Describing a litigator as lovely has to be an oxymoron. But Laurie Watt, Charles Russell’s senior partner, is a lovely man, although he probably won’t thank me for saying so.
We meet after England’s nil all draw with Nigeria. Charles Russell laid on bacon butties for any staff in early enough to catch the 7.30am kick-off and Watt was in the thick of the spectators. He welcomes me with a beaming grin that I put down to England’s progression beyond the first round, although he subsequently confesses that he doesn’t really follow the beautiful game. The screening room was packed and Watt had clearly enjoyed the occasion, claiming he had “roared inside”.
Watt hits all the right notes in the interview, but considering he spends his spare time playing the French horn, I expect nothing less. It is difficult to work out which he prefers: litigating or music. In fact, before becoming a solicitor, Watt harboured hopes of making music his career. Having realised that he would be a competent but not exceptional performer, though, he moved into law and now indulges his musical leanings with the Wandsworth Symphony Orchestra.
Music even forms his dress sense. He is sporting a tie covered in musical instruments. Here is a man who has managed to combine his two passions, because Charles Russell represents a number of orchestras and other music-related organisations. “If I hadn’t played the French horn, I certainly wouldn’t have joined this firm,” he admits.
During his articles at Cole & Cole in Oxford, Watt was a member of a local orchestra. One of the conductors, Michael Pellow, was a partner at Goodman Derrick. When Watt qualified, he decided he wanted City experience and Pellow introduced him to Cyril Russell, one of the senior partners at Charles Russell. “I’d never even heard of Charles Russell,” says Watt. “It wasn’t even a name to me where I was.” He joined the firm in the midst of a defamation case – Viscount Rothermere & ors v Times Newspapers & ors – and got stuck into it. (The case, brought against columnist Bernard Levin, settled out of court.)
The early part of Watt’s Charles Russell career was spent handling divorce work for wealthy private clients. Although he enjoyed it, he had a hankering for a more commercial practice. He and partner Patrick Russell split away from matrimonial work and stumbled upon the case that would make Watt’s name – Canadian Superior. “I got instructed on a huge great case, which was the case of the ’80s in shipping circles,” Watt says. It involved alleged damage to a ship by cargo carried from Canada to South Africa.
Canadian Superior monopolised Watt’s time for three years. The company had been a Charles Russell client for a number of years, but had never used the firm for litigation. Its counsel in Canada advised it to plump for a more established shipping firm, but Watt says that the client’s attitude was more, “Well, they’ve always looked after us very well; they can bloody well learn about shipping.” Watt obviously relished jumping in at the deep end.
“One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most about litigation is becoming an expert in something completely different,” he confides. “There’s nothing I couldn’t tell you about metal corrosion and exploding turbines, which was another case I had.”
For three years Watt flew back and forth between Canada, South Africa and the UK. “They’d call me over as if they were in Twickenham, saying, ‘Could you possibly pop over to Vancouver’,” he recalls. The hard work paid off, though, and not only did Watt settle the case, he also picked up instructions from the firms that he had come up against in the process. This was 20 years ago and Watt is still reaping the benefits. “I had an email this morning from an opponent in that case who remained a good friend and subsequently became associates of ours,” he says.
Watt does seem to be the sort of person that you would want to keep in touch with. He comes across as interesting, erudite and still full of enthusiasm for his work and firm. (Things could have been very different: his father tried to persuade him to become an accountant.)
“My time is roughly divided into sort of 50 per cent senior partner and 50 per cent litigator. It tends to be 70 per cent for both actually,” he says. “If I get a good case coming in, I get a huge thrill out of it.” He describes himself as more of a troubleshooter, stepping in to one-off situations and sorting them out. “You never know what’s going to come up. It’s not as though I have a client who sends a constant stream of instructions on a particular area of commercial law,” he observes. Watt is proud of this role of stepping into the breach to resolve a problem.
He insists that he has lost none of his fervour for a fight, despite being in his second term as senior partner. You could expect a senior partner to be satisfied with focusing only on growing his firm, but not Watt. He intends to stay right in the thick of things. “My latest really exciting instruction is to represent Lord Wakeham as shadow counsel in the Enron debacle. Basically, these huge piles of paper come through and I have to try and sort out what’s relevant to him and read it, and be able to second guess and anticipate what may happen over here,” he boasts.
Litigators are often pigeonholed as the Rottweilers of the legal profession, but Watt could not be further from this stereotype. “Litigators do divide between those who react and those who get on with it,” he says. “And I think litigation gets a very bad name. If you meet someone who’s behaving badly or oppressively you simply play it by the book. If you play it by the book well and properly it’s an armour that they can’t get through, unless they’ve got a much better case.”
Watt illustrates his point with a tale from his own career. “I remember years ago there was a partner who had asked for a meeting between him, his client, me and my client,” he recalls. “We hadn’t got a leg to stand on. He launched into a tirade against my client and Charles Russell as soon as we walked in. In the midst of this tirade I looked at my client, and we walked out. It took him months and months to get what he could have got on the spot.”
Watt gives every impression of modesty, but it is obvious he loves to win, although he is happy to work pro bono for causes dear to his heart. On a case on behalf of one of his music clients he wrote off £60,000 as pro bono work, saying: “I had clear parameters on what the orchestra could afford; and when we exhausted that, we were a long way from finishing.”
So there it is. Laurie Watt, lawyer, musician and, it would appear, gentleman.