There is one company’s name that surely still makes the former Attorney-General Lord ;Goldsmith shudder – BAE Systems. For although Goldsmith is now out of the picture, the saga continues.
The Serious Fraud Office is appealing against this month’s high court ruling that it acted unlawfully by dropping its investigation into BAE Systems. Also, last week (21 April) Tanzanian infrastructure minister Andrew Chenge was reported to have stood down after becoming embroiled in the BAE fiasco.
Goldsmith, however, does not want to dwell on the past. He is now looking forward and trying to put those last few months in government behind him as he settles into his new role as chair of European litigation at US firm Debevoise & Plimpton.
He does, however, make it clear that his decision to quit was entirely his own, saying: “When I took the decision to stand down as Attorney-General, Gordon Brown did try to persuade me to stay, but I felt it was time to move on. I was the longest-serving Attorney-General in Labour history, having served over six years, and the last couple of years were a highly charged period.”
With a CV that includes the legal justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, “highly charged” is no understatement. But Goldsmith’s latest decision has again set tongues wagging across the legal profession. Why did he not go back to the bar and to his old set Fountain Court? Bar rumour had it that Fountain Court had even left Mr Justice Stadlen’s old rooms free for Goldsmith to move in to.
Goldsmith says he thought long and hard about where best to continue his legal career and confesses he was tempted to return to his old job. “I’d received a lot of persuasion to go back to the bar from more than one set of chambers that wanted to welcome me back,” he says. “It would have been great, but at the end of the day this [joining Debevoise] presented a very exciting opportunity – a global law practice, continuing public service and pro bono, being a hands-on lawyer but being able to do other things as well. And that was the opportunity I decided to take.”
Goldsmith believes the bar continues to be in a very healthy state, and stresses that its supposedly uncertain future had nothing to do with his decision to move to a law firm.
The former Attorney-General says the bar still contains people who are experienced, focused litigators but adds that the legal profession is not the same as when he took up government office in 2001.
“My coming to Debevoise & Plimpton shows the world has changed,” he explains. “The bar is still strong. It just needs to be prepared to work and adapt to the new conditions.”
Adapting to the changing environment is a skill Goldsmith has clearly mastered and he knows that drawing on his time in government will be important.
Goldsmith explains: “I think it [being Attorney-General] has helped enormously – not because of special ways into government, but because I’ve seen how international problems go across the globe and what global legal problems actually are. And I’ve got political – in a small ‘p’ sense – insights into how best to deal with the strategy to tackle those problems.”
As chair of European litigation, Goldsmith’s strategy is to expand Debevoise’s litigation practice across the board, which means developing the firm’s investigative work, domestic litigation, multinational litigation and international arbitration.
The role will also see Goldsmith getting back into advocacy. “I very much hope to see myself getting on my feet in court,” says Goldsmith. “I did far more advocacy as Attorney-General than anyone has ever done and now I’m even open to offers from other firms that would like to see me in court on any particular case. I’m sure we can come to some arrangement!”But before Goldsmith can really get back into court, however, there is still the small issue of him completing his qualified lawyer transfer test to make him a bona fide solicitor and partner in Debevoise.
When The Lawyer mischievously asks how his exams are going, Goldsmith is happy to share the joke, saying: “My children have been teasing me about the fact I’ve had to go back to school, so to speak. They ask me whether I’ve packed my sharpened pencils for my exams.”
Exams will be the easy part for Goldsmith. Trying to shake off the stigma of the BAE affair is a different matter. He can at least take comfort in his successor as Attorney-General, Baroness Scotland, telling The Lawyer (7 April) that if the issue arose today we would see a “similar situation”.