Licensed to bill
8 July 2002
The Lawyer Interview has gone up in the world. This week's subject Michael Skrein, litigator supreme and head of Richards Butler's media group, has suggested the interview be conducted over a champagne afternoon tea at the Sanderson Hotel. For those making any argument that this might make a mockery of journalistic integrity and prejudice the profile, let me tell you, it does - and I don't care.
Skrein looks like Harry Potter in a suit. He has thick round glasses, a head of dark wavy hair and only lacks for the scar. It comes as no surprise to hear that he is something of a legal wizard. Skrein is well regarded throughout the profession and is described with sickening regularity as an "exceptional lawyer". He was made up in 1976, less than three years after qualifying, becoming the firm's youngest partner, and has spent his entire career with Richards Butler. He jokes that he has to nobble any promising assistants to keep his record safe.
It was a happy accident that brought Skrein to the firm that he has made his own. After university he moved to the US to study for a master's degree in international relations. While there he took a journalism course, and although he wasn't moved to take it further, it informed his choice of practice area. His father suggested law; and an old friend of the family, who was finance director at Rank Xerox, offered to put his CV before the law firm he used - Richards Butler.
Skrein reveals: "He said, 'I'll recommend you, but obviously that doesn't mean anything'; but I rather think it did mean something. I didn't have any other interviews. It was just luck." He continues with this self-deprecating recollection, saying: "I probably wouldn't have got in if I'd done it on merit." Nepotism may have got Skrein's career underway, but he has forged his own path ever since.
His broad practice takes in intellectual property and media and sports-related disputes. Casting his mind back, he says: "When I first started litigating I was doing the media work, mainly copyright or contract work about films. Then I started doing libel work seriously in the 1980s. But I realised I didn't just want to do libel. That was too limiting. So then I went back to more of a spread, which I'm happier with."
Skrein's libel-filled 1980s were dominated by a series of instructions for Channel 4. The new channel was in its formative years and had developed a reputation for producing provocative programmes. This flow of work was to provide Skrein with a solid hands-on introduction to the vagaries of libel litigation.
Besides his work for Channel 4, a constant stream of instructions (which has continued to this day) has come in relation to James Bond. He muses: "There are a number of cases that, when I eventually retire and look back, will be important parts of my life. Probably the James Bond litigation, which I've been doing various bits of since 1976, will be best remembered. It's the most valuable film property there is. More than half his 40-year cinematic life, I've been battling away for him."
Coy about whether he is a Bond fan, he says he is certainly a Bond expert and enjoys getting paid to watch the films. Current incumbent Pierce Brosnan is Skrein's favourite Bond, although he has a soft spot for Roger Moore. "He was very sweet to me once," he reveals. "I went out to watch filming, and I was hanging around not knowing what to look at. He saw me and didn't know who I was; so he came over, had a nice chat and showed me what to look at."
Talking to Skrein is like browsing through Heat magazine. His lack of affectation is disconcerting, given he rubs shoulders with the great and good of the media world. When asked about the perks of his job, he is able to catalogue a list of celebrity contacts - Kim Basinger, Harrison Ford and Clint Eastwood - but he is disappointingly blasé about his A-list clients.
Skrein claims that he is never star-struck, so my insistence on bringing the interview back to Kylie (he has handled her copyright work since 1989) is a little unseemly. His children are impressed, although he says he has had to learn not to talk about work at home. Free concerts and premiers are one thing, the intricacies of a libel action are quite another.
He says that he finds issue rather than celebrity-driven cases interesting to work on, but even he became a little giddy when dealing with Clint Eastwood. "Most legal cases are actually pretty boring unless you're working on them and get engaged in the issues," he argues. "I think they're not very interesting even to other lawyers."
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Skrein cannot help having celebrities encroach on his workload. He currently has a case awaiting judgment in which his clients have taken former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham to court over remarks made about the authenticity of items sold in their shop. This is not the first time he has played David to someone else's Goliath.
Skrein acted on a pro bono basis for the Greenpeace supporters who were sued for libel by fast food chain McDonald's. Libel law had developed to a point where a defendant could not plead something without evidence to prove that it was true. He argues that journalists will often know something is true, but do not have the evidence to back it up. "Most of the defence got struck out because they didn't have the evidence. We managed to get it put back in, in what was a landmark judgment. It was really good for journalists and free speech," says Skrein. "But often, the cases where you make law aren't very interesting to most people."
Skrein seems as though he would have made a good barrister. It is an observation that has been made before, but he does not agree. "I do enjoy advocacy and when I was an articled clerk the senior partner, who was quite a frightening old man, said to me, 'Don't you think you'd be better suited to the Bar?' I wasn't sure whether to take that as a compliment," he says, adding that he prefers more client contact and conjuring solutions to problems rather than focusing solely on pure legal issues.
He also claims that Richards Butler has fulfilled all his wants, asserting: "It's a very friendly place and I've enjoyed all the work that I've done, even probate."
Skrein's career may have begun fortuitously, but even he has to lose occasionally. "It's not so much losing, though I hate losing," he admits. "We don't often lose. If you think you're going to lose, you try and do a deal."
What gets Skrein's goat is injustice. "The most depressing thing is not to lose, but to lose when you know that the judge wasn't listening. That's the worst thing," he says. "In a legal case, the merits aren't necessarily that strong one way or another. Very often, both sides are right and both sides are wrong. Having a judge who's obviously just not been listening or just doesn't get it is awful.
Fortunately, I've only had a few of those. They're difficult to come to terms with. You've worked so hard and then the judge just doesn't want to know."
Or in most instances, falls asleep. Skrein says that he has discovered the best way to wake a judge is not by a discreet cough or slamming down books, but simply to stop talking. "There's one judge we had, and we had a three-week hearing in front of him," recalls Skrein. "He'd fall asleep every lunchtime. The best thing was to stop talking. He'd wake up, look around, and our barrister could go back over what he'd said."
Skrein has no trouble keeping me awake and, even if he had, the steady procession of scones, cakes and tea would have done the trick. As the interview ends Skrein readies himself for an arduous afternoon of shopping.
Partner and head of media