John Wood

For a man who has spent his life dealing with indecency and fraud John Wood is remarkably coy. Sean Farrell meets the very lucky lawyer

Any lawyers expecting John Wood to pass on the odd pearl of wisdom as he retires as senior counsel to US firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius will be disappointed.

Wood just does not think he is interesting enough. “Somebody wanted me to write my memoirs and I wasn’t mighty keen on that. But I started and did about two hours and thought ’nobody would want to read that’,” he says.

Wood is at pains to play down his achievements, giving the impression that he stumbled across each opportunity purely by chance.

His rise within the office of Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), establishing and heading the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), serving as Hong Kong’s Director of Public Prosecutions, as well as acting on some of the most notorious cases in recent history, all seem to have come along without any warning.

Wood started out as an articled clerk in commercial litigation at Hamlins Grammer & Hamlin, now known as Hamlins, where, he says: “The partners all died rather quickly.”

But then fate intervened. Wood explains: “I was playing cricket for the Law Society and one of the doyens of the Law Society was playing and I said: ’It’s about time I moved,’ and he said: ’I’ve got a vacancy for a criminal lawyer.’ I said: ’I’ve never done any criminal law’ and he said ’I’ll teach you.’”

So Wood moved to HCL Hanne & Co, where he spent two years as a litigator.

In 1958, Wood moved to the DPP, where he spent nearly 30 years.

He prosecuted 100 murder cases, including the infamous Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, as well as working on the boom in pornography cases at the start of the 1960s.

“We were pretty prim and proper then and the things we prosecuted would be laughed out of court now,” he says.

By the mid-1960s Wood was bored with indecency cases and another chance conversation, this time with the late Sir David Hopkin, then senior legal assistant at the office of the DPP, gave him an exit.

Wood says: “The reason I got into fraud was totally by accident. I was doing a lot of murder and big indecency cases and David was in the office and he said: ’I’m doing another fraud case, I hate fraud,’ and I said: ’I’m fed up with indecency cases,’ and he said ’Let’s swap.’” Hopkin later became the chief metropolitan magistrate.

But Wood has not left questions of decency completely behind. He is still president of the Video Appeals Committee of the British Board of Film Classification.

When Wood made the switch from indecency 30 years ago fraud was small beer and the DPP would typically prosecute only two cases a year.

But since then the work has increased. Wood attributes this to better education and more people having bank accounts and understanding finance.

The real change came in the 1980s. “The Thatcher government took off exchange controls and the ease of transferring money out of this country was a huge factor.”

By the mid-1980s, Wood says: “The Thatcher government had become considerably worried about the upsurge in fraud and that we didn’t seem to be investigating and prosecuting them successfully and that was a legitimate concern.”

This led to the establishment of the SFO, which Wood set up and ran from 1987 to 1990. While he was director of the SFO, Wood prosecuted some of the most infamous fraud cases in the UK and around the world, including the Guinness trial.

When he stepped down from the SFO, Wood found himself at a loose end. “I was approaching 60 and lo and behold I was sitting there thinking what was I going to do, when the attorney-general of Hong Kong asked me to go over there as Director of Public Prosecutions.”

But in 1994, when the Hong Kong climate got too much for Wood and his wife, he returned to the UK.

On his return Wood had lunch with his friend Bob Goldspink, head of litigation at Denton Hall, who suggested Wood join the firm as special counsel.

Having started his career as a commercial litigator in private practice Woods was then back where he started. “I had gone full circle,” he says.

And when Goldspink moved to Morgan Lewis two years later, Wood followed.

Wood’s low-key approach would have the world believe his career has been based on chance encounters. But George Staple, senior partner in the regulatory and investigation department at Clifford Chance and one of Wood’s successors as director of the SFO, says there is more to Wood’s career than luck.

“He is a very experienced prosecutor and they are very valuable, and their work generally goes unsung,” says Staple. “People who are excellent generally do their work quietly and effectively.”

The key to Wood’s view of his career may lie in his childhood in India, where he spent nearly seven weeks being treated for a mastoid that left him deaf in one ear. “I nearly died at the age of four,” says Wood.

“And everything else has been a bonus.”
John Wood
Senior counsel
Morgan Lewis & Brockius