28 July 2003
Christopher Digby-Bell is a very well-organised interviewee. Armed with a sheaf of papers and handwritten notes, he has clearly given some thought to what we will be discussing. At various points during our meeting, he cross refers to press releases he has issued in the past and even goes so far as to read out his own quotations, with a hint of pride colouring his voice.
"I suppose I'm a bit of a frustrated journalist," the chief executive of private equity house Palmer Capital Partners admits. "It's a nice challenge to come up with decent soundbites. It's fun and I like to put a twist on things."
Of course, it's not as if this admission should come as any surprise. Digby-Bell is well known to journalists for his prolific output of press releases and outspoken comments, many of which arrive, unsolicited, via the office fax machine. Perhaps it's because he is so willing to provide comment, that his faxes are occasionally met with something akin to suspicion. After all, why else would he devote such a lot of time to the press unless some nefarious personal motives were involved?
Happily for Digby-Bell, there doesn't seem to be a nefarious bone in his body. He's outspoken yes, but his combative approach (which led one former Law Society president to describe him as a "maverick") appears to be borne out of a deep-seated dislike for what he describes as "petty officialdom".
"I have spent most of my life battling with authority," says Digby-Bell, referring to his frequent spats in front of education tribunals, where he has fought hard to win rights for his youngest son William, who has Down's syndrome. "As anyone with a child who has a disability knows, they're a challenge and the world challenges them. This has taught me that I'm very wary of authority. I've developed a warrior-like approach to obstacles that have been put in my way."
Experience gained while battling for his own son has meant that Digby-Bell now fights on behalf of other parents in similar situations. As a result, some charity workers describe Digby-Bell as their "rainbow warrior" - a nickname that he is clearly chuffed to bits about.
But with this dislike of authority in mind, it seems incredible that Digby-Bell would ever decide to devote two years of his life to the Law Society as its council member for the City. It appears he enjoyed his stint, as he stood again in the recent ruling council elections. However, he was pipped at the post by Linklaters partner Alexandra Marks.
So was he disappointed to lose his seat? "No," he states firmly. "I'd given it two years and had taken from it what I wanted. It was always going to be a huge challenge to halt the Linklaters' juggernaut, as with a block vote of something like 2,000 lawyers, I did expect to be forced off the road. But Alexandra deserved to win and I think it is very encouraging that a firm of Linklaters' quality actually wants to invest a partner's time in the Law Society. I think that brings great hope for the future."
Digby-Bell originally agreed to become a Law Society Council member in order to answer a question that had troubled him for some time. "I was at one of the first The Lawyer Awards in the mid-1990s and Martin Mears, who was a fairly controversial Law Society president at the time, won the Legal Personality of the Year award. But when he stood up to collect his award he was booed. The non-lawyers I was sitting with asked me what was going on and I said I couldn't tell them why he was being booed, but I could tell them that he was the leader of the legal professional body and they were pretty horrified. It left a bitter taste in my mouth and made me wonder why the Law Society generated this kind of feeling. So when the opportunity came to take up a post myself, I thought I'd give it a go."
As a former managing partner of Taylor Joynson Garrett and international managing partner of Frere Cholmeley Bischoff, Digby-Bell was well qualified to represent the interests of City solicitors. One of the first things he did as council member was to publish a list of far-reaching Law Society reforms.
"They went down pretty badly," he recalls with a laugh. "The difficulty with the Law Society is that if you're perceived to be against something then you're being disloyal, which is totally wrong. There are some people in the Law Society who think I'm against everything, when I actually think they've done a terrific job in some areas. I've even written to tell them, just so that they believe me."
Despite his rocky relationship with the ruling council, Digby-Bell strongly believes that he managed to strike a chord with his constituents. "If I felt I was a maverick and a voice in the wilderness then I wouldn't be saying what I do. But if you look at the letters I get," he says, patting a file of papers the width of two dictionaries, "it's clear that what I say about the Law Society has some resonance with lawyers around the country."
Digby-Bell may have lost his council seat, but that has not dampened his enthusiasm for speaking out against the professional body.
"My view is that the Law Society could be so much more than it is and I think it is letting lawyers down. It should be leading the country on important legal and financial matters. Here we are in the middle of an important constitutional debate and what have we heard from the Law Society? Stories about access to justice are on the front pages of newspapers, but the sadness is that the lawyers themselves are not leading the debate. If you stopped any lawyer on the street and asked them what the legal profession thinks about these issues, I don't think they would know the answer."
Although he has deep-seated reservations about the leadership of the Law Society (“I was taught at school that leadership is earned, it is not bestowed,” he states firmly), and fears that the Law Society is going to lose the power to self-regulate (“The profession would never forgive it if it did,” he warns), Digby-Bell does not rule out a return to the Law Society one day. In fact, some have even suggested that he should run for president. So would he? “I haven’t got time at the moment,” he says matter-of-factly. “I wouldn’t say it is a closed chapter, but it is not something I am going to leap straight back into.”
Instead, Digby-Bell plans to devote himself to the other passion in his life, pro bono work. He hopes to expand the William’s Way project, named after his son, which teaches children with special educational needs about their legal rights.
And what about all those press releases?
“I am a pretty open person,” he says. “And if I don’t have a view I’ll tell you I don’t have a view. But if I do have a view then I’m not afraid to express it. I may have said some uncomfortable things that the Law Society would rather I didn’t, but I don’t think that’s going to stop me.”
Palmer Capital Partners
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