Ambitions on an Olympic scale

Neil Gerrard

At 16, Neil Gerrard's ambition was to hold the world record for the triple jump. Shaun Pye finds that, as a lawyer, he is no less determined to be the best.

Not many lawyers can claim to have run the 110m hurdles in 14.03 seconds or to have been embroiled in street battles during the Brixton race riots in 1980.

Dibb Lupton Alsop corporate defence lawyer Neil Gerrard has done both. While many people struggle to expand the "other interests and experience" bit of their CV beyond "reading and going to the cinema", Gerrard is spoilt for choice. Over lunch, he announces he also loves sailing. "I used to represent Great Britain."

Not that he is a show-off. He talks of his colourful past with a self-mocking modesty. The former Metropolitan police officer hurdled for the police force and for Britain in athletic events across Europe.

"Former BBC commentator David Coleman always called me "the big burly policeman'. He should have said "fat slow git'," jokes Gerrard.

While he touched greatness – middle distance legend Steve Ovett often gave him lifts to events in his helicopter – he was never great. He was once ranked number two hurdler in Britain, "but only because the actual number two was ill".

Gerrard admits that his achievements came from sheer graft and dedication. His motivation was "fierce ambition".

"When I was 16, I wanted to hold the world record for the triple jump. I was improving by three inches a year so thought it would take me until I was 26."

The same forces drive him now that he is a lawyer. After setting up his "corporate defence" team at Dibbs in 1995, he says his ambition is to be the first name that companies think of when the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), Customs and Excise or the Inland Revenue come bursting through their door.

He recently acted for Anchor Butter in a high-profile criminal investigation launched by Customs, which claimed £3m in unpaid duty. At times the work was fairly surreal – arguing over the definition of "butter made directly from cream or milk" – but Gerrard eventually got all the charges dropped.

Rival fraud lawyer Ian Burton at Burton Copeland says Gerrard is certainly one of the hardest working lawyers in the City.

But Gerrard is still to prove that he is a leader in the legal stakes rather than running fiercely with the chasing pack.

At 16, Gerrard joined the police cadets at Hendon to further his athletics career and three years later found himself posted to Brixton station. It was front line policing – with Gerrard caught up in the 1980 race riots.

The same year, Gerrard broke his back when a car smashed into him while he was riding his motorbike. He has walked with a limp ever since. While he remained an athletic figure, hurdling and front line police work became impossible.

After a stint teaching at a prep school, his wife, a physiotherapist with the Great Britain athletics team, suggested he try law.

After graduating, Manchester's Pannone & Partners offered him articles. He accepted on the condition he did not do any crime – partly a policeman's reaction to dealing with "duty solicitors in smelly magistrates' courts". Gerrard's two brothers are both policemen. They complain that they put criminals away then he goes and gets them out.

Gerrard was fascinated by product liability law. Motivated by his father dying of lung cancer, he had pored over articles on causal links between cigarettes and cancer and became somewhat of a expert in the legal field.

"I'm still listed in the US as an expert," he says sheepishly.

However, Sod's law struck and Gerrard found his career veering back towards crime. He was asked to join Ernest Saunders' defence team in the SFO's investigation of Guinness. He was hooked. To this day, Gerrard argues that the jury reached the wrong decision.

Following further work on the Azil Nadir and Maxwell cases, Gerrard became frustrated. Pannones was only instructed after charges had been brought.

Although corporate clients were caught up in criminal investigations they automatically turned to their civil lawyers. As Gerrard sees it, by the time he turned up on the scene the civil lawyers had made a mess of everything.

He says: "Civil lawyers can sometimes assume that Customs don't have any power to, for example, raid premises."

Now talking like the policeman that he once was, Gerrard adds: "They need reasonable suspicion. An anonymous phone call can be reasonable suspicion."

And before you know it umpteen board members are being questioned under caution without any preparation.

With the Government pressing the Inland Revenue and Customs to find another £4bn in revenue, the number of prosecutions brought against companies is set to rocket. Yet Gerrard says lawyers and directors remain oblivious.

He recalls one law firm attempting to poach him and then turning their noses up at his skills in the corporate criminal field as, "none of our clients are involved in anything like that".

He says it was distressingly arrogant.

He adds: "When I tell businessmen that the Companies Act contains over 30 different criminal offences, some punishable by imprisonment, they say, "I never thought that was illegal'."

Gerrard quickly saw a gap in the market for "corporate defence lawyers" – a team of commercial and criminal lawyers getting involved in the early stages, or even before the early stages, of an investigation. Needing access to multinational clients, Gerrard joined Dibbs in 1995.

He claims his group is a genuine innovation perched between the leading white collar criminal firms, Burton Copeland and Monty Raphael's firm Peters & Peters, and the commercial City practices.

Other City firms who deal with regulation and fraud, such as Herbert Smith and Clifford Chance, lack specialist criminal lawyers, according to Gerrard.

Norton Rose's James Bagge, with eight years at the criminal Bar and two years at the SFO, might disagree.

John Sissons, a partner at Herbert Smith, says it may lack criminal specialists but it has four partners with extensive experience of dealing with crime.

Nevertheless, Gerrard has assembled an expert team of 15 lawyers, including former Burton Copeland partner Richard Smith.

According to Ian Burton, the biggest challenge for Gerrard will be expanding the practice within a firm such as Dibbs where the potential for conflicts of interest between clients – alleged fraudsters and the defrauded – is high.

If Gerrard does not make it as top dog in corporate defence it will not be through lack of application.

Every case is analysed like a 110m hurdle race. He still wants to shave those hundredths of seconds from his time. And commuting down to London from Manchester every week, his work rate is as high as ever.

As we settle the bill after lunch, he affords another glimpse at his far from ordinary past. He presses his complimentary chocolate on me, still worrying about weight-to-fitness ratios.

And he asks for my home address. "I've still got mates in the police and I need to tell them where to go if you write anything nasty," he explains with a grin.