He’s no-nonsense, committed and just a little bit scary. Catrin Griffiths meets Clifford Chance’s new head of public policy

I took a bunch of tissues to my meeting with Michael Smyth, but my cold was just a front. This is a man who once reduced a journalist to tears over a typographical error. He played the litigator so well she sobbed all the way up Aldersgate Street, and two of his colleagues who were at the meeting rang her afterwards to check that she was okay. You can see why I wanted to be prepared.

I never needed the Kleenex. Smyth has just been made head of Clifford Chance’s public policy group and is in a good mood this morning, although he has also clearly mastered the comic grumble and the sarky aside. The Clifford Chance press office has obviously been working overtime on punting the story of Smyth’s elevation, because as I arrive Smyth is doing a photo shoot for The Independent. Smyth is used to dealing with the media – he is advising the newspaper and Reuters in the Interbrew case, which revolves around protecting journalists’ sources. Obviously on the side of the angels, then.

The reason for all this interest? Smyth has just taken over from Richard Thomas, who has become the Information Commissioner. The fact that a high-billing litigation partner is heading up the tiny public policy unit shows a major investment into this area. Although Thomas had partner status, the unit has traditionally been staffed almost entirely by consultants, including former Serious Fraud Office director George Staple and Sir Thomas Legg, former permanent secretary at the Lord Chancellor’s Department. Smyth’s appointment also coincides with the hire of Hilary Plattern, the former legal head at the Finance & Leasing Association.

So why on earth does Clifford Chance want to beef up its lobbying activities? It is hardly an area other firms have thrown money at, with the exception of Lovells and DLA, which have had a long-term interest in the area. Other major City firms have positively shied away. It is, after all, fraught with difficulties. The potential for having your name plastered all over the press is huge – although Clifford Chance is probably used to that by now.

Smyth is obviously well prepared on the issue, despite having that incredibly flattering way of seeming to take a journalist’s questions seriously. “The industry of lobbying suffered something of a reputational dip some years back,” he admits in his Belfast rasp. “[But] the danger of reputational difficulty – I don’t see it, any more than I risk being dragged into controversy as part of the day job as a litigation partner here. As a litigation partner you worry about clients not coming up to proof in the witness box. The reputational issue is a management issue.

“But we don’t fulfil the role of dedicated experienced Parliamentary lobbyists. I’d describe the role as maximising access to policymakers, understanding upcoming policy and legislation.”

Given the fact that Clifford Chance puts a premium on being first, any initiative predicated on anticipating events will always go down well. But you sense that there is another engine to this. It appears to be the first attempt by a UK firm to meld its competition, regulatory and public policy practices into a coherent whole. The model, covertly or not, seems loosely based on the US example. Clifford Chance’s Washington DC outpost, like so many other firms with bases in the US capital, is involved in this area – although it is hardly a major player on the scene, and not in the same league as Patton Boggs or Arnold & Porter. Whether US-style lobbying by lawyers will translate into the less excitable anterooms of Whitehall is unclear.

“This is meat and drink to Washington lawyers,” Smyth argues. “At present it’s very much a London and Brussels platform. But partners in the Washington office have, as a very important part of their day job, interfacing with the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) and other institutions. If you’re an important corporate lawyer in Washington, it’s part and parcel of what you do.”

Smyth is particularly proud of Clifford Chance’s work on the Financial Services Act, where the firm managed to persuade the Government that its proposals on handling insider dealing were not consistent with the Human Rights Act (HRA). It is a topic Smyth is well versed on, having written a book on the impact of the HRA on business. (Rather sweetly, I note, he put in his preface: “To Joyce and to William and Rachel for the lost weekends and for the constant mood swings this book is dedicated.”)

There are plenty of other things to ask Smyth about. Lap dancing for one (oh boy, is he against it), or pro bono. He is a highly unusual mix: a puritan liberal and a socialist Ulsterman to boot. What is more, he is one of the rising stars in the post-Potts world of the Clifford Chance litigation department, where he appears to be regarded with some awe as inhabiting lofty, not to say Alpine, heights of moral ground.

And there is more: his wife, a renowned private client lawyer, acted for Mick Jagger in his divorce, but I try to quell the Heat within me. Smyth seems so straightbacked that I wouldn’t dare ask him about it – the sort of bloke you could have a good row with about Iraq, rather than Footballers’ Wives. It is what you might expect from the son of a Presbyterian minister, although Clifford Chance gossip has it that someone was invited to dinner at his house once, only to realise halfway through the starter that he was sitting next to Annie Lennox.

If anything, he is a tad uncomfortable speaking about himself. Here is Smyth, by Smyth – but you have to imagine him rattling this out: “Born 1957… read law at Cambridge… trained at Lovells… Clifford-Turner 1985… made partner 1990… always been a litigator… mostly media and public law and judicial review… married… boy 12… girl nine.”

“He’s a rare breed,” says a usually cynical colleague, who begs not to be named in case people take the mick. “If there’s ever a subject where people are pussyfooting around, Michael will grab it and air it. The client gets it how it is, his fellow partners get told it – nothing’s ever going to be shoved under the carpet.”

Smyth’s internal status is based partly on his lawyering and partly on his pro bono commitment, which he has helped to take way up the Clifford Chance agenda. The sceptical among us might say that the firm’s sudden management conversion to community affairs is just part of its desire to be number one in all things, but there is no doubting Smyth’s personal commitment to it (the firm won Pro Bono Team Of The Year at last year’s The Lawyer Awards for its work with the National Autistic Society). And he is certainly proud of his own department’s record in that area. “Involvement in old-fashioned traditional pro bono will for the foreseeable future produce a set of statistics showing the bulk of the effort is discharged by litigation lawyers,” he says, adding puckishly: “A good part of me has no difficulty with that.”

You can understand why the London management sent Smyth off to New York recently to help pacify the US associates, particularly regarding their pro bono aspirations. Given that in his spare time Smyth is chairman of Public Concern at Work, the whistleblowers’ charity, his involvement was nicely symbolic. You also sense that Smyth would be the last person regarded by the New York lawyers as another slippery Brit from head office.

A model partner, then. And you know what? He didn’t even make me cry.

Michael Smyth
Partner and head of pubic policy
Clifford Chance