Nigel Pleming

Matheu Swallow talks to the self-effacing Nigel Pleming QC about his new role as 39 Essex Street's head of chambers.

"Not bad for a couple of months work," says Nigel Pleming QC on a run of form that has seen him involved in Pinochet, the battle over legal aid franchising and, most recently, successfully acting for Ashworth Hospital against hunger striker Ian Brady.

The new head of chambers at 39 Essex Street has enjoyed a massive boost to his profile since the beginning of the millennium – a much deserved one according to his peers – and he is keen to do the same for his set.

Not that Pleming is very good at self-promotion, happily recounting the time he lost a case involving privatisation of the railways. A few days later, having caught a cold, his junior in the case Owen Davies, now a silk himself, took over and swiftly overturned the adverse ruling.

According to Who's Who his interests include blues guitar which, he says, should be changed simply to "bad guitar". His footballing talents are strictly limited – he says he was terrible and used to be described as "the weak link" because he wore glasses – and he is no Don Juan.

"I was never a rogue, never a ladies man, certainly not with much success," he confesses.

Pleming cannot have been a bad teacher though because his students at Kingston University always allowed him to join their five-a-side contests. Before becoming a lecturer at the university he was a student to his current set's outgoing head Edwin Glasgow QC.

And the university itself has just presented him with an honourary doctorate.

But Pleming quickly tired of academic life. He says he knew it was time to try something new when he was enjoying playing football with his students more than actually teaching them.

His colleagues at Kingston who, in addition to Glasgow, included the likes of Ian Macdonald QC, head of chambers at 2 Garden Court, and Joseph Harper QC of 4 Breams Buildings, also left the college for a different life at the bar.

Having taken over the college pantomime duties, Pleming began to yearn for the drama of the courtroom and joined 39 Essex Street in 1973, where he has been ever since.

Last year the set experienced mixed fortunes, losing several tenants including leading silk Richard Gordon QC, who crossed the street to commercial set Brick Court, and the bar's rumour mill turned on stories of internal strife.

Local neighbours say that the set seems more settled since the beginning of the year, having profited from the appointment of its first chambers director, Michael Meeson, and an influx of high- quality and high-profile work.

The set also welcomed back Dan Brennan QC and Glasgow will maintain the set's enhanced profile when he takes up his position as lead counsel for the soldiers in the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

But Pleming expects there to be some internal wrangles during his three year term particularly given the bar's current state of flux and confusion.

"I suspect that there will be some difficult moments. There is a temptation to become a bit inflated with your own success… but if I do get a bit full of myself there are plenty of people here to bring me back down to earth."

There is also a danger that pushing the public law side of chambers too far will lead to disgruntled factions emerging among those practising construction or other common law areas.

"I have done construction, insurance and the common law side so I am probably the right person to bring all the different specialisations of chambers together," he says.

But does he have the authority to be the "tough boss" Meeson wants him to be? Pleming acknowledges that he can appear too gentle and too quiet but says this is now deliberate.

"I do not see any value in ranting or raving in private or professional life," he says. "But when I need to be serious I am serious and when I need to be forceful I am."

Pleming's gentle manner endears him to many and his greatest concern is that the decisions he will have to take in office will affect the friendships he has developed with other members of chambers.

His other concern relates to his young family.

He is obviously devoted to his three children who are at "a difficult age" and he proudly brandishes the new cuff links he received on his recent birthday which are inscribed with "I love my dad".

Because of this he was apprehensive about taking the job, but he is adamant that he can do it and is prepared for the tough decisions he will inevitably have to make.

The man who describes himself as a "thinking traditionalist" has plenty of supporters at the bar, and there is no doubting his commitment to the task ahead.