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An interview with Colin Passmore: part 2/3: legal perspectives

I recently had the pleasure of putting a few questions to Colin Passmore, Senior Partner of international law firm, Simmons & Simmons. In the second part of the interview, Colin gives some perspectives on recent legal developments and current issues. In Part 1, Colin told us about his background and early career. In Part 3, he will consider what the future might hold for civil litigation in England and Wales.

Who would you choose as a legal icon for our times, and why?

Over the course of my career, I think, there is one person who just stands out head and shoulders above everybody else. That is Lord Bingham who, sadly, I never met other than in a court room.

I think he will probably go down as one of the greatest judges we have ever had, because of the range of cases in which he gave judgments of such clarity and authority, because I think he has helped to shape the law.

His famous book on the rule of law is still the work on that subject –  I think that everyone who talks about these issues – particularly in Magna Carta year – will always refer back to that book (which, personally, I think should be required reading of every lawyer. I suspect a lot of us haven’t read it – I have).

I think he is head and shoulders the greatest judge.

As much as those of us who were brought up in the times of Lord Denning will always hark back to him, I think a lot of Denning’s work has been undone or re-visited. I don’t see that happening with Lord Bingham.

You are a recognised expert on privilege – and author of what we call “Passmore on Privilege”. What do you find particularly satisfying about grappling with privilege issues? Incidentally, when will there be a new edition?!

I don’t know – I just got into it about 20 years ago. I developed an interest in the subject, which has not gone away. The book is a bit of a millstone around the neck, because there are literally hundreds of privilege cases every year, so trying to keep the book up to date becomes a very hard piece of work.

I just find the whole subject fascinating, and it is so topical. I talk on it on a very regular basis – I would say at least twice a month – to clients and different audiences, and it really is a very hot topic. So I am just very lucky that I stumbled upon it and decided to start writing about it.

I have promised my publishers that the next edition will be out at some point next year. I decided this time – to try and cut down the huge burden, I try to keep up with the cases as they come out, which I have done. I have about 100 pages of typed notes, but the cases just don’t stop coming. It is absolutely incredible.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a big development in Hong Kong where the Hong Kong Court of Appeal decided not to follow Three Rivers No 5, which is probably right, but it does mean that we have different rules in two or three jurisdictions, which will provide challenges, I suspect.

So you’re not going to be able to stop writing the book any time soon…

No, definitely not. I can see that going on – if the brain holds up – into my older years.

In a blog for Liberty, you considered ways in which “the voice of the legal profession can be heard more loudly, more clearly and with better effect”. Do you think that City lawyers should be doing more in the face of increasing concerns about whether the average UK citizen truly has “access to justice”.

I think, when I talk to some senior members of the profession, particularly the Law Society, there is a frustration, on their part, that a lot of lawyers, not just in the City, don’t seem to engage with wider professional issues.

I can understand that because everyone is busy. The legal profession is very very busy at the moment – certainly in the City (I can’t talk for elsewhere) – and there are so many demands on lawyers’ time. But I have been a little bit concerned as to whether we as senior, prominent lawyers do enough in terms of supporting the Law Society and others in their lobbying efforts, and in terms of trying to get the government to understand that some of its policies are not right.

One of the reasons I wrote the article last year was that a taxi driver, strangely enough, had a go at me and said “If you lawyers don’t speak up, who is going to speak up for the little person?”.

To give this some balance – and this is a very important point – the City of London Law Society – which is made up of the vast majority of City law firms and US firms in the City, this is an issue that it has been looking at (quite apart from the Law Society). I think the voice of the CLLS has been good over the last two years. I think Alasdair Douglas, who leads it, has done a good job in that, and I think there is a growing recognition that we need to do more.

We also know that the new Justice Secretary is, seemingly, starting on a campaign to suggest that we don’t do enough on pro bono. I think that is unfortunate as I think City lawyers do a huge amount. I think that you will hear our voice on that quite soon. We do a lot on that and on issues such as social diversity. We just don’t seem to shout about it. That is one of the things we need to do.

And now looking at things from the perspective of Simmons & Simmons, where you have been “man and boy”.

Not quite. I was articled at Coward Chance. So I was two years qualified when I joined Simmons. I was very lucky with Coward Chance. I was sent to Hong Kong as an articled clerk and I was only allowed to be there for six months, inevitably. I wanted to go back and I couldn’t go back immediately with Coward Chance so I decided to leave and join Simmons, and about eight months later Clifford Chance was created, so it was a well-kept secret.

I have been with Simmons just under 30 years.

As just a couple of examples, Simmons & Simmons was ranked as top law firm in the annual Stonewall Workplace Equality Index 2013 for the fifth year running (the only law firm to feature in the Top 10 overall). The firm also features in The Times Top 50 Employers for Women 2013. They are impressive accolades. If you had to choose three adjectives to summarise the ethos of the firm, what would they be?

If I chose three things, it would be that we are collegiate, ambitious and client focused.

Things like Stonewall are very very important (hence I think we are “collegiate”) but, I think, as a law firm, we are quietly ambitious, and also very client focused. That is key to the success of a law firm, and it is something we drill into all of our people every day.

Practical Law Dispute Resolution Simmons & Simmons Beverley Barton Colin Passmore

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