Fruits of labour
3 June 2002
The law's gain is the fashion industry's and journalism's loss, because Trevor Soames, managing partner of Howrey Simon Arnold & White's Brussels office, originally had no intention of becoming a lawyer.
Coming from a family that included a father who made and lost a fortune with 1960s fashion boutique Snob, and a mother whose photographs are collected the world over (Sally Soames was the first female photographer on Fleet Street), Soames' legal career does not really suit his background. In fact, Soames himself seems bemused by the way his career has developed.
We meet in Howrey Simon's London office, high above the bustle of the Square Mile in the CityPoint building. Soames is on one of his regular trips to London from his more permanent Brussels base. He is still a Howrey Simon new boy, but says that he is enjoying the rough and tumble of opening and staffing the firm's venture in Brussels. He also claims to be feeling under par following a bout of food poisoning, but there is little sign of it in the effusive chap before me.
Having spent around eight months on gardening leave since his resignation from the Norton Rose partnership, Soames has been itching to get back to work. He describes himself as naturally lazy, but a career that has taken in the Bar, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Linklaters, Norton Rose and now US regulatory giant Howrey Simon suggests otherwise. He comes across as driven, ambitious and possessed of a self-belief that could border on arrogance if it was not for his readiness to laugh at himself.
Marginally less camp than Dale Winton, Soames is every bit the performer. It is clear why the audience of a courtroom would have inspired him to become a barrister; he is a self-confessed show-off, and keeps the conversation flowing with stories of days gone by. His arms wave about to emphasise a particular point as he communicates with his whole body, from face to feet.
It was a less than illustrious start for Soames. As a stripling of just 21, history graduate Soames and a pal decided to make some money by selling strawberries outside Wimbledon. It was the early 1980s, and with the spirit of free enterprise coursing through his veins, Soames was thinking of going into business. Unfortunately, the local constabulary was not convinced and promptly arrested him along with the other hawkers.
"My most important case was my first one," he says. "I was taken with the ticket touts down to Wimbledon Police Station, where they photographed and fingerprinted me, and I was charged with obstructing the highway."
One trip to Wimbledon nick later, Soames started reading up on relevant case law and decided to challenge the charge when the case came to the magistrates court. "Looking at the legislation, looking at the case law, I thought there was a defence, so I decided to plead not guilty," he recalls. So legal innocent Soames made his debut court performance and discovered his love of advocacy. The case was dismissed and he thought: "Well, advocacy - I like speaking, I like performing in front of the court, so why not try to do something to earn some money doing something I enjoy." Soames had this somewhat precocious start and has not looked back since.
He says: "I enjoyed it enormously. When I was deciding where in the Bar to go to I wanted to become an advocate, so I went to the Common Law Bar. I liked the advocacy, but there were a number of things that disturbed me. I could see that, financially, you could get to a certain level; but then it was very difficult to move off that level."
Add to this a dislike of certain areas, including matrimonial law, and Soames was not ideally suited to his early career choice. In about 1985, he opted to swap the Bar for the City, the result of which was a position at the DTI working on competition law.
The then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Sir Leon Brittain wanted to evaluate competition policy in the UK. Soames remembers: "I was asked if I knew anything about competition law and I said no. I imagined it was the law of Bingo. I learned on the job." After two weeks Brittain had resigned and the review stopped, and in less than a year Soames had moved on. "I didn't feel that my career was as a civil servant," he notes. After four years at Linklaters, Soames joined Norton Rose in 1990.
He says that leaving Norton Rose was one of the most difficult things he has ever had to do. "It's a bit like being plunged into a void," he explains. "When I resigned, I went to see Roger Birkby [managing partner], and we had a very civilised conversation. When we came to the conclusion that I was definitely going to go, I was asked for my computer, my American Express card and all the relevant bits and pieces, and then I was out the door."
Norton Rose's partnership deeds state that partners must have a 12-month notice period. Soames says: "I think both sides tried very hard to reach an accommodation, and to be honest I was disappointed with the amount of time I was put on. Eight months is a bit excessive. But I was ultimately released after six months."
With a few months to twiddle his thumbs, Soames engaged in a spot of globetrotting while he prepared himself for Howrey Simon. "Gardening leave wasn't what I'd thought it would be," he observes. "I thought it would be a jolly nice holiday, but it isn't quite like that. I'm very happy to be out of it."
Soames is a man who obviously needs to work. He says that he loves getting stuck in to the most complex cases. Gardening leave did not suit him at all. But, as Soames acknowledges, it did have the odd advantage: "In fact, what it did - although to be honest I resented part of it - was to provide a mental buffer so that I could get over the very tiring and upsetting mental trauma - and it was a trauma - of leaving Norton Rose."
His career path has ambled along a slightly scenic route, but Soames maintains that he is not flighty in his choices. He is also adamant that joining Howrey Simon is his final career move. In joining the US firm, Soames has found a natural home. Despite his consummate English background, he really does have more in common with his newfound US colleagues. In an ideal world, he would have practised under a US-style system, combining the intellectual complexity of his preferred practice area with his flair for public speaking. Not only that, but his particular breed of ambition somehow seems to fit within a stereotypical US mould. He eschews what he perceives as the old-fashioned approach of City law firms.
Dignity does not seem high on Soames' list of characteristics. "I know you want me to expose myself warts and all, but that's okay because I have no pride," he says.
Not fancying the offer of an exposed Soames, I move on.
During the course of the interview, he divulges that on leaving Norton Rose for the final time he had planned to just get into his car and drive home. He was shellshocked by the speed of his departure and his plan encountered a small problem. Along with his briefcase and coat, Soames shut his car keys in the boot of his Saab. Several hours and one visit from a helpful AA mechanic later, Soames was able to retrieve his keys and go home - hardly the most dignified of exits. But as he says, at least he has been assured that his car is supremely secure.
His career seems secure as well. Having joined one of the US's foremost competition and regulatory firms, Soames' competition practice sits right at the heart of his new firm. He has already recruited a stream of high-profile lawyers to join him in Brussels and has big plans for the new office once it is up and running in June. He is confident he can make it work and, as his self-belief is virulently contagious, so am I.
Managing partner in Brussels
Howrey Simon Arnold & White