Say it with silk

Julian Lew QC seems to be a bit embarrassed about having had two parties to celebrate his becoming a QC. One, he explains, was for his Herbert Smith colleagues and the second was for family friends. But he stresses the second was very small, he had only intended to go out with immediate family, but then it extended upwards with several couples coming along.

“It was absolutely great with our closest friends. It was for a gratuitous reason, but was a completely [unstructured] event and probably no different to an anniversary celebration,” he says, looking slightly uncomfortable. “I had lunch on the day with several partners and several of the assistants who work directly for me. One or two people had a glass of wine.” Hell’s bells, you only get made a QC once – surely he should have been partying for days, never mind these discreet little family affairs. You can tell he is a solicitor-advocate, as barristers would have no scruples about largin’ it – one silk’s party this year cost £10,000.

But then Lew is not the type to throw caution to the wind.
Several times during the interview he has to be coaxed to go on the record for statements that are really not that racy. At other times, he starts a sentence three times to get the exact nuance before completing it. Presumably as an international arbitrator he is well used to having to pick his words extremely carefully without the big dramatic gestures that might be used in court.

Sometimes the conversation feels a little bit like talking to your dad. Lew is very smiley and friendly, but I get the feeling that his approachability is based on the assumption that we are not equals. His picking over words reminds me of parents negotiating with a teenager, being careful not to let slip anything that could later lead to accusations along the lines of “but you said that…”.

There is one subject on which he is touchingly not afraid to hold forth. When we start the interview, he brings a small envelope of photographs out of his folder and places them one by one in front of me. They are a collection of shots from the day he took silk, featuring Lew in the traditional long wig, his wife in a very elegant black hat, and his two daughters.

He mentions that the journalist who had interviewed him last week for the Jewish media had previously interviewed his wife, so I ask out of politeness what she does. Without hesitation, Lew launches into a potted history of her career, starting off by describing her as a remarkable woman. I won’t repeat all of it but she now works for the heart surgery charity Chain of Hope and trained as a social worker. And all this before I know anything about him.

Lew has come the long way around the route to silkdom – he was originally a barrister, but when he was called to the bar he was a young 22. “I wasn’t ready to work. I loved to travel and I spent some seven years travelling around and working on my PhD, writing a couple of articles and growing a long beard,” he laughs.

When Lew took off on his travels, he had spent a year and a half at the bar and found it a little stuffy. He had always loved public international law – “My first love in life, but don’t tell my wife,” he says – and in 1970 he ended up in the Hague. Most of his friends back home were just qualifying, but returning home did not really appeal so he found a way to get a scholarship from the Belgian government. After finding that he could not do a Masters in his chosen area at Louvain University, Lew was persuaded to do a doctorate instead.

In an interview with the admissions tutor, Lew confessed that not only did he not think he was up to a doctorate, but that he had no idea what to study. Presumably the tutor liked the look of him, or was looking to fill some space, because on the spot he came up with the idea of applicable law in international arbitration. And so in a flash, Lew’s future was decided, and more than three decades on he is still working in the area.

It is an area of law that is great for building up airmiles – last year Lew’s travelling took up around 26 weeks and one year he travelled for 43 weeks. “My daughter pointed out just the other day that she still hadn’t forgiven me for being in Los Angeles on her sixth birthday.”

When Lew eventually returned home from his travels, he went to work with US firms. He says that it became clear that his future was not going to be as a barrister, so he resigned from the bar and became a solicitor.

Of course, at that time, the idea of solicitor-advocate QCs was as much science fiction as anti-gravity suits and teleports. Or maybe slightly less believable. But now, Lew is not a barrister manqué, but a fervent supporter of solicitor-advocacy. Of course, one of the first solicitor QCs and now a High Court judge, Lawrence Collins, resided just down the corridor at Herbert Smith and Lew says he is honoured to have followed in his footsteps. “There are no disadvantages to being a solicitor-advocate, in fact we have great advantages over barristers. Because of the nature of international arbitrations, barristers often don’t have the necessary flexibility,” argues Lew, adding that international arbitration courts can have varying levels of spoken English, as well as a diverse background of jurisprudence.

And it seems that some barristers just cannot stay away from the spotlight. Lew says: “It’s assumed that arbitrators will have read the documentation before the hearing – after all, they are paid to do so – but you still get lengthy presentations and opening arguments from some barristers.”

Lew says that in one instance, a barrister was brought into a case at a late stage and told the arbitrator that he thought he would need two and a half days to open his case. Lew said that if the tribunal had read the papers then he did not intend to give an opening speech. The tribunal did without opening gambits.

When I ask Lew what his personal style is during arbitrations, he says that he is not sure whether he has one. “I like to think that I’m straight,” he adds after a pause. “I believe that my word is my bond and I believe it is very important to win the trust of tribunals, your opponent and your client.”

When I ask where Lew stands on the question of court dress for solicitor-advocates, he reverts back to hedging his words again. After a little pressure, he finally agrees to give me his feelings on the subject on the record. (Isn’t it a strange world where the right of grown men and women to appear wearing a daft wig in front of another grown-up in a daft wig is controversial enough for someone to be wary of voicing his opinions?)

Lew eventually confesses that he is not a wig and gown fan. “Personally I think [the uniform’s] an anachronism. I am not sure it greatly enhances the procedure in our courts, which are very, very good and very effective, but as long as it exists, I will do what the system requires.”

The vision of Lew turning up to court in an Elton John-style wig with flowing cape suddenly leaves me. Lew says that everyone involved in a court action has their neck on the line, whether financially, professionally or personally, and the vision of men wearing gear from the 18th century is not the most likely thing to put them at ease. But Lew quickly adds that he does not have a problem with the dressing up involved in the silks ceremony.

Understandably, as then they get to look really daft with full bottomed wig, tights and fancy dan shoes. No one would pass up that opportunity.
Julian Lew
Partner and QC
Herbert Smith