Striking out

In moving from Simmons to take up an in-house position with tabacco comapny Gallaher, Tom Keevil’s dispute resolution skills will be fully put to the test. Dearbail Jordan reports

Simmons & Simmons litigation partner Tom Keevil is horrified at the suggestion that he might enjoy a few freebies when he takes up his post as senior legal adviser at Gallaher Group (The Lawyer, 6 November).

While Gallaher produces, among many other things, the Hamlet cigars that Keevil is partial to, he will certainly not be taking home a few on the house. “Not at all,” he stresses. “Absolutely not. You purchase cigarettes like anybody else.”

But this is a mark of Keevil’s character. Throughout the interview he takes great pains not to offend or upset anyone, especially his old firm Simmons & Simmons, which he will be leaving after 16 years to make the jump to in-house lawyering at the end of the year.

However, as a litigation partner with skills in dispute resolution, international arbitration and mediation, Keevil is used to acting with great diplomacy. Commenting on his move into an industry which has experienced its fair share of litigation, Keevil says of Gallaher, which he has advised for over four years: “It is not my place to go into this, but tobacco is a very controversial sector, and for someone with my skills there is a lot to do.”

Last year Keevil helped ensure that a class action against Gallaher and Imperial Tobacco brought by Leigh Day & Co on behalf of 53 former smokers with lung cancer did not go to trial.

However, when pressed on how the legal profession has changed since he became a lawyer, a tone of cynicism creeps into his voice. “I think there are a lot of people from my seniority who came into the law in the mid-1980s who have actually seen the whole structure of the legal profession change out of all recognition,” he says.

Keevil names the advent of IT as one of the factors that has forced lawyers to act and respond more quickly to their clients’ needs. “I think that the profession has become a commodity, so competition in the marketplace has become a lot tougher,” he says.

These views, though, are understandable coming from someone who, when deciding to enter law, had a rather idealised view of what it would be like. “I went to my grandfather’s solicitors on a Saturday – this is a true story – to sign a will,” he says. “I was eight or nine, and I arrived in this dusty old office which was covered in papers. I guess it was like going to a barrister’s chambers, but of course they’ve changed all that. But I remember, I was just fascinated by the wizened little old man advising my grandfather, and that really encouraged me to think, ‘Well, this ain’t such a bad thing to do.'”

From that point on, Keevil remained unshaken on what career path he would take. Even during a year out between law school and joining the firm where he qualified in 1986, Keevil worked for Northern electricity company Norweb as a paralegal instead of nipping off to Europe like so many other students keen to enjoy those last few months of freedom.

It was during his time at Norweb that the idea of specialising in dispute resolution first came to him. He remembers: “At that time you become a bit of a jack of all trades, but it was dispute resolution that actually intrigued me. I know that some people get a kick out of putting deals together, but actually the analysis of what has happened when something goes wrong and how you resolve those issues I think is quite a tremendous challenge.”

However, Keevil admits to having a brief flirtation with the delights of corporate law when he was doing the rounds as a young lawyer. “Yes, I was tempted by it,” he admits. “But I think that any lawyer coming into practice has got to step back and ask, ‘What do I naturally enjoy? What do I feel is my natural forte?'”

And for those people entering the profession, Keevil has some relatively racy views for such an apparently conventional man. “I think my advice to anyone going to university would be not to do a law degree. Do something you enjoy, because [law] is hard work,” he says. “Do a language course, do science, do engineering, get a broad perspective, because a lot of what we do today is about knowing where the information is and where to find it.”

Is this the voice of experience, or is there a note of yearning in his voice? It is hard to tell with Keevil, since he is practised at keeping his emotions in check, largely due to his chosen practice areas.

“I think everyone has moments during any case when you have those private thoughts,” he admits. “You might reach for your dictaphone, you’ll dictate a letter, tear it up and get rid of it. Or you’ll have one of those stress balls in the office to get rid of the emotion.

“Clients pay you to provide objective advice, and part of your job may be as a quasi-social worker, in that you have to listen and understand the emotion. But you have to separate it from the issues, because no one is going to thank you for being emotive.”

Keevil does not mind getting too emotional and misty eyed about leaving Simmons. He pleads ignorance about what the differences will be when moving from private practice to an in-house post. But he does say: “I don’t think you should underestimate the pressures of an in-house lawyer – you’re dealing directly with a client and you don’t have the interface.”

The thing that Keevil says he will miss most are the people. And who can blame him, seeing as he will move from working with more than 100 people at Simmons to working with a legal department of just five at Gallaher.

But he remains philosophical: “I’ve been given an opportunity here – if I don’t do it and then retire when I’m 60, then I’ll regret it.”
Tom Keevil
Senior legal adviser
Gallaher Group