They say that a talent for pool is the sign of a misspent youth. Some might even say the same about law.
But seeing as semi-professional pool player and Olswang associate Mark Shepherd developed a talent for both in the refined atmosphere of Oxford Univeristy, it seems unlikely that his youth was spent too unwisely.
“It’s a strange place to start playing,” admits Shepherd, who says he never really played the sport when he was younger, but “picked it up pretty quickly” amid the dreaming spires. That, it quickly becomes clear, is something of an understatement from the softly spoken commercial litigator.
Besides forging a successful legal career, first at Baker & McKenzie, where he trained, and now at Olswang, Shepherd has proved more than a dab hand with a pool cue.
He competes in up to a dozen tournaments a year, even reaching a world championship quarter-final in Swaziland in 2008 when he lost narrowly to one of the top professional players. That same year he won a trick shot competition that earned him the prize of playing a frame against snooker legend Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Never one to shirk a challenge, The Lawyer decided to take him on at his own game – pool, that is, not litigation.
A break-off shot that saw three balls disappear instantaneously into pockets quickly revealed the gulf in class, but like the plucky underdog he is, this journalist hung on gamely. A series of flukes and one outrageously fortunate snooker left the frame in the balance, with one colour apiece left on the table, before the expert finished things off in style.
“It can be a great levelling game,” Shepherd says with a cheeky smile, acknowledging his opponent’s limited ability.
At least your correspondent fared a little better than some of Shepherd’s colleagues. He tells the story of a partner who turned down the offer of a four-shot start against him. “I ended up clearing up straight off the break,” he says. “Litigators quite like to win, so I’m not sure how well that went down.”
Besides the necessary competitive edge, Shepherd struggles to think of too many other comparisons between the worlds of pool and law. “They’re both about concentration,” he suggests. “And both involve planning and thinking things through.”
Not surprisingly, Shepherd has not come across too many other lawyers during his nights on the pool circuit, but his legal knowledge has been called upon.
“There was a time when I was playing a match as a student, and before we started a guy on the other team told me he needed legal advice,” he recalls. “I think he’d been charged with a pretty nasty assault – I wasn’t sure if I should try to win or not.”
With such intimidating opposition bested in his past, yours truly was never going to give Shepherd much of a game, but he took up the challenge with good grace, even offering a few cueing tips.
In the second frame, remarkably, the novice took an early lead thanks to a couple of flukey in-offs, before luck finally ran out and a rash attempt on a long red resulted in the black disappearing into the opposite corner. Game over, but pride unbowed.
Maybe it was the professional advice that helped. Shepherd has after all written a book on the mysteries of the game. On Cue, first published in 2007, offers tips on everything from positioning and trick shots to changing a cue tip.
“I’d written a book about law before,” he explains, referring to his guide to the national admissions test. “But I also wanted to write about something outside work that I had a real passion for.”
It is a typically modest statement from a man who has combined the gruelling life of an associate at a City law firm with a career as a professional-standard pool player and part-time author. And all before the age of 30.
So, was there any question about which career he was going to choose?
“I do wish I could have found out how good I’d have become if I’d dedicated myself to pool,” he admits. “But you’d need to have two lives to do both, and unfortunately sometimes work has to come first.”