Diana's grey matter

Anthony Julius

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BRITAIN throws up few celebrity lawyers on the American model of snappy soundbites and sharp suits. Our barristers aspire to the aloof while our solicitors promote a knowing, all-embracing discretion as their selling point. Those who show any sign of enjoying publicity - the likes of, say, George Carman QC, and Peter Carter-Ruck, solicitor - are viewed with suspicion, even distaste.

It is difficult, though, to avoid publicity if you act for the Princess of Wales. If you also have a way with the soundbites and your intellect is in receipt of genuflection from Stephen Fry, it is impossible. Such is the case with Anthony Julius, head of litigation at Mishcon de Reya and lawyer of the moment, caught up in the great national circus of the royal divorce, complete with its side-shows of what was or wasn't said at Christmas staff parties.

In the absence of dates, terms, agreements and conditions, Julius and Mishcon de Reya find themselves much examined. Why has the Princess opted for a firm outside the tight-buttoned Establishment belt? Has the royal outsider deliberately chosen an outsider firm as another cock to snook?

And then there is Julius himself, or "Anthony Genius", as a rival dubs him, not entirely reverently. Until now, Julius has been something of a legal secret, toiling in the shadow of his mentor, Lord Mishcon. But this, nevertheless, is the man given principal credit for directing his firm into number four in the Legal Business magazine list of partnership earnings, up there at over pounds 300,000 a year with Allen & Overy, Slaughter & May, and Linklaters; the man who, according to Chambers' Directory, is one of the country's two most recommended media litigators; the man who combined all that with gaining in his spare time an English doctorate so good that the thesis was published to reverent reviews; and the man, too, who has packed undergraduates in for a lecture entitled "Kant, Eliot and Tarantino", a detailed examination of the Kantian way Tom and Quentin have handled aesthetic form and content.

But the law is a richly chattering profession. Outsiders see a celebrity lawyer being born; his peers seem not quite so keen. There are disapproving sniffs about Julius following "some sort of media master plan", one employing the spotlight provided by his royal patron to promote publicly his de facto position as head of Mishcon de Reya in preparation for the further and inevitable detachment of Lord Mishcon, already removed to consultant status and now in his eighties.

And is Julius not enjoying the spotlight a little too much? Should he be talking so much about, so far, so little? Should he be filmed in his offices? Does he not come across as perhaps a little too arrogant, a touch too pleased with himself? To the outsider, this seems a little hard. It is not as if solicitors were still forbidden to advertise themselves. It is not as if Julius is actually talking all that much; indeed, he continues to refuse all requests for interviews on the grounds of propriety. But still the chatter continues: the way of the celebrity lawyer is not without thorns, even at pounds 250 an hour.

JULIUS is 39. He lives amid the leaves, doctors and lawyers in the semi- detached splendour that is Hampstead Garden Suburb with his wife, Judith, also a lawyer, and his four children. His father was a London menswear retailer. Julius went to the City Of London School and then on to Jesus College, Cambridge, which he left with a First in English.

Adam Streevons, a friend who now teaches at Cambridge, recalls him as "brilliant", "intellectually ambitious", a voraciously driven student whose breadth of reading slightly intimidated his tutors. His director of studies, Professor Howard Erskine-Hill, recalled him as "one of the best-equipped students'' he had ever encountered. The work dominated, but a love of film, music - and talking - survives.

Julius was expected to take up an academic career. But further education prospects were grim under what he has since described as "the Thatcherite Labour Party of Callaghan and Healey". He decided on law on the advice of a careers officer and on the firm of Victor Mishcon & Co because of Mishcon's leftward leanings. He is still a member of the Labour Party; he describes himself as a passive member, "the sort all parties want today", before adding in a lawyerly way that the remark is intended to be jocular.

He was also attracted to the art of advocacy special to solicitors - the negotiations preliminary and alternative to appearing in court - and to the business side of the profession. He has made his mark in both as Mishcon (the company linked up with Bartletts de Reya in 1988) has expanded its traditional media and private client business, based on Lord Mishcon's easy way with connections, into corporate work and commercial litigation.

Mishcon, despite being a former Labour chairman of the GLC and the son of a Brixton rabbi, has catholic contacts. They have included Jeffrey Archer (that libel action), Lord Palumbo, who has long relied on Mishcon's planning expertise, and Robert Maxwell, with whom Julius, as Mishcon's lieutenant, had much dealing. The connection was abruptly terminated by Mishcon and Julius. The details remain confidential, but Julius is said to be particularly proud of the way they disposed of one of their most important clients.

The Princess of Wales arrived at their door through the Palumbo connection. It was Julius who took charge of the litigation over the publication in the Daily Mirror of secretly obtained pictures showing the Princess exercising in her gym. It was Julius who secured a settlement which was widely construed as favourable to the Princess of Wales (although lawyers for both the Mirror and Bryce Taylor, the gym owner and sneak photographer, would doubtless challenge this if it were not for a confidentiality agreement made at the time).

Though he might seek to deny it, the presentation of settlements to the outside world is a particular skill of Julius. Take the case of Stephen Fry, sued by the producers after walking out of the West End play Cell Mates last year. A settlement was achieved whereby the insurers paid pounds 230,000 and Fry pounds 20,000. When lawyers for the producers somehow conveyed the impression of total victory over Fry, Julius was contacted and produced this telling riposte: "Basically, we've paid them a small sum of money to go away. We're feeling rather pleased with ourselves". Fry now thinks Julius "probably the most intelligent man I've ever met".

But those who live by the soundbite must take care that it doesn't bite back: the quote is now used against Julius as evidence of an excessive self-regard. One who has encountered him in his capacity as royal representative found him "acting as if he were a royal himself". Another solicitor accuses him of folie de grandeur acquired in his new role, and thinks that "a bit of shot peppering his bottom" might produce a salutary effect.

Nor has his approach at Mishcon's endeared him to all. The firm was one of the first to set up a management board to oversee business chaired by a professional outsider. It has also abandoned the system of reward related to investment and seniority in favour of a meritocratic scheme which ignores rank and rewards the getting of business. Several partners have now left; one says this was directly attributable to Julius's robust attitude to unprofitable performers and disregard for the civilised traditions of partnership. Julius is understood to be unrepentant, referring to "the very bracing atmosphere" within his firm. He has also said that Mishcon's is like "a permanent cultural revolution but without the little red books".

"Combative" is a word often associated with Julius. His doctoral thesis was published by the Cambridge University Press last year (after rejection elsewhere), entitled TS Eliot: Anti-Semitism and Literary Form. It is a highly adversarial work, breaking the taboo that one didn't mention the blatant anti-semitism in Eliot's work; and, if one did, that the quality of the writing excused it. It is a Jewish Salman Rushdie question. Julius rigorously examines the work and refuses Eliot any mitigation. But although he censures, he does not seek to censor. It is, he argues, a relationship of "resistance and respect".

Karl Miller, head of department at University College London, and an admirer of the work, recalls Julius's viva for his PhD: "He defended his position extremely vigorously. You had to think twice before raising any objection to it ... extremely combative ... strong self-confidence, stands up for himself, although you can't really say there's anything wrong with that."

The thesis had been gestating since Julius's undergraduate days, and must have been given fresh impulse by his legal experiences: despite the large numbers of Jewish practitioners, the British legal profession is one of the last repositories of the casual anti-semitism that used to infest much of society. It is possible to see an element of this in the surprise that has greeted the Princess's choice. But there are Jewish solicitors who believe that Mishcon's makes rather too much of its Jewishness. Julius is given to pointing out that the firm is 50 per cent non-Jewish; as for the rest of it, he has decided, he tells friends, not to write any more books about anti-semitism.

The remainder of his future will no doubt depend quite significantly on the way he handles his part in the divorce saga. But few would deny that Lord Julius has a likely, almost inevitable, ring to it.

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