Where do you stand with a lawyer who is a self-proclaimed enthusiast at handling the media?
When Keith Oliver speaks with such beguiling honesty about his passion for his work and his enormous respect for his clients, is it from the heart or from somewhere altogether more practical?
Oliver, a partner at one of the country’s top white collar crime firms, Peters & Peters, is acting for Adrian Ezra, one of the so-called Flaming Ferraris, who is suing Credit Suisse First Boston for unpaid bonuses.
He speaks with near incredulity about the poor treatment that his client has received and how the young City trader has been wronged.
This staunch public defence is typical of the lawyer who describes Kevin Maxwell – the client who catapulted Oliver into the ranks of the country’s top criminal litigators – as the “most intuitive, demanding and stimulating client you could have the pleasure to work with”.
To a degree, Oliver must be held responsible not only for keeping the vilified Kevin Maxwell out of prison, but for the partial rehabilitation of his tarnished reputation.
In one breath he makes it clear that he has always kept a due professional distance from his clients; but in another he sympathises with these “wronged” individuals and describes his role “confidant, adviser and priest”.
The Maxwell saga continues, even though Kevin was acquitted of fraud charges three years ago, and so Oliver’s energetic public defence of his client’s name must continue too.
Earlier this month, Maxwell was cleared of allegations of contempt of court over his refusal to be interrogated by Department of Trade and Industry investigators in an inquiry into the Mirror Group Newspapers flotation. The decision is expected to have far-reaching implications over such investigations in future.
The definitive account of the proceedings and the issues appeared immediately in The Times – written by Oliver and David Corker, another Peters & Peters partner who was involved in the case.
Oliver’s dedication to Maxwell’s defence is almost legendary. When he was handed the case by his charismatic senior partner Monty Raphael at Peters & Peters in 1991, it soon became apparent that good news management was an integral part of representing his client. He was, after all, no stranger to controversial defence work, having represented Anthony Parnes in the Guinness trial.
Kevin and Ian Maxwell faced charges relating to their father’s business dealings with MGN pension funds.
Oliver twigged early on that there was a way to handle the press – a mixture of honesty, availability and straightforwardness. In other words, give them something, so they do not resort to speculation.
“Anyone who says they don’t enjoy media attention when it’s positive is being at the very least disingenuous. But a balance has to be made. It has to be in the client’s interests,” he says.
During the six-month trial, Oliver and the Maxwell team appeared in court every morning, then worked on the case every afternoon.
Oliver speaks highly of that group: counsel Alun Jones and Clare Montgomery QCs, and Oliver’s two assistants Leah Saffian and Jennifer Murphy. And he says he considered Maxwell himself to be a part of that team.
“Many people would have capitulated under the pressure,” he says of Maxwell. “He never lost his ability to think and keep his mind focused.”
Others involved in the trial recalled in Oliver a lawyer of dogged and upbeat dedication. George Staple, the former head of the Serious Fraud Office which prosecuted the Maxwells, says Oliver was “a very determined defender of his client in that case”.
So what of the media? One journalist who covered the 1996 trial says: “There are few lawyers as accessible as Keith Oliver.”
Faced with deadlines and complicated issues, a journalist could usually rely on Oliver calling back, he says.
Oliver, now in his 40s, did his article at Peters & Peters where he has remained since. He intends staying at the firm and says the lawyers there have “committed” themselves to the practice. He is tipped as Monty Raphael’s eventual successor and is seen as “Monty’s protege” and “senior partner designate”.
But Oliver’s working pattern has changed considerably since Maxwell. His seniority means he now delegates more work and is more involved in the running of the West End practice.
He handles a lot of other commercial work but, as he is happy to point out, it does not need any sort of media profile to help it along.