Acting for the Angolan government, rock band Oasis and an unwilling star of a Readers’ Wives section might not be every lawyer’s cup of tea. It’s tricky work, where unpredictability comes with the territory. But then Razi Mireskandari, head of litigation at West End firm Simons Muirhead & Burton, is not your average lawyer.
Mireskandari, 45, cycles daily to his Soho office from his home in Brixton. With his stocky build, designer stubble and predilection for baseball hats (off-duty, at least), he would blend as easily into a Brixton bar as he does the Royal Courts of Justice (RCJ); and Mireskandari is well known in the RCJ, having handled a number of high-profile cases, often with a media flavour.
His commitment and enthusiasm are renowned. As one lawyer says: “When I first came up against him I couldn’t believe his energy, but also his openness. I felt so worn down by the combination that I was ready to consent to whatever he wanted.”
Over the years Mireskandari has helped turn Simons Muirhead into a highly-regarded media practice – albeit an unusual one. Deliberately top-heavy, with nine partners and seven assistants, the firm bucks City orthodoxy with its belief in hands-on partner contact.
Its inversion of the pyramid structure so beloved of modern law firms is allied to eclectic core strengths. The firm, set up in 1972, made its name with civil liberties and criminal law work, and these remain key today. So too is its film, television and theatre work: senior partner Anthony Burton sits as vice-chairman on the board of the English Stage Company. There is property development and conveyancing work, which is sufficiently developed in the West End to make it a fair chance that you could be eating a meal in a restaurant for which Simons Muirhead has done the legal work.
Then there is Mireskandari and the media practice. The firm can count Channel 4, Random House, Oasis and Dennis Publishing among its longstanding clients. Mireskandari acted for the late Paula Yates, whose death touched many people. “It was a great loss,” agrees Mireskandari. “She could have gone on to become the English equivalent of Mae West.”
But for circumstances, though, Mireskandari would not have become a lawyer. His parents were Iranian, and his father, having moved to the UK in the 1960s, worked for the Foreign Office. Mireskandari studied international relations at Sussex University, and went on to complete a Masters in the law of the sea at Keele in 1979. The plan was to return to Iran and pursue a career in diplomacy. The revolution in Iran in 1979, with Ayatollah Khomeini deposing the Shah, prompted a rethink, and those options which remained available were closed when the war between Iran and Iraq broke out in 1980. So instead of becoming a diplomat, Mireskandari went travelling.
“It was an interesting time to be travelling the world on an Iranian passport,” he says. “In Morocco I was arrested in every village I visited.”
Returning to the UK, Mireskandari found himself working as a driver for Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council (GLC), before converting to law at Birmingham Polytechnic and completing his Law Society Finals at the College of Law in 1984. He was at Guildford with Jan Tomalin, Channel 4’s head of legal and compliance, who remembers him as being “very different from everyone else: he was cool; he had a large motorbike and would turn up in his leathers”. Tomalin cannot speak highly enough of Mireskandari. “He’s very charming and laid-back, but practical and an incredibly canny negotiator. There are certain cases that cry out for Raz. He gets on well with programme-makers and always does a good job.”
Mireskandari’s down-to-earth style secured him articles at Calvert Smith & Sutcliffe in Richmond. When he finished his Law Society Finals he telephoned Calvert Smith and said he wanted to be a criminal lawyer: an interview later and he had his articles. Midstream, though, he transferred to Simons Muirhead, where he did higher-profile criminal work for long enough to realise that he “didn’t have the necessary attributes to be good at it”. Again fate played its part, with a vacancy arising in litigation upon Mireskandari’s qualification as a solicitor in 1986. He found himself, in effect, running the firm’s litigation department.
It was, he says, a “baptism of fire”. One of his first cases was on behalf of the Angolan government at the time of the Unita war. “I was flown into the war zone in a Lear jet to take a witness statement from a minister,” he says. “I walked into a building which was used as a centre for strategic operations, just as various generals in camouflage gear walked out. I took the statement surrounded by blackboards on which the war was mapped out.”
The confidential result of this case clearly did not do Mireskandari any harm: he was offered equity partnership in 1989 and remains one of only five equity partners at the firm. He has libel read any number of controversial books such as Virtual Murdoch and Burchill on Beckham, and acts for Oasis in contentious matters. The data protection laws have helped Noel Gallagher et al where a libel action would have had limited chances of success. “It’s possible to correct inaccuracies by using the data protection legislation to find out what information a newspaper has,” says Mireskandari. “There was an allegation recently that Oasis were booed off a stage in Brighton. This simply wasn’t true and could not be justified by the information held, and therefore we got a correction.”
For all the glamour, though, Mireskandari says his best moment as a lawyer was obtaining libel damages against two adult magazine publishers. “My client had married a man 10 years her senior, who had taken some nude photographs of her,” he explains. “Their relationship had broken down and the man sold the photographs to two top-shelf magazines. No one checked to see if she had given her consent for their use, and the man even showed them to their children. I was appalled at the way the courts treated her – as if the claim wasn’t worth their time – and at the conduct of her ex-husband. I was very proud when we settled the case for a substantial five-figure sum.”
Mireskandari is just as passionate about the cost of going to court. “Litigation costs far too much. The front-loading of cases – all the pre-action protocols and early disclosure – racks up the costs and actually discourages settlement,” he says. “I believe that mediation should be made compulsory, with costs penalties flowing from a refusal to accept a mediator’s recommendations.”
Meanwhile Mireskandari will work with the law as it is, in his own canny, practical way. A member of the Groucho Club and married to Clare, with three children, he is the kind of man who would enjoy life whatever he was doing. He agrees that he is not a “conventional” lawyer, and says that if it were not for his firm “I probably wouldn’t still be practising”.
Thankfully, Mireskandari ran into Simons Muirhead at just the right time.
Partner and head of litigation
Simons Muirhead & Burton