A whole new world

Moving chambers just wasn’t different enough for Philip Vallance QC, so he joined Berrymans – and now he is going places he has never been before

Philip Vallance QC is looking very pleased with himself as he has just dipped his toe into the brave new waters of cyberspace. The eminent barrister, who has just decided to quit chambers for Berrymans Lace Mawer, has recently mastered sending emails.

This would be astonishing enough in itself, but I have to lock my jaw tightly in a polite smile to stop it dropping onto the table when Vallance confesses that prior to joining Berrymans, he had never so much as touched a computer. Well, I say that he confesses, but Vallance actually looks a little smug that he has managed to reach the 21st century without rebooting, reformatting his hard disk, or logging on. (A brief aside to Vallance: those are not references to unsavoury sexual practices – just ask the IT department.)

His quaint little world of pen and paper came to an abrupt end when he walked into the Berrymans office. He was put on an IT induction course by the HR department (“That stands for Human Resources apparently,” smiles Vallance), with a newly-qualified solicitor, but after 20 minutes the trainer decided that individual attention was needed for Vallance.

Apparently, the problem was that the mouse refused to cooperate with a novice and Vallance’s hand was shaking too much to be able to guide it over the screen.

Vallance is not really helping to change the public perception of the bar clinging on to more 18th century practices than merely the wearing of horsehair wigs. But don’t you in some small part of your being envy him?

Imagine a world where losing a file merely meant having to tidy your desk and you weren’t reduced at least once a week to screaming obscenities at a big plastic box.

Vallance has just left chambers after more than three decades. Until just over a year ago, his career had been spent entirely at One Crown Office Row, but he decided that 32 years of walking in through the same door was more than enough.

Following his friends to the bench didn’t appeal, as he has never “felt grown up enough” to become a judge. And then an offer came from 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, which was hoping that Vallance’s expertise in environmental law would mesh well with its own planning practice. Vallance was even brought in on a special fast-track procedure that avoided the entire chambers having to vote on his admittance. As he says, the offer was hugely flattering.

But 13 months later, Vallance was packing his bags and leaving. As the great cliché goes: it wasn’t them, it was him. “It’s a very good set, no internal trouble, a great atmosphere, excellent clients, it just wasn’t really a change.”

He admits now that it was naive to think that by simply moving his bits and pieces from Temple to Gray’s Inn, his working life would drastically change. When it came down to it, life in chambers was beginning to bore Vallance. But is there anything about the cloistered world that he will miss? Vallance thinks for a moment and then starts slowly: “If I say that I won’t miss anything about chambers that is not to say I didn’t enjoy my time there. It’s just that I’ve heard all the jokes now. I gave up going to chambers’ teas because I couldn’t bear hearing the same stories again. I had some very good friends there but a lot of them have gone off now and I got on very well with some of the younger members.”

He pauses for a moment before delivering his coup de grâce: “But however user friendly [chambers] may have become, there’s something about barristers that makes them if not pompous, at least ponderous, and if not arrogant, at least fairly pleased with themselves. One of the pleasures of coming here is that they are all younger than me and it is a refreshing place to work.”

Now that might smart a bit with some members of the bar, but I suspect, just as there appears to be little pockets of the bar that relish missing out on the technological advances of the last couple of decades, there are huge swathes of the begowned and bewigged breed that revel in being pompous.

Does Vallance believe that the ponderous breed is in danger of extinction in the next few years? He is keen not to make too much of his move in this context, but when it came to advising his undergraduate son on which of the two paths into law to follow, Vallance persuaded him to become a solicitor.

“My son is, I think, better suited to that,” says Vallance. “He is a much nicer person than I am but not quite as intellectual in his approach. He asked me what he should do and I don’t know what the situation [at the bar] will be in 10 years time, but it is probably better to train initially as a solicitor. One thing is clear, the bar is going to shrink for all sorts of reasons.”

Other benefits of moving to a law firm are sitting in the middle of the table as we enter, and Vallance spots them immediately – biscuits, and posh ones at that. Concerned at his excitement, I ask him whether he had biscuits at chambers. He replies that at One Crown Office Row, they used to have biscuits back in the days when there was no such thing as paid pupillages and so pupils were as poor as church mice. The head of chambers became concerned that the rapid consumption of custard creams meant the impoverished underlings were living off the biscuits and so he stopped them. Presumably, Vallance has been haunted by faces of starving pupils ever since because at the end of our chat he pushes me to take a biscuit. When I politely decline, he points out that there are a couple of foil-wrapped ones that I could take away with me. All very kind, but fortunately the days of cold sweats at the Tesco till are now behind me.

So why has Berrymans taken Vallance on? The official line is that senior partner Paul Taylor has known him for 20 years and believed that his presence in the office would be of great benefit to clients. I’m not questioning this; Vallance is well regarded and the argument does make sense -opinions on demand without trekking down to chambers etc.

All very sensible in the high-speed post-Woolf era.

But to my mind, the obvious reason for taking him on is that every office needs a Vallance. He’s the sort of person that you can imagine would not mind being asked silly questions by a trainee almost too scared to speak. Not only does Vallance seem to be wise and approachable, but he is also very funny. I believe that Taylor brought his partnership together and said: “Right then chaps, it’s winter, the weather’s awful, we all need a bit of cheering up and I know just the fellow.”

And for his part, Vallance seems quite delighted with his choice, with chocolate biscuits galore and a dearth of pompous bores – and what is more, he even quite likes the City, where Berrymans’ London office is based.

“I suppose I was last in the City when my accountant was here about 25 years ago,” he reminisces. “Swindlebum we used to call him. The Farringdon Road at that time was viewed as a kind of boundary and east of there was full of strange folk. Men in bowler hats and virtually no women at all, hardly any shops and few restaurants. It simply was not an attractive place. Now the streets are clean, there are very well kept buildings and excellent shops and restaurants. I am not comparing it to the Temple, which was a wonderful place to work, but it’s quite nice.”

So in the last three weeks, Vallance has discovered both computers and the world east of Farringdon Road. Be gentle with him; this must be an overwhelming time.
Philip Vallance QC
Berrymans Lace Mawer