The royal victor

Robert Mendick meets the man who helped settle two important disputes… one for a princess and one for a king.

Eyes sparkle behind thick-framed spectacles, his body hunched up in a grand office chair that dwarfs his diminutive frame. A photograph of Princess Diana sits proudly on a book case, perched over his left shoulder. “Dear Victor,” the princess has scrawled, “with much love, Diana, 1993.”

Lord Mishcon sits at his desk and beams down at me, in the way a benevolent grandfather looks down at his favourite grandson. The 83-year-old is in his element, reeling off anecdotes from a legal career stretching back to 1937 – the year he founded Victor Mishcon & Co. In its merged form, Mishcon de Reya has become probably Britain’s best known law firm, its name rarely out of the newspapers.

It is a remarkable transformation. From a one-man high street practice in South London, to a multi-million pound law firm with a client list that would leave most lawyers with their tongues hanging out. Not bad for the son of a Russian-born, South London rabbi.

Mishcon is self-deprecating when asked about his success. “I would have said that without any doubt it is down to 95 per cent luck and 5 per cent ability,” he says, adding: “There are colleagues who are just as good, if not better lawyers than you are, and had not happened to have succeeded in having a large practice.”

He was born in August 1915; his father was a rabbi and his mother an English teacher from Falmouth in Cornwall. “I got the name Victor by virtue of the fact my father was conducting a service in the synagogue when the news was rushed to him while he was giving a prayer for victory. And so I was called Victor.”

You can sense the influence of a Rabbinical upbringing – the discipline of scholarship and the work ethic that it has instilled. He speaks fondly and lucidly of his father, whose love of England, his adopted country, Mishcon clearly shares.

Mishcon would have preferred to have gone to the Bar when he left school but he did not have the funds to support such a career. “We didn’t starve,” recalls Mishcon, “but my father died when I was 19 and he was only 55. I wanted to go to the Bar very badly, but back in the 1930s you had to have wealthy parents, or an independent income for five years before you could earn a living at the Bar.”

His first practising certificate was granted in 1937. Another, given to him 60 years on in 1997, proudly hangs on his wall just above the Diana photograph.

Mishcon clearly takes pride in his own longevity and durability. “I was already practising on my own at the age of 21. It was absolutely naughty. I was a danger to the public,” he admits, while chuckling to himself. “The practice was in Brixton where the family was well known. It was above Barclays Bank at 463-465 Brixton Road. Anybody who walked up the stairs of the office I used to lock in the waiting room to make sure they didn’t go away. I did the lot. It was a wonderful experience and, no doubt, at the public expense.”

After the war (he was called up, but saw no action), Mishcon decided to open up a City practice in Holborn. A year later, the South London branch was closed. Talking about the intervening years, Mishcon is the height of discretion – reluctant to talk about his clients.

But one client stands out from that time: Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in this country.

Mishcon acted on Ellis’ divorce. “After that we didn’t hear from her for quite a few years,” he says. “Then there was a call from the police station that she had been charged with murder and would I be prepared to act for her.”

Ellis was recommended a specialist criminal lawyer. “It was only after she was convicted and sentenced that she called for me from Holloway prison,” Mishcon recalls.

“I thought it my professional duty and I did rush to see her together with my chief legal executive Leon Simmons. She only wanted to see me at that time in order to make a little will, having in mind her son. But I persuaded her that if there was anything that the court did not know at the time of her trial, and which was material to her case, she should tell me in order that she could try to get a reprieve.

“She didn’t want a reprieve. She said: ‘I have taken a life and I ought to lose mine’.” However, Ellis reluctantly made a statement and gave permission for Mishcon to ask for a reprieve, which was refused.

“Literally minutes before her execution she wrote a letter both to me and Mr Simmons thanking us for our efforts. Quite extraordinary, and in a steady handwriting too.”

On 16 April 1992 – Mishcon reels off the date as if it is somehow indelibly stamped on his brain – he stood down as senior partner, four years after the merger with Bartletts de Reya. It was, not surprisingly, a watershed in the firm’s history. With the steady hand removed from the tiller, much-publicised rifts ensued. There was a lack of a natural successor. Partners fled and Anthony Julius, who through his work with Diana became seen, rightly or wrongly, as the public and client face of the firm, did not have the Mishcon touch. Through it all, Mishcon has remained influential in his official capacity as consultant. It is easy to see why.

He comes across as personable, assured and supremely confident. The years have not diminished Mishcons talents. He is the supreme negotiator who brokered Diana’s divorce from Prince Charles, as well as acting as a secret go-between in the signing of an Israel-Jordan peace accord.

He is reticent on the subject of Diana, explaining: “The Prince of Wales decided, or was advised, to call in Lord Goodman to act as principal adviser and the princess was advised to come to me. She was advised to do that by a very prominent client of mine whom she knew well.”

I ask if she was pleased with the advice he gave her. Mishcon turns to the photograph on his cabinet as if that explains it all, and then adds: “She never expressed any dissatisfaction. She was a truly remarkable lady. I was asked what my thoughts were as I came from the funeral service and I answered instantaneously: ‘If ever things had been different, what a wonderful Queen we would have had’.”

He is more forthcoming on the peace agreement he helped to broker between Israel and Jordan. Although saddened by the death of his old friend King Hussein last month, he is rightly proud of his part in bringing the Jordanian king to secret talks at his homes, both in London and in the country, with the then Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres.

“Over the years I acted as an intermediary in secret between the two of them, starting 14 years ago and ending with the signing of the peace treaty in 1992. I would travel over the border between Israel and Jordan, with both Shimon Peres and King Hussein calling me jovially Mr Ambassador.”

“On my 80th birthday King Hussein invited my family to Amman to celebrate my birthday at the palace where there was a dinner in my honour, and to which, without my knowledge, he had invited Shimon Peres, who was flown over. He then awarded me the Star of Jordan (First Class).”

It is not, of course, Mishcon’s only accolade. The others are too numerous to mention, but his CV dutifully lists about three pages worth. His lifetime achievements include lifelong honorary member of the Law Society and honorary QC. Foreign honours include Commander Royal Swedish Order of the North Star 1954, Star of Ethiopia 1954.

Then there was his spell as shadow Lord Chancellor in the years of Labour opposition from 1990 to 1992. He was created a life peer in 1978 and was chief Labour spokesman on home affairs from 1983 to 1990.

And so it goes on. After an hour and a half, the interview is coming to an end. Lord Mishcon has a lunch appointment at the Lords, but he is too polite to shoo me away. He just sort of looks around as a means of giving the signal that the interview has ended.

We have not even touched upon his career in local government, which in many ways was his crowning political achievement, as he rose to chairman of London County Council via almost every committee chairmanship going. Outside of the law, local government, he says, was his second great love.

But, at the heart of it all is the law firm he founded. He still drives into work each day in his Daimler, before moving on to the Lords for the afternoon sessions.

Tony Morton-Hooper, head of litigation at Mishcon de Reya, admires this elder statesman. “If there is a matter that requires the utmost discretion and delicacy, he is one of the first people I would talk it through with. He can handle something very quickly, and then render a view which is always sound.

“The difficulty for him is his clients will not go away. They expect him still to be there to advise them and he finds it difficult to say no.”

In fact, Mishcon is delighted to be working. “It’s an active life and I hope I never have to retire,” he says. “My dream is to be carried out of my office one day, my last words being: ‘Now it will be difficult for you to sue me for negligence’.”
Lord Victor Mishcon
Mishcon de Reya