The literary lawyer

Matt Barnard discovers that the man who was the prize in a bidding war between rival chambers, Richard Gordon QC, owes much to his literary skills

Sitting in an upper office at Brick Court Chambers, I realise that I subconsciously expected Richard Gordon QC to have one eye, one leg and purple hair.

Instead, sitting opposite me with piles of documents over the floor and desk, is a quietly-spoken, ordinary-looking, middle-aged man with unfashionable tortoise-shell glasses.

My mistaken image came from Gordon’s much-used answer to questions about his professional achievements: “My greatest triumph was getting a one-eyed, one-legged, purple-haired defendant acquitted on an identity defence.” It got him The Lawyer quote of the week, he boasts, when I ask him about it. Surely it was a joke, I say, but actually, he assures me, it was an exaggeration based on a real case.

The 51-year-old Gordon is now one of the country’s most successful public law barristers. Last summer he was the subject of a small-scale bidding war among the top public law sets, which resulted in him moving to Brick Court from 39 Essex Street in July. He is currently working on a judicial review matter relating to the Harold Shipman inquiry and a BT challenge to the multibillion pound auction for mobile phone licenses. He is editor-in-chief of the Crown Office Digest law reports, a visiting professor at University College, London and the author of several books including the co-authored Judicial Review and the Human Rights Act, due out in October.

However, he did not follow a gilded path to the top of his profession. The son of lower-middle class parents who worked hard to send him to a minor public school, Gordon was considered a slow, B-stream student until a teacher tried to encourage him by saying that he knew a boy just like him who had managed to get four O levels. His response: to get 10, do A levels in a year and win a scholarship to Oxford.

Even then it wasn’t plain sailing. He was rejected in his first two pupillages and spent his first 16 years as a barrister doing unglamorous crime and divorce work – which he says felt like being back in the B-stream – before getting into public law as it first started to emerge in the mid-1980s.

To have now been the subject of such strenuous efforts to secure his services is highly satisfying, he admits. But despite, and perhaps because of, the time it took for him to get to the top, he has kept a sense of perspective.

“I don’t feel any status from being a barrister,” Gordon says. “I get the ego buzz from doing a case well, and I know when I’ve done it well and I know when it’s second best. A lot of solicitors I know, and some barristers, feel this sense of loss if they lose a case, as if part of themselves has been taken away. I understand that feeling while not actually having it. I don’t mind losing a case, I don’t have that ego loss.”

This disinterestedness perhaps stems from the fact that Gordon did not go into law because he wanted to be a certain kind of person. In fact, had it not been for an enthusiastic history teacher, he may have followed the same career as his old friend from school, novelist Peter Ackroyd. Instead, he applied and got a scholarship to read history at Oxford, was not allowed to change to English despite trying, nor do a PhD on Proust when he finished, and was told that the “soft” alternatives to academia were the BBC, journalism or the bar.

This is not to suggest that he is unhappy, just that it took him some time to find his calling. He says: “I’m very happy because it fulfils all the different parts [of me]. There’s a lot of creativity in public law, a lot of inspirational rushes to the brain when you think of a new legal argument.”

But the interest in literature paid off in the end. He has had two short stories published while a barrister, one in the highly literary London Magazine, the other in the less auspicious Just 17, but everything began to change when he wrote his second law book, Judicial Review Law and Procedure, first published in 1985.

He says: “In 1985 I got a judicial review case, and it was as if I suddenly saw this possibility, I felt this was really, really interesting. And it was just around the time when a few public law cases had suggested that there was a division between public and private law. I had written a book before on mobile homes, which had only got me more county court work, but I suddenly thought, ‘What about a book on judicial review?’ The only handicap was I didn’t know anything about it, but I took three months off and just blitzed it. That book ultimately did change my career, turned it around.”

Although the book was relatively successful, he was still rejected by every public law set he applied to, including 39 Essex Street, which said he was too old. However, three years later, 39 Essex Street changed its mind after Gordon had several cases against the then treasury devil, now Justice John Laws. He joined the set in 1990, and he took silk there in 1994.

The move to Brick Court was motivated by his belief that the European dimension of public law is becoming more important and Brick Court is highly developed in that area. The first year has been easier in terms of bringing clients and fitting in than when he went to 39 Essex Street, and he says that he is certain it is where he will remain for the rest of his time at the bar.

The one flicker of real emotion during the interview comes when I ask him about his future and the judiciary. There is no change in tone, but he averts his gaze before he answers: “I wouldn’t at all rule that out if it was ever offered, but only if it is in a kind of area I wanted to practise. The problem is that High Court judges spend a lot of time on circuit on law which really I haven’t done for a long time. If it was sitting doing public law, for most of the time at least, I certainly wouldn’t exclude that.”

A job on the bench would be quite an achievement for a supposedly slow boy, and Gordon would be ideal as long as he was doing law that he is interested in. Boredom has been his great enemy, and he is doing well now because he enjoys the work. If he does ever tire of the law, though, he might just do what he has been hankering after for all those years. “I could give the whole thing up to produce the great novel. But I can see that ending in catastrophe. I’ve just been reading Anna Karenina, and I just marvel at the way Tolstoy could create experience on the page. I can’t imagine being able to do that, and yet it is really what I’d most like to be doing.”

Law’s loss might be literature’s gain.