus on some of the problems, and with luck he has a desire to do something about them. But," he adds darkly, "by their fruits shall we know them."
So not politics, nor the bench. Pollock may not be stepping out of the game yet, but Essex Court will be hard-pressed to replace the man who has been described as a "one-man firm" by his own senior clerk, David Grief. The issue is particularly pressing, since Pollock has no Thatcher-like ambitions to trundle along endlessly. "I'm surprised Carman has gone on as long as he has," he muses. "I certainly don't see myself practising at the bar at the age of 70." Essex Court, then, had better start grooming a successor.