Active service

Clarke Willmott’s head of sports law Ian Smith battled apartheid before settling in the South West. Alex Wade talks to a champion surfer

Kathryn Bigelow’s 1991 film Point Break is not noted for its dialogue. There are thrills and spills galore as FBI lawman Keanu Reeves attempts to track down the ‘Ex-Presidents’, a collection of surfing bank robbers, but little by way of heart-stopping linguistic invention.

There is, though, one great line, delivered by a feisty Lori Petty to Reeves. Petty’s character is suitably sceptical when Reeves announces his intention to learn to surf. “Lawyers don’t surf,” she says, lips curling with disbelief.

Although Reeves does get to say “this one does”, Petty’s would still be the standard view on the subject. Those whose day job is spent wearing suits rarely give the impression of hanging 10 or carving roundhouse cutbacks on the weekends. Which makes Ian Smith, head of sport at Clarke Willmott, nigh-on unique.

“I spent my teenage years and my early 20s surfing every day,” says Smith, who was born and educated in South Africa. “I had to force myself to stop when I went to university.”

Smith competed in South Africa against the UK’s world surfing champion Martin Potter, who won the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) title in 1989. Smith was asked by his sponsors to consider turning professional, but he knew he was not quite good enough. “I surfed world-class breaks like Jeffrey’s Bay and Cape St Francis for years with Craig Sims, who turned pro,” he says. “But he was always slightly better than me. Good as he was, he struggled to make an impact on the ASP tour.”

If South Africa’s superb surf had a profound influence on Smith, so too did its politics. He grew up in the apartheid years when Nelson Mandela was in prison and took an arts degree in Comparative African Government before studying law.

Smith dates the awakening of his own sense of the injustice of South African politics to the Sri Lankan rebel cricket tour of 1982. South Africa was at the time excluded from
the international cricket calendar. “There was a lot of controversy about the tour,” says Smith, who recalls walking into his university Student Union bar to find that a fight had broken out between students for and against the tour. As with so much in South African life at the time, the riot police were called. “One policeman came running in and swung indiscriminately with his baton. He caught me and I instinctively swung back at him – with my satchel. It was all on video and disciplinary proceedings against me followed.”

Smith’s university career survived, but any illusions about life in South Africa had been shattered forever. He became active in Student Union protests, many of which were broken up by the police using tear gas. Smith recalls attending the funeral of some youths killed in township violence. “The riot police arrived and surrounded the cemetery. We had to run a gauntlet to get out,” he recalls. “We thought we’d made it, but they caught up with us, pulled us inside their van and whipped us with a sjambock.” A sjambock is a large horsewhip; perhaps being on its receiving end made it easy for Smith to decide to travel in the US once his LLB was complete. He spent a year there, also visiting Europe, where he worked as a ski instructor. He decided to settle in the US and returned to South Africa to tidy up his affairs.

“I went back for two weeks just to sort out the admin,” he says a little ruefully. “I’d only been there four days when the police arrested me, telling me that I had to stay and do my national service.” Smith contemplated leaving the country regardless, but felt unable to do so with his parents still in South Africa. His two-week visit turned into two years as he completed his national service with the army.

His army stint over, he returned to Europe and spent another year travelling, during which he met his wife, Margie. They decided to settle in England and Smith completed his Law Society Finals at Bristol Polytechnic in 1992. He did his articles with Bristol firm Veale Wasbrough, where he stayed for two years post-qualification, working as an employment lawyer. Then came a move to Osborne Clarke‘s London office and a change of direction to sports law.

“Almost as soon as I joined Osborne Clarke, I started doing sports-related work,” says Smith. “I’d made it clear that this was what I wanted to do from the outset.” Given that this was the mid-1990s, Smith has a reasonable claim to be one of the first dedicated sports lawyers in the UK.

It was his desire to focus exclusively on sport that led to the move to Clarke Willmott. “David Powell of Clarke Willmott approached me, saying that the firm was determined to build up expertise in sectors,” recalls Smith. “I enjoyed my five years at Osborne Clarke, but I felt there was a greater opportunity to drive a sports law practice forward at Clarke Willmott.”

The approach coincided with Smith’s three children being at pre-school age, and so he had little hesitation in accepting a position as partner and head of sport.

The sports team at Clarke Willmott is now five-strong and boasts a client rosta that includes the Professional Cricketers’ Association, the Professional Rugby Players Association, Yeovil Town Football Club and various sports personalities, as well as (through last summer’s merger with Southampton firm Ensor Byfield) sports agency Essentially Sport, the client list of which includes motor racing stars Jenson Button and Colin MacRae.

“There’s an enormous amount of puff in the sports legal market. I want this firm to transcend that and be seen as having genuine substance, as opposed to a reputation out of all proportion to what’s actually there,” says Smith on the group’s achievements.

Smith also acts for Indianapolis-based engineering company Riley & Scott Racing, whose Mark 111C car will this weekend be racing at one of the most glamorous events on the motor racing calendar, Le Mans. Smith, a motor racing enthusiast, will definitely be there with his client. “It’s an awesome event,” he says. “I can’t wait.”

The one thing missing is more surf time. “I only get in the water about three or four times a year,” he says. “The surf’s not great here, but I’m determined to do a lot more.”

His eyes light up at the prospect of an impending trip to the southwest coast of Spain, known for its good beach-break waves, if not the hollow tubes of a point break like Cape St Francis. Whether or not he gets lucky in Spain, Smith remains one of the few lawyers for whom the words ‘point break’ mean more than ‘Lawyers don’t surf’.
Ian Smith
Partner and head of sports law
Clarke Willmott