Michael Beloff QC: The quick-fire QC isn't ready to rest his case

From the inquiry into the Brixton riots to London's bid for the Olympics, the Bar's 'Renaissance man' has always thrived on new challenges
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Some barristers are well known beyond the alleyways of the Temple, London's historic home of advocacy. Take, for example, the late George Carman QC, the legendary libel lawyer. Or Gordon Pollock QC, the flamboyant showman who broke records by taking an extraordinary 80 days to finish his opening comments. Or even Cherie Booth QC - though, admittedly, she is also rather well known as Mrs Tony Blair.

But fame is rarely democratic, and so it is with Michael Beloff QC, one of the country's leading barristers and a specialist in public, sports and libel law. Despite counting Carman and Pollock as sparring partners, and Booth as a good friend, he does not share their high profiles outside the legal world.

For Beloff, however, it is the job, not the trappings of fame, that matters. "I just wish I could live longer," he says with something approaching a sigh. "I get a real buzz out of it. When I don't get that, that's the time to stop."

At 64, he admits he still gets stage fright before standing up in front of the judge. "As soon as I get up on my feet, though, it's gone and I'm fine," he adds, which will no doubt be reassuring for clients.

Beloff is talking from an office at the leading commercial practice Blackstone Chambers, from where he plies his trade (barristers are self-employed but work together in practices known as chambers). The office is that of his fellow barrister Lord Lester of Herne Hill; his own is so messy that I am forbidden to see it. So here we are in a room decorated with photographs of someone else's family and with someone else's gown hanging behind the door. And sitting amid uncharacteristic tidiness is the bearded Beloff, rarely making eye contact, and dressed in a rumpled shirt and suit (he smartens up for the photographer by donning a tie).

As the conversation goes off at tangents, Beloff seems more Oxbridge don than razor-sharp litigator. It's not surprising: the son of an Oxford University professor, he returned to full-time practice just six months ago after a 10-year stint as president of Trinity College Oxford.

But do not be fooled. Beloff is one of the UK's highest-paid barristers, representing major clients and controversial cases, raking in around £1m a year in fees.

His recent cases include Chelsea Football Club's row with the sacked player Adrian Mutu, and the failure to take a drugs test of the Olympic torch-bearer Kostas Kenteris. He has also represented the Rugby Football Union and the Hampstead Heath Winter Swimming Club, when the Corporation of London tried to end the age-old tradition of early-morning dips.

Ranked as one of the UK's most senior QCs, he sat on the inquiry into the Brixton riots in the mid-1980s and has represented a catalogue of well-known names and newspapers at libel trials over the years. He is currently involved in an asbestos case that goes before the House of Lords this summer, and is defending the government drugs' body Nice over a controversial lawsuit.

"I've had a very lucky career," he says. "I was brought into contact with lots of different people." As an example, he relates how he got into sports law - years before sport was the vastly profitable industry it is today - only through the athlete Adrian Metcalf, with whom he was at university. He also claims he got his first job with the help of a friend's recommendation.

After getting a first in history and then studying law, Beloff was called to the bar in 1967. Many barristers of his seniority turn to judging, but he says it does not appeal. "I do about one month to six weeks' judging and arbitration a year, and that's enough for me. I just cannot bear the thought of presiding over a case for six months. Partly because my handwriting is so bad. I just couldn't do it."

But he did want to try something else, and so accepted the job at Trinity. It was, he says, a "magical experience", allowing him to associate with bright students ("I like young people"). But it was not a step towards retirement. "When I got the job, I remember saying I was looking forward to a more gentle pace of life. My wife said I shouldn't have said that, as people would think I didn't intend to work very hard - but it was a much more strenuous experience."

Indeed. During his 10 years, he memorably threatened to take the university private, to protect its elite status, after the Education Secretary of the day, Charles Clarke, said Oxford should increase its intake of state-school students. He was also presiding over Trinity when the college turned down one Euan Blair.

His readiness to take on new challenges, in preference to staying on one thing for too long, is evident throughout his career. Once dubbed the Bar's "Renaissance man", he has held - alongside his advocacy work - numerous posts on legal bodies, written articles and books, given lectures and become heavily involved in the Olympic Games. He was a member of the Court of Arbitration for Sport's ad hoc panel for dispute resolution during the Atlanta, Sydney and Athens games, and hopes to do the same for Beijing. He also worked on the London Olympic bid and is in talks to continue his involvement.

But, as he points out, he also "realised that there are limits between balancing a personal and professional life. You cannot just do it for the money." Married to a justice of the peace, and with two children (both of whom are lawyers), Beloff now divides his time between homes in Holland Park, west London, and Oxford.

So it is unlikely that, despite his vast body of work, he will ever achieve the fame of his counterparts. But perhaps for Beloff that is no bad thing. One of the first questions he asks, joking, though with a tinge of nervousness, is whether the interview will be "a hatchet job". He also tells of the discomfort of being dubbed a close friend of the Blairs, rather than just a friend of Cherie.

"I know Tony and would say hello to him if I saw him, and I'm sure he'd say 'hello, Michael' back, but that's it."

Beloff is careful not to come down on any one side, be it political or moral. "Some people say I'm friends with the Blairs, but then the left-wing press would point to my friendship with [Lord] Archer.

"I have acted for all three major political parties, the National Front, Liberty and Charter 88, and have never made public how I vote because I don't want to be affiliated to any one group. I've divorced my personal life from the people I represent. I've represented Ian Brady, Nicholas van Hoogstraten, the Government in Iraq, all sorts of people I have no personal sympathy with.

"But I strongly believe in the principle that barristers should not choose clients [based] on their own beliefs."

The client list: Courting controversy

Ashley Cole

Beloff acted for the Premier League in the Ashley Cole "tapping-up" case. The England defender, then playing for Arsenal, met with Chelsea's manager, Jose Mourinho, and chief executive, Peter Kenyon, in a London hotel in January 2005. It was claimed that the trio had bumped into each other by chance, but an inquiry saw differently. Cole - now playing for Chelsea - Mourinho and the club were all fined, with Chelsea also receiving a suspended three-point penalty.

Gillian Taylforth

The actress and her fiancé, Geoff Knights, lost their 1994 libel action over pictures published by The Sun. The snaps appeared to show Ms Taylforth, aka EastEnders' Kathy Beale, performing an indecent act with Mr Knights in their Range Rover on an A1 slip road. Evidence at the trial included a video of Ms Taylforth simulating oral sex at a party. Beloff acted for the couple against George Carman QC.

Nicholas van Hoogstraten

Beloff acted for the controversial property tycoon, whowas convicted in 2002 of the manslaughter of a rival landlord, Mohammed Raja, but was later cleared on appeal. The bitter litigation continued, however, and in 2005 a civil court judgment declared that the multi-millionaire had hired "two violent thugs" to carry out the killing. Van Hoogstraten was not in court when the judgment was delivered.

Alan Sugar

The former chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, now host of The Apprentice, endured bitter rows with Terry Venables, his business partner at the club, during the 1990s. In 1994 he used Beloff to sue Venables for libel after the publication of the latter's autobiography. Sugar accepted £100,000, but on leaving court Venables handed Sugar his own libel writ.

Mohamed al-Fayed

Beloff took over representing the Harrods owner in 2000. A year earlier, the Conservative MP Neil Hamilton had begun a libel action against Fayed over claims that he had taken cash and a free holiday at the Paris Ritz in return for asking parliamentary questions. The case was dismissed and Fayed began seeking £1.5m in costs from Hamilton. The MP later returned to court in an attempt to clear his name, and it was at this stage that Fayed hired Beloff. That action, however, also failed, and just a few months later the disgraced Hamilton was declared bankrupt.