Martyn Gowar: Caretaker of a princess' estate

Philip Hoult talks to Martyn Gowar, the Lawrence Graham senior partner who found himself thrust into a media spotlight.

While the media persists in referring to lawyers as "fat cats", Martin Gowar, a solicitor they once vigorously pursued, is quite happy to label journalists as "intellectually lazy".

Gowar, the genial, sports-mad senior partner of City firm Lawrence Graham, could hardly have expected a few years ago that handling an estate would make him a national media target.

But when the estate is that of Diana, Princess of Wales, the patron saint of Fleet Street, media attention is inevitable. So it was that Gowar received a telephone call from a journalist late at night while lying in bed.

The reporter at other end of the line was from a national newspaper, and wanted to know how a will can be varied.

Gowar and, no doubt, Mrs Gower were not best pleased. The information regarding Diana's estate had, after all, been issued in a press pack.

The journalist's defence was "I've got a deadline".

"Well thanks a lot."

Gowar's mood with the media did not improve when a horde of journalists set up camp outside his firm's offices on the Strand.

"I have to say that you come away with the impression that they are very much living for the immediate moment," he says. "And to that extent they are intellectually lazy in actually going back and checking information."

The sheer level of interest in the minutiae of Princess Diana's estate – endless articles on subjects like the legacies received by each of her 17 godchildren – must have come as something of a shock to Gowar, who picked up the work after Mishcon de Reya was conflicted out.

"The most disconcerting thing for me was that at the time we published all this information – about the estate and the tax paid – I was being asked to do what I had always spent my life not doing, which was disclosing details to the public, and indeed the world, of a client's affairs."

"That was quite a surprising moment in my life," he says. But the trustees "were absolutely right, because if we had not published those details, they would have made the story run for weeks and weeks".

By disclosing the information, the story became "something of a 24-hour wonder.

"That would not have happened if we hadn't bared body and soul."

He is sceptical whether the media was really entitled to know, arguing that "I find this business of 'the right to know' is very much overstated".

And he cannot see that there will be any improvement in press behaviour, despite the claims following Diana's death that the industry will clean up its act.

"The freedom of the press has now become licence of the press in so many ways," he claims. "And they won't put their house in order because they have got too many financial pressures to make money."

Yet by a mixture of skill, fleet-footedness and luck, Gowar managed to keep his firm out of the spotlight over fees more successfully than other firms involved in the work arising out of Diana's death.

Mishcons, which advised the memorial fund, and Boodle Hatfield, which advised John Major as guardian of the interests of Princes William and Harry, were slaughtered by negative media headlines.

But despite escaping a media bruising by being open, Gowar still bristles at the way the media bandies around the term "fat cat lawyers".

"The argument about fat cat lawyers is simplistic because it does not actually reflect what lawyers do, and have to do, to earn their fees."

He says that the widely-reported headline figures for the profits per partner at City firms are misleading.

"People just don't understand that whatever the headline figures may be for the partners' profit share, it's not paid in 12 equal installments as the year goes on. You only get paid when cash has come into the bank and when the firm can afford its financing of next year's work in progress."

"It isn't straightforward at all" he says, "which isn't to say we don't do well".

As for the profession's poor image, he admits that lawyers are partly to blame.

"Lawyers have to be sensitive about the overall fee and whether it reflects value for money for the transaction. We all know of cases where a job will require the same amount of hours whether the sum involved is u10,000 or u10m. It's at that level that you have a problem."

In addition, the Law Society has not done as much as it could have done to address the profession's image problems.

Peter Ustinov said of politicians, that "those who get to the top are generally those who do not have the qualifications to detain them at the bottom". Gowar would also apply this description to those involved in Law Society politics.

However, he quickly ex-cludes the current president Michael Matthews, a fellow City tax lawyer, for whom he has "the highest regard".

City firms, he feels, have not been as supportive of the Law Society to the same extent as the Big Five accountancy firms have backed the Institute of Chartered Accountants and, as a result, the best people have rarely been involved.

Even before the work on Princess Diana's estate, Gowar was already one of the leading private client lawyers in the City. He was made senior partner of 75-partner firm Lawrence Graham 18 months ago.

Gowar describes himself as a "people-person" and colleagues, ex-partners and rivals alike are quick to gush about his approachability – describing him as "open" and, more than once, "cuddly".

In fact, of the nine people The Lawyer talked to inside and outside the firm none had a nasty word to say – even former partners. When pitching for the senior partner's job, he told his colleagues that he would put a sofa in his room so that anyone who wanted to come and talk to him would feel comfortable doing so.

The one and only discordant note came from an ex-partner who said that Gowar was "great fun" but was a "compromise candidate" for the job.

But with added steel supplied by the firm's hard-edged managing partner Bill Richards and after a financial year in which the firm posted record profits, there is little evidence to suggest that his fellow partners made the wrong choice.

And who can argue when, as one admiring rival says, Gowar is "always the first to buy a round of drinks".

But then, perhaps not for the journalists.