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An interview with Colin Passmore: part 1/3: getting personal

I was delighted to have the chance to put a few questions to Colin Passmore, Senior Partner of international law firm, Simmons & Simmons. Colin joined the firm in 1986 and became a partner in 1990. He was appointed Senior Partner in 2011 (and subsequently re-elected for a second term) but continues to maintain a litigation practice. Over the course of his career, he has worked in England, Hong Kong and the Middle East, from where he has developed a varied commercial litigation practice that encompasses both international and domestic disputes.

Colin writes one of the leading texts on privilege (Passmore on Privilege) and chairs the Membership Committee of the Academy of Experts. He was listed in the “Top 100” for the London Super Lawyers Magazine in 2013.

In Part 1 of my interview with Colin, he talks about his career and interests. In Part 2, he gives some perspectives on recent legal developments. Finally, in Part 3, Colin considers what the future might hold for civil litigation in England and Wales.

Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

Two things. One was that, as I did my A levels, I realised that I wasn’t going to become a scientist. I couldn’t really see that I would pursue a career in History or English, and my French wasn’t going to be good enough. By a process of elimination, I thought I’d try the law.

I thought about the law because I had a neighbour who used to be the chief clerk at a set of chambers that are now defunct, in Middle Temple Lane, and I had a couple of summer jobs as the very very junior clerk. So I had an early exposure to the Royal Courts of Justice and people in wigs and gowns, and I thought that looked quite good.

And I just happened to hit it off with my degree in law pretty quickly, and found that, as an intellectual subject, I really really enjoyed it. And here we are.

And did you ever think about the other branch of the profession?

Yes I did, but I never had enough confidence, at that age, to be a barrister. If I had had the confidence then that I have got now, I might well have become a barrister. Who knows?

What about outside of the law. Do you have time for many interests outside of law?

Increasingly less so in the present job, as I travel a huge amount and I do a lot of socialising as part of the job. So I find that, at the weekends, I tend to not do a great deal. I try to keep fit (but don’t succeed!) and we have some horses in the family, so that is always a bit of an interest.

Some people have real horror stories from the early days of their careers. What was your worst moment as a trainee?

I was never a trainee, I was an articled clerk – I go back that far!

I can remember being asked to handle a piece of litigation for a very senior partner. I suddenly realised one day, at 4.30, that I had miscalculated the deadline for putting the acknowledgment of service in, by one day – in other words, I should have put it in that day, but, by 4.30, when I realised, it was too late. I went home, in those days before email, with about 20 books, trying to find a reason why my original calculations were right and I realised, at about 2 o’clock in the morning, that I had missed the deadline.

Then I worked out that, so long as I was at the court office as it opened at 10 o’clock, I could put the acknowledgment in and beat any application for default judgment. I had a pretty sleepless night and got up very early.

So a narrow escape!

Yes – a very narrow escape.

You have been Senior Partner of Simmons & Simmons since 2011 and also maintain a litigation practice, which sounds like a pretty tall order. What do you most enjoy about juggling those roles?

I enjoy the travel, not just for the sake of travelling, but I really like getting around our offices and meeting all the different operations that we have and all the different cultures that we have. I really enjoy going to Asia, the Middle East, and obviously getting around some of the great cities of Europe, plus occasional trips to the US. I think that is a very privileged position. On average, I’d say that I travel two weeks in three – some is just overnight travel, when it is just to Europe, for example, but, earlier this year I spent about five weeks, on and off, in Asia. You do need to spend time out there – the jet lag is a problem.

I really enjoy, as a result of that, the fact that I know the firm almost inside out, and it is just great when opportunities to join up far reaches of the firm with other bits, occur. For example, someone in Asia might have an expertise in something that someone else does in, say, Madrid or Paris or, they don’t know it, but they have a client or a contact in common – and just trying to join all of that up.

I’ll have a bit of a break from travelling, over the summer, but it will all start to ramp up again, I suspect, in September.

Something else I have really started to enjoy is bringing people on to partnership. We do a lot of partner mentoring here. And I do my fair share of that: mentoring senior associates and helping them as they approach the partnership round. It is very very enjoyable to see people getting through.

Who has influenced you most over the course of your career?

I think several people. One particular individual who was the head of our Hong Kong office in the 1980s, when I was there, was very very good at spotting people to whom he could safely delegate – and I was one of those – so I got a lot more opportunities sooner, I think, than perhaps I would have done in a bigger office. There were many more opportunities to “sink or swim”, and I have always hugely appreciated that.

And then, because I have always been a frustrated advocate, I have always enjoyed the court side of my work. There are really three QCs I have worked with, amongst many many others, who have really stood out to me as people who have taught me a lot. They are John Griffiths, who used to be the Attorney General of Hong Kong and a fabulous advocate, Jonathan Sumption, for obvious reasons, and, also, Christopher Moger of 4 Pump Court. They all have different working styles, but I have always been very impressed by their sheer hard work – as brilliant as they are, they all work very hard. And just working with them – I wouldn’t say that it rubs off – but you do learn things, and it has been fantastic working with people like that.

Practical Law Dispute Resolution Simmons & Simmons Beverley Barton Colin Passmore (draft)

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