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Open Eye: Candyfloss, coal and e-commerce

Opening Up: Mike Pullen
A leading international lawyer advising governments, Brussels- based Mike Pullen, 38, began life selling candyfloss as the child of travelling show folk. With little formal education - and no experience of living in a house until the age of 26 - the Yorkshire fairground boy developed an ambition to study law, which he finally realised through an OU course. He remains a member of the Showman's Guild.

What was your family background?

I was born into generations of travelling showman. My father did everything from dodgems to candyfloss. My two younger brothers and I were brought up to do a bit of everything, too. It was an excellent upbringing - lacking in formal education, but you learned to deal with anybody.

How were your school years?

I went to school only three months of the year, when we were closed for the winter. I finished completely when I was 12. Some things, like foreign languages, I never learned, but in the things that came to me naturally, like history, I was near the top of the class.

What was your earliest ambition?

I didn't really have one. The assumption was I would carry on in the business. But when I was 16 there was a problem with using our usual site in Harrogate. I had to go down to the local council and argue it out. I was successful - and it made me think the law might be interesting.

What was your first job?

I was in charge of the candyfloss stall when I was 12. My first job outside the fairground was when I was 16. I lied about my age and got a job driving trucks at a coalmine - five 12 hour shifts, but I was earning pounds 200 a week back in 1976.

What made you start studying with the OU?

When the miners' strike came I couldn't do my job, because I wouldn't cross a picket line. I had been thinking about going back to school but the traditional night school classes started in September which is a peak time in our year. Then I saw an advertisement for the Open University in a newspaper.

What difference has the OU made?

I did the Social Sciences Foundation Course in about 1985 or 86, and passed with a Distinction. It was a steep learning curve, but I found it fascinating. I had never learned any formal grammar. One of the comments on my work was "a very good argument, but this is not a sentence". Then I applied to Lancaster to read Law. Lancaster was one of the few places to recognise the OU course in place of A-levels, and I was accepted. I graduated second in my year. From there I went on to do my LLM (the law's equivalent of an MBA) in European and International Law at Brussels. I passed cum laude.

What does your current job involve, and how did you get it?

I work for Dibb Lupton Alsop, one of the top ten British law firms. I got it by sending my CV to the boss, David Church, addressed to Mr Crunch. I had put `samba and salsa' down as my interests. He thought it was a bit different and gave me a job for a week - I've been there three and a half years. One part of my work, which is EU-funded, is advising Central and Eastern European countries about bringing their law into line with the EU in anticipation of their EU entry. I've been working in Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria and now I'm starting work with the Latvian Parliament's Legal Secretariat. I'm also a specialist in EU law on electronic commerce - the Internet, e-mail and buying goods and services electronically. I'm the only non-American lawyer on the American Bar's research group on e- commerce. And I work pro bono (free of charge) for the charity Medecin Sans Frontieres. I also teach law at the university in Brussels. I think if you earn a very good salary, as I do, you have to give something back.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The international aspect of the work. And working at the cutting edge of law. I also like the intellectual challenge.

..and least?

The bureaucracy. Pompous lawyers - not all lawyers are pompous, but there are some.

Would you do more OU study?

Yes. If I was studying for pleasure I would do some of the history courses - like State and Society, which I was doing before I started at Lancaster. It was just excellent.

What are your goals for the future?

To become recognised as one of the top EU lawyers in the industry.

To what do you attribute your success?

Luck, focus and good support. I got a lot of support from institutions like the OU, and from people who, at no advantage to themselves, assisted me.