On Being Distinguished: A Story About An ‘Influential Lawyer’

I first heard I was among The Times ‘Top 100 Lawyers’ on Twitter.

I don’t read the paper, in fact have always treated it as a polemical tract only lightly disguised by learning, so I might never have known. (Not many of my friends read the paper either.)

But there I was, my eleven letters and space among the 140 characters in an enthusiastic Tweet.

One of the ‘Top 100’?

I was excited, and also intrigued. Where was I in the Pantheon? My pulse raced. Maybe even ‘Top Ten’? And what did they say about me? Perhaps there was a profile, interviews with grateful students from the past, a picture even! My mind raced to construct the sort of praise that would finally do me full justice. And deliciously, who was not on? One hundred was not very many – letters of sympathy to the disappointed were for a nano-second of triumphalism forming before me as a real option: ‘Dear Geoffrey, I was so sorry to read in The Times of your omission from the list of top lawyers. I think that is quite wrong, or at very least they should have included the next 100. Let me just say that had I been asked I’d have certainly offered my place to you. Yours, Conor’.

But where to get the paper?

It was late. Left any longer it might disappear into that black hole which is yesterday’s news. I headed off with the dog, eventually finding and buying a copy, but furtively, eschewing my usual (and already purchased) Guardian and reaching into the tabloids as though I were buying Playboy or Penthouse and not the Old Thunderer itself. Good it had the law section; great there was the article – hold on – it’s a bit short. Let’s get home.

Disappointment awaited.

The ‘paper’ paper only had the greatest hits among the 100, the Shami’s and the Brenda Hales, the household names and not the whole bunch. To get these, readers were directed to The Times web-site, which I already knew was hidden from public view, protected by a ‘fire-wall’ demanding payment for entry. I ran upstairs, credit-card in my hand, intent on buying that day before the day ran out – surely only a pound or two.

It wasn’t as simple as that. Reading The Times’s home-page felt like being assailed by a computerised Big Issue vendor crossed with a snake-oil salesman.

You couldn’t buy one; you had to buy a package, involving The Times – possibly for weeks on end, maybe for ever! – and potentially much else besides. There was one moment when I was a button away from Sky’s supreme package which would have led to a Dish on the roof the next morning and cycling live from Budapest in the afternoon. (This was before I had heard of Bradley Wiggins.) None of it was as cheap as buying the newspaper in a shop. I wavered. What was it to be: the minimum package to get at today’s paper, or forget the whole thing. At that very moment I learned something important about myself: I am more mean than I am big-headed. I left it.

That is not to say I did not brood.

Why on the web, with more space, my profile might be longer, even more fulsome, the picture finer?

And the nagging thought I might be ‘top ten’ ate away at me.

Eventually I hit on a plan. I asked the Press Office at LSE (which I knew must be a subscriber) to find and send me the article. Brilliant: money saved and ego massaged. As The Times didn’t allow electronic escapes from their prison of news, this meant I had to wait for an old-fashioned print out to reach my LSE box via the internal mail. The tension!

Eventually the internal envelope arrived, thinner than I’d have expected for an article detailing the talents of one hundred – perhaps they had sent me just the bit about me?

No, this was it.

No organisation of names into any particular order. Just a jumble of people, some I’d heard off some I hadn’t. And there under G, me – and the single explanation for my appearance: ‘Director of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights, LSE’ – a job I gave up three years ago. Horror: I shouldn’t have been there at all! Never mind, no one reads the paper and if I keep quiet my secret is safe.

A month later I had to pitch for a pay rise, as do all profs at LSE on an annual basis. In filling in the form I tried to remember what on earth could justify me getting more money for the job I love doing anyway. Yes, that’s it, I am a top 100 lawyer. I am ashamed to say I put it in. And yesterday I got the letter declining to give me the extra money I didn’t deserve anyway. Never mind, the letter was as warm and gentle a rejection letter as you are ever likely to get: ‘The accolade of recognition as one the United Kingdom’s one hundred most influential lawyers brings great credit to you personally and to the School.’ Good job they don’t read the electronic Times either.