From the bus stop to the Bar

Patrick Elias QC has earned the highest ever praise from solicitors in three years of The Lawyer's specialist Bar features. Matheu Swallow finds out why.

It might seem strange for one of England's most prestigious employment barristers to be so outspoken on such a delicate issue. But Patrick Elias QC is adamant. "Hoddle must go," he insists.

There seems little chance then, that he will be representing the manager of England's beleaguered football squad in any claim of unfair dismissal against the Football Association.

Elias QC suggests Hoddle could have a crack at managing the team of his set, 11 King's Bench Walk, headed by Eldred Tabachnik QC and James Gouldie QC. But he quickly retracts the offer. "Hoddle may not be able to handle the personalities," he explains.

Solicitors and barristers do not always enjoy the best of relationships, but those who instruct Elias have nothing but plaudits for him.

"Absolutely charming," says one supporter. "Incredibly approachable for someone of his level," enthuses another. One solicitor even offers homage that Elias is "the cleverest lawyer I've met".

Such esteem is flattering, but it is not sought. Elias is no snob and says it is the "challenging puzzles" the law poses that motivate him.

This might mean "esoteric areas of the transfer regulations" or some judicial review case which, he says "ironically and possibly perversely, is in many ways the field I most enjoy". In particular, Elias QC is fascinated by procedural quirks.

He recalls wistfully the day he was called to the Malawi Bar. On the first day of the case, the court found itself wrestling with the issue of whether Elias could address it. It had to decide if, in his role of counsel, he was acting as a delegate of the Attorney General or as an independent agent. The Attorney General can only delegate functions to another public servant of Malawi, so Elias QC did not fit the bill. As a result, before he could speak, he had to go before the court so it could decide whether he could address it.

Elias was born and raised in Cardiff by a father who ran a small insurance brokering business and a mother who, as well as being a Justice of the Peace, had the "burdensome" task of caring for six other children. Before going to Exeter University to sit a law degree, Elias worked as a bus conductor for six months – and still catches a double decker as part of the journey from his Cambridge home to his London chambers.

At university, Elias was a keen sportsman, starring in the first XI cricket and the first XV rugby teams. Injury cut short his sporting career but he went on to coach an under-eights football team with author and renowned Tory peer Lord Jeffrey Archer. Lord Archer would arrive early, pristinely turned out, while Elias was always late and "rather scruffy".

This reputation has followed Elias into professional life. There is a long-standing joke among solicitors that the best place to find papers given to Patrick Elias QC is not on his person or in his office, but at London's Liverpool Street Station. He admits quite openly that he can only work to a deadline and cannot kick into gear without its pressure, but says he relishes the "intellectual challenge of the Bar".

But if it were not for the encouragement of his brother Gerard Elias QC, a criminal barrister and head of Farrar's Building, who turned his sibling's mind from an English degree to law, Elias might never have met that challenge. After completing a legal PhD at King's College, Cambridge, he became a fellow of Pembroke College. But the switch to barrister was spurred by sabbatical leave to witness legal practice at the sharp end. He never looked back.

Now he cannot imagine life outside the Inns of Court. This is just as well, because he is one of the best in his field.

Elias QC is not an opponent you would relish in court, where he is described as "totally unflappable" and "phenomenally clever". And while not being a "table basher", Elias does admit to moments of aggressive advocacy, indeed he believes it is necessary to fulfil his role.

This dedication earns the approval of his former lecturer Bob Hepple QC, a master of Clare College, Cambridge, and himself a practising barrister. Hepple QC describes him as an "extremely caring man, a man of great principle who will accept any cause irrespective of his own views and fight it to the best of his ability. He is one of the most able advocates at the Bar".

But perhaps the finest praise is reserved for his courtroom clashes with Elias QC. "During the last 10 years or so I have had several matters against him in the Court of Appeal and the Employment Appeals Tribunal. He nearly always won."

See employment Bar features, pages 19 to 27.