Planning specialist becomes Britain's best-paid lawyer with fee of £100m

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The Independent Online

In many respects David Cooper is just like the other 400 millionaire lawyers working in the City.

He owns properties in the most salubrious parts of town, sends his children to private school and drives some very fast sports cars.

But after negotiating a record-breaking deal with a British property consortium, the 64-year-old planning specialist has catapulted himself above his peers to become Britain's most expensive solicitor.

Mr Cooper is to be paid the staggering fee of £100m to advise a client on the development of a new town to be built between Birmingham and Milton Keynes.

Even among the rich elite of lawyers working for the so-called magic circle firms in the City, this counts as an eye-watering return. Last year the highest-earning solicitors were claiming annual fees of £1.3m.

This year, as the leading law firms start posting record profits, those earnings are likely to be even bigger. But despite predicted increases of 20-25 per cent on profits per partner, no one is likely to catch Mr Cooper, who claims his earnings from last year were around £2m. And despite charging a minimum of £650 an hour, Mr Cooper is still much in demand from a number of high-profile clients, including Arsenal Football Club.

Most solicitors practising on Britain's high street will be lucky if they make £40,000 this year. Mr Cooper is happy to defend the disparity. "Of course I'm well off but I'm not fabulously wealthy. I don't earn any more than a top footballer or a chief executive of a top company," he protests.

"Look at what I don't have. I don't own a house outside London. I don't have a boat and I don't have a helicopter or a private jet. Oh, and before you ask, I don't shoot and I don't fish."

But that still leaves an awful lot of wealth. While it might be true that none of Mr Cooper's properties is outside London, all six are located in Belgravia. Tucked away in his Belgravia garages he keeps 26 cars, including his pride and joy - a Pagani Zonda - four Aston Martins and a selection of top-of-the-range Porsches and Mercedes. Mr Cooper, who describes himself as a mad art collector, has also bought around 6,000 antiques and pieces of fine art for his home.

Mr Cooper says his clients - but not charities, which he doesn't charge - may moan about his fees but only in the same way they complain about the expense of sending their children to the best public schools.

In professional circles he is probably best known for involvement with Arsenal FC's move from Highbury to a new stadium at Ashburton Grove, a deal that secured him £2m, although Mr Cooper describes these fees as "half rates".

The new town project that he is working on depends upon his ability to persuade the planning authorities of the wisdom of allowing the building of a settlement of around 10,000 homes, with a hospital and a business park in 500 acres in the south-east Midlands. The client is understood to be a well-known private developer. "I might not win the case. I'd say it's even-stevens at this point. But I will still have to put in thousands of hours of work," he says.

"The project will last five to eight years and most of the fees are 'back-ended'," Mr Cooper has told the magazine Legal Business.

"The client knows that the success fee has to be a large figure to keep me on board for that length of time. " But he reminds anyone who winces at his fees that he too has bills to pay. "I've got seven children, three stepchildren from my second marriage, and they all need feeding. I also have to pay interest on mortgages of £10m which is about £600,000 a year. I had more spare cash when I left university," he says.

The son of a Jewish Romanian father and an English mother who both worked as market traders in Manchester, he pays tribute to his parents for his rise to riches. "I was bright enough, but they worked so I had every opportunity to show it. I went to grammar school and then on to Birmingham University. I work an 80-hour week and every day I wake up thinking I want to come to work." To celebrate his 64th birthday last week, he toyed with idea of buying some art. "I was in the office but I had agents in auction houses in London and Paris bidding for paintings and two bronzes. I didn't get any of them, so saved myself £1m."

Big earners

* Alastair Dickson was reported to have earned £1.3m last year from advising top-flight British companies. A report published by Legal Business showed Mr Dickson was one of a clutch of high-earning lawyers who had broken through the million-pound barrier. Mr Dickson established Dickson Minto in 1985.

* Robert MacGregor was also reported to have drawn £1.3m from the profits of the London law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner. He joined the firm from the world's biggest legal business, Clifford Chance, and his arrival immediately had an impact on Paisner's property division. Berwin Leighton Paisner is one of the top 100 law firms, and last year it generated a total of £9.63m in overall revenue.

* Nigel Boardman is the third City lawyer who is believed to draw at least £1.3m. Mr Boardman, who advises some of the City's leading public and private companies, is an established star biller at Slaughter and May. His firm is one of the five "magic circle" legal advisers and probably home to the largest number of millionaire solicitors.