Who wants to be a millionaire libel lawyer to the stars?

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George Carman's sudden exit from the law has left a string of high profile cases, worth an estimated £1m-a-year in fees, without a star libel lawyer.

George Carman's sudden exit from the law has left a string of high profile cases, worth an estimated £1m-a-year in fees, without a star libel lawyer.

Sir Richard Branson, Marco Pierre White and Lawrence Dallaglio are all looking for a leading barrister to replace Mr Carman in their forthcoming trials. The great libel lawyer announced last week that he was hanging up his wig following a diagnosis of prostate cancer.

Top defamation solicitors believe the next George Carman QC will either emerge from the ranks of the established libel Bar or from a group of "young Turk" women barristers, championed by "Gorgeous George".

Mr Carman, 70, preferred to use women barristers as juniors on some of his high-profile cases. "He liked his girls, because they made him look more sympathetic to the jury," said one leading solicitor who instructed Mr Carman. Three of "George's protégées" are being tipped as his eventual successor. "They learnt from the master in some very high-profile cases and that will certainly do them no harm in their bid for the top," said Teresa Sandon, editor of the Legal 500, which publishes annual rankings of barristers and solicitors.

Since 1990, Adrienne Page QC, 48, who took silk last year, has been regularly chosen as Mr Carman's junior.

Heather Rogers, 41, who now works with Cherie Booth QC at Matrix chambers, was one of his juniors in the classic Hamilton-Al Fayed libel trial.

The third name to emerge is Victoria Sharp, 43, daughter of a City industrialist, who appeared with Mr Carman in Marco Pierre White's famous victory this year against The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune.

Their succession is far from automatic. First they will have to brush aside the old guard.

Their biggest obstacle is a triumvirate of Eton- and Oxford-educated silks who will have firmly set their sights on the top spot. The three are Desmond Browne QC, Andrew Caldecott QC and James Price QC.

A number of solicitors tip Desmond Browne QC, who acted for Neil Hamilton in the now famous clash in the High Court. There was a vintage performance by Mr Carman but many observers thought Mr Browne's own performance was equally dazzling. However, as one solicitor noted, "who remembers the barrister who came second?"

"Desmond matched Carman on the law but lacked his famous common touch with the jury," said one barrister, adding, "he has a tendency to use Latin or Greek when ordinary language will do."

Nigel Tait, managing partner Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, said: "There is no real obvious successor to George Carman - he is a unique, one-off talent, and his shoes will be very difficult to fill."

Michael Kaplan, Mr Carman's own clerk at 4-5 Gray's Inn Square, said the established field lacked an obvious successor. "After Mr Carman's announcement, solicitors have been asking me who I would suggest as his replacement and because he was so special this hasn't been easy."

Because of this would-be clients are looking outside the libel Bar.

The human rights barrister, Geoffrey Robertson QC, has the kind of high profile and media-friendly style to match George Carman.

In recent weeks his human rights arguments have won a case for Mike Tyson and helped Andrew Morton resist David and Victoria Beckham's attempt to prevent publication of his biography about them. "Human rights arguments are going to increasingly play a part in libel cases and this will give Geoffrey an edge," said Mark Stephens, of Finers Stephens Innocent.

Another contender is the colourful criminal barrister, Ronald Thwaites QC, who has ditched his crime practice to join the libel bar.

But Mr Kaplan hinted that talk of the end of Mr Carman's reign might still be premature: "I wouldn't rule out the possibility of him making a return if the treatment goes well ... one big case for his swan song."