After five minutes of pleasantries, a smile animates Tony Grabiner's abstracted mood. "The idea that someone would pay me for the exercise of my judgement, for legal advice, was something that amused my father," he says. You get the feeling this is a line that he has used before. It is perfectly judged – that touch of homely modesty, with an oh-let's-admit-it nod towards the fact that this is one of the richest men at the bar. It is well known that Grabiner is one of a quartet of millionaire silks. Along with Gordon Pollock, Jonathan Sumption and David Pannick, Grabiner inhabits a remunerative stratosphere.
According to The Lawyer (26 June), Grabiner makes some £2m a year. "Money? I'm very comfortable with it," he says. But he adds cautiously: "I come from a lower-middle or working-class background. My father was a fur-cutter." Note, if you will, the finely weighted hesitation about his origins. On the face of it, Grabiner is the classic working-class hero, a pos
ter boy for meritocracy, yet if anything he seems embarrassed about it. Perhaps he is aware that it fits all too neatly into a Jeffrey Archer plot: the rise of the poor lad from the East End who makes it to the London School of Economics and then on to a glittering legal career. "I'm sure that I've been driven by my background," he says. "If you've seen what it's like and how it is for some people – there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Hackney. I wasn't going to go back to all that."
But is it fair that Grabiner continues to be defined by what he was? Unfortunately for him, his rise from the East End has gone to make up the Grabiner myth – a myth upon which his chambers, One Essex Court, has been partially built. When you look at the bar's three leading men you can sum each of them up: Pollock – rumbustious biker; Sumption – ascetic medievalist; and Grabiner – Cockney lad made good.
Clifford Chance litigation partner Jeremy Sandelson says: "He's got remarkable insight – when he's working on a case such as fraud, he's very good at understanding the dark side of human nature." Another prominent City litigator says: "[Grabiner] uses straightforward, quite basic language. It makes him easy to deal with in that respect, but it takes a bit of getting used to." Grabiner's no-nonsense approach has given rise to the odd anecdote, such as the time when he turned up to a conference in a suit with cowboy boots, although there are surprisingly few compared to Pollock's antics. And you can scarcely imagine Sumption reading such blokeish middlebrow material as the Patrick O'Brian novels, or the Flashman series, as Grabiner does.
Sumption and Grabiner clash regularly in court. During the Equitable Life case, both snapped at each other, with Sumption reported as having attacked Equitable's literature for being irrational and convoluted before accusing Grabiner of failing to make the case clearly. Grabiner swiftly hit back, accusing Sumption of making "rude remarks" and telling "very long shaggy dog stories". The two are currently fighting it out in the third round on the Sphere Drake case, with Grabiner instructed by Lovells and Sumption by Clifford Chance. It is a topic on which Grabiner momentarily waxes passionate. "It's a huge battle royal," he says. "I won that [at first instance] in front of Gordon Langley and I lost two to one in the Court of Appeal. I think the Court of Appeal is absolutely wrong and the majority judgments are quite wrong. The facts the case is concerned with go back to the mid-1960s. Courts of Appeal should leave the facts alone, unless the judge at first instance made a Horlicks of it."
But Grabiner admits it is unusual for a case to get under his skin so much. "Most of the work I do is because it's [about] someone's money and it's a faceless organism. This one I've become quite committed to, and it matters because we're talking about the integrity of some guy who's dead and has been dragged through the mud."
Given Grabiner's terrifying courtroom reputation, in interview he verges on the diffident. And for a Labour backbencher in the House of Lords (he was given a life peerage last year) he comes across as extraordinarily apolitical. It may be that Grabiner is simply less at home without a brief. Just as the greatest actors are rendered inarticulate without a script, perhaps Grabiner, so far away from the courtroom, is like a fish out of water. "I'm not a crusader," he admits, though balks at the thought of being lobby fodder.
The bulk of his time since joining the House of Lords has been spent on preparing a report on the "informal economy". The report suggests that billions of pounds are lost to the informal economy each year, with an estimated 120,000 people working while also signing on. Grabiner's report recommends that new measures are introduced to help people move from the hidden economy into legitimate work and and that tough new powers should be put in place to detect and punish offenders who refuse to do so.
So on what issues would he vote against the Government? There is a pause. "I would have abstained on the reduction of the age of consent," he says finally, and then picks up speed. "I spoke against the Government on pensions. And I abstained on the attempt to limit jury trials, not because I didn't really agree with the basic proposal, but because the report was about to come out by Lord Justice Auld and it seemed better to abstain."
At the bar, Grabiner's myth has long been predicated on absence. His clerks, Robert Ralphs and Paul Shrubsall, shrewdly established the principle of Grabiner's scarcity value by pricing him way above the rest of the market, at £800 an hour. "He's inordinately expensive," complains a partner at a major City law firm. It has swiftly put Grabiner out of reach of all but the biggest cases.
One well-known City litigation partner points out that he is not temperamentally suited for the two-year trial. "I'd never go to Grabiner for a two-year-long auditor's negligence case, but if you want someone for a short sharp injunction or to schmooze the court, he's good."
The challenge for the mercurial Grabiner, it would seem, is not to become restless. "I got bored of teaching," he says of his early academic experiences at London School of Economics and Queen Mary's College, London. But the real question circulating round the Temple is whether he is bored of the bar. When he was replaced by Elizabeth Gloster QC at the House of Lords on the Equitable Life case, eyebrows were raised. Some even called his performance lacklustre. What's more, Grabiner's translation to the peerage has put the heat on his performance as head of chambers. There is a strong perception at the bar that his absence at the House of Lords has not helped matters, though Grabiner protests to the contrary. "I'm in chambers every day," he argues. "Monday night is my roster night. My principal time is devoted to chambers. If I was an absentee landlord, I couldn't retain the position."
And he loyally defends his clerks, whose role, according to one source, has caused some internal friction. "We don't like to stand still, and I think you can always improve relationships between clerks and members of chambers," says Grabiner. "The clerk is a focused guy, he's got things to do. It's a big job now, and the world has changed beyond recognition. I certainly think that the clerks here are the best in town."
Yet One Essex Court, which after several years of coasting along at the top, has suffered considerable turbulence in the past year. The bar has been awash with rumours alleging dissatisfaction with the full commercial service strategy of the set, its rapid growth and its management. It has suffered a rash of defections that began last year with the departure of Steven Gee QC, followed this year by Michael Rollason, who moved to rival magic circle set Brick Court Chambers; Michael Bloch QC and Terence Mowschenson QC moved to Wilberforce Chambers, and Jeffrey Gruder QC returned to his alma mater, Essex Court; finally, in September the set parted company with leading tax silk Graham Aaronson QC and VAT expert Michael Conlon (The Lawyer, 18 September).
Grabiner downplays the moves: "Well, Graham Aaronson has travelled about in his career, and he's gone back to his core [tax practice] and gone back to Pump Court. And we've had one person who left to go into the family business, and another joined a venture capital business." Did Grabiner, in the manner of a senior partner, ever try to persuade his departing tenants to stay? "For the most part, no," he admits. "One of the people we had a brief discussion with, but the others had pretty well made up their minds."
And then, ever aware of an opening, Grabiner moves in for the killer punch. "Anyway, the last three months have been the highest earnings ever. Because our core – our commercial core – is where it's at." And with that, Grabiner leans back in his chair, as if daring anyone to challenge him.