Herbert Smith looks to Brittan for global clout

Sir Leon Brittan was at the centre of a battle between City firms to secure his services, he reveals in his first interview since his appointment last week.

Brittan – who retired as vice-president of the European Commission last month – says he was approached by a number of firms, although he refuses to name them. He says it did not take long for him to opt for Herbert Smith.

“They have got legitimately broad ambitions, and they feel the experience I have acquired, not just in government but in the Commission, dealing with competition and trade issues, is relevant to the issues both of themselves and their clients.”

Edward Garnier, shadow attorney general, says: “He is a good catch for any organisation. He knows all the movers and shakers in the international trade world. International trade often leads to disputes of one sort or another, and he will be very helpful in gaining Herbert Smith international clients.”

No other law firm can boast such a high-profile consultant on its books. And the firm that won the scramble to sign up the former trade secretary hopes his appointment opens up international opportunities.

Brittan, aged 60, acknowledges that the news that a former Tory cabinet minister is to join Herbert Smith has raised a few eyebrows.

“There is an element of novelty, but not in relation to me personally. It's more that it is an imaginative thing for them to do,” he says.

Brittan, who is a QC, will dispense “strategic advice” rather than legal opinions.

He says that he will deal with clients and partners at the firm. “We haven't worked out the details because this is a novel arrangement and there is inevitably going to be an element of experimentation,” he says. “[Herbert Smith's partners] are not content with staying exactly where they are so I might be able to advise them on how to advance in areas where I have relevant experience.”

He will advise the firm how to “grow and do things they are not doing now – places, types of business, that sort of thing”.

Brittan was approached by Herbert Smith, and he says it took little time for both sides to see that he would be of use to the firm. He talked mainly to departing senior partner Edward Walker-Arnott.

He is delaying taking up the post until 1 January.

“The reason is simply that there should be a cooling-off period after leaving the Commission,” he says.

Cooling-off period or not, some might speculate that his contacts might open doors for Herbert Smith, which opened a Beijing office last month, in terms of gaining business and finding favour with China's tough regulators.

In the US it is common for ex-politicians and government officials to work for law firms, either practising or in a consulting role. “You could regard this as analogous to that,” Brittan says. It is no secret that some of these help to bring in business to firms. Brittan is unconcerned by this suggestion. “Everyone is entitled to put their own interpretation on it,” he says.