A history of the law firm Lewis Silkin

Lewis Silkin (the man) was born on 14 November 1889 into a family of Jewish Lithuanian refugees, the eldest of seven children. His upbringing was poor but he was determined and won a scholarship to Oxford University. However his headmaster reputedly wrote in his report to the University “this boy will not benefit from a university education”, therefore Lewis lost the opportunity to study at Oxford.

Lewis Silkin first worked as a tally clerk in the London Docks. One day he spotted a notice in a window of a firm of solicitors, a notice seeking a 'bright lad'. He was appointed as a clerk and eventually became an articled clerk qualifying in 1920 and immediately set up on his own. In 1925 Lewis began his political career by becoming a member of the London County Council. He eventually became deputy leader of the LCC during the Second World War. He made his way both to the House of Commons by becoming the MP for Peckham in 1936 and the House of Lords, becoming 1st Baron Silkin in 1950.

When Lewis' brother Joseph Silkin qualified, the firm became known as Silkin and Silkin. However Joseph wanted Lewis to concentrate on law rather than politics – but Lewis still had an interest in politics and so he eventually left the firm. In 1945 Lewis was made Minister of Town and Country Planning in Atlee's Labour Government. He held this position until 1950 and piloted three major pieces of legislation, the New Towns Act of 1945 which created our new towns to provide houses fit for heroes, the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which created the modern framework for all our planning law and The Access to the Countryside Act of 1949, which created our National Parks.

Lewis Silkin had three sons: Arthur, Sam and John. Arthur, the eldest of the three and a senior civil servant, renounced the hereditary title. Sam, the second son, qualified as a Barrister and rose to the rank of Queen's Counsel (where he was frequently briefed by his father's firm). He was also MP for Dulwich and served as Attorney General until 1979. After that he became the deputy Chairman of Robert Maxwell's main trading company. During the period 1974-79, both John and Sam served in the Cabinet at the same time (something since only emulated by the Miliband brothers).

John Silkin qualified as a solicitor in 1950 and set up his own practice at 227-229 Rye Lane Peckham as Lewis Silkin and Partners. Lewis Silkin had become deputy leader of the House of Lords in 1950, after being succeeded as MP for Peckham by Freda Kunzlen Corbet (also Labour). When Lewis Silkin finally joined the firm a year or two later after leaving the Commons and relinquishing some parliamentary duties he had undertaken on first becoming a peer, he opened an office in Westminster at 91 St Stephen's House.
When John Silkin opened the office in Peckham, it took 18 months to get the GPO to install a telephone, and so the public telephone booth across the road was put into service for client calls. It is said that John Silkin used to send his secretary across the road to pretend to make a call; once a client call came through John’s secretary signalled to John through the window to come over to the phone box and take the call! He started the office with no clients. For the first two weeks, his secretary typed and retyped John and Rosamund Silkin’s wills for typing practice.

The firm in Peckham was initially a general practice, providing what we know today as 'high street' services, handling crime and housing alongside property work. Conveyancing was done mainly by the solicitor Joe Collyer, while John himself handled minor litigation and accident claims. Joe later became a mentor to John Fraser who joined the firm in January 1955 and who subsequently became senior partner of the firm.
In the Westminster office Lewis Silkin specialised in planning law and development permits; during his time in Government and as Minister of Town and Country Planning he had been known as the 'architect' of our town and country planning policies. He became the go-to lawyer for those seeking planning permissions for their developments. One of his first clients was Tesco - the original connection came from the then property director, David Behar, who instructed the firm on a planning appeal. As a result the firm was used for all of Tesco's planning appeals (and if they were successful, the conveyancing work for the store) until Tesco appointed another firm in 1973.

From around 1957, the offices at Westminster and Peckham developed their own specialisms and characters. The 'town' office was the place for massive planning cases as well as commercial work, while Peckham took on divorce and crime and the new betting offices (handled by two retired police officers). Peckham also handled a wide range of litigation (including the case of Rookes v. Barnard in 1964 - the leading case in English law on the tort of intimidation and punitive damages and a turning point in judicial activism against trade unions; the case was handled by John Fraser as an articled clerk), probate, and almost anything that came through the door. Roger Alexander became articled to John Silkin in 1960 and became a partner on his qualification in 1965.

Politics were never far away from the firm in this period. John Silkin won a by-election for the Labour seat of Deptford in 1963 and in 1966 became Chief Whip in Harold Wilson's Government with a majority of 4. He was elected to the Privy Council in 1966. He served as a Government Chief Whip (1966-1969) and as the deputy leader of the House of Commons (1968-1969). He was appointed as the Minister of Public Buildings and Works (1969-1970) and the Minister for Planning and Local Government in the Department for the Environment (1974-1976). He served as the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (1976-1979).
Also in 1966 John Fraser became the Labour Member for Norwood and Under-Secretary to Barbara Castle at the Department of Trade and Industry. The Unfair Contract Terms Act 1977 was largely steered through Parliament by John Fraser.

This meant that the main drivers in the firm divided their time between law and politics and that vacuum created the opportunity for younger partners to develop the firm. Roger Alexander seized the opportunity. The roots of the firm's pre-eminent position in advising advertising companies stretches back to 1970 when on a skiing trip, Roger met Mike Gold. Mike was thinking about setting up a new advertising agency. Within a year he established French Gold Abbott with two colleagues which soon became the go-to agency. Peter Mead set up an agency shortly afterwards and the firm established close relations with many of the up and coming generation in the industry who wanted to establish their own shops. Several key relationships with clients ensued including Abbott Mead Vickers (which since 1990 has been the UK's largest ad agency) and Gold Greenlees Trott, both of which became listed in the mid eighties and set about building substantial groups. The firm developed its position by acting for four of the five largest advertising groups in the world. In order to service these clients it was crucially important to develop intellectual property and employment expertise as the agencies' sole assets went up in the lift in the morning and down in the lift again at night - their people. The roots of our Employment, Reward & Immigration and Media, Brands and Technology departments stem from our work in this sector. Clients such as the advertising agencies and Hewlett Packard transformed the Peckham based firm.

Lewis Silkin passed away on 11 May 1972 at the age of 82. The Lord Privy Seal, Lord Jellicoe, said at the time of his passing 'The name of Lord Silkin will always be associated with his tremendous work as Minister of Town and Country Planning in the post-war Labour Government. I find it difficult to think of any one Minister who has been more closely identified with a particular policy than was Lord Silkin’ and added ‘It is not going too far, I believe, to say that our New Towns, remarkable in themselves and very much remarked abroad, are particularly Lord Silkin's memorial'.

On 28 February 1974, two of the firm's then five partners joined Harold Wilson's minority Government. John Silkin became Minister of Agriculture and John Fraser was Undersecretary of State at the Department of Employment. As Ministers, while they could remain as partners, they were unable to participate in advising clients. That left John Levy (who had joined the firm in 1969) effectively running the Westminster office and Roger Alexander, the Peckham office.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher won the election and John Silkin and John Fraser returned to the firm (John having been an unsuccessful candidate in the 1980 Labour leadership election following the resignation of James Callaghan). By this time, the Peckham office was substantially bigger than the Westminster office, both in terms of the number of its lawyers and its fee income. It was decided that the way forward was to bring the two practices together. This happened in 1980 when the Westminster practice with John Silkin, Malcolm Grumbridge and Patrick Rees moved from 29 Tufton Street, and Roger Alexander, Andrew Stone, Tom Coates (who joined in 1977 as a trainee, qualified in 1979 and became a partner in 1981) and articled clerk Len Goodrich (who had joined in 1980 qualifying in 1982 and becoming a partner in 1986) moved into the new larger offices at 83-91 Victoria Street taking with them the commercial part of the Peckham practice. Gillian Bastow (who qualified in 1980 with the firm and became a partner in 1986) moved to Westminster from the Peckham office in 1985. Outwardly the Westminster and Peckham practices became one firm, but inwardly they ran as two separate practices.

For a time during the 1980's John Silkin's son Rory and his daughter-in-law Mary were also part of the family firm. In 1986 it was agreed that John Silkin's interest in the partnership would be bought out by his partners. John subsequently set up a consultancy with his brother Sam and called it Silkin Brothers. John passed away in 1987.

The firm moved in 1986 to 1 Butler Place. Andi Thomas became its first managing partner, and John Fraser became senior partner. Michael Burd (who joined the firm in 1982) became a partner in 1988 along with Jonathan Reuben (who had joined the firm in 1986 as a newly qualified) and Stephen Groom. Jonathan and Stephen were exceptions in that they had not been trainees with the firm - the traditional route to partnership within the firm for the previous 20 years.

In 1989 the firm commissioned Spicer Oppenheim, the management consultants, to carry out a review of the management structure of the firm. As a result of that review, Roger Alexander became lead partner, with John Fraser remaining as senior partner. The partners at that time agreed to divide the firm into two separate practices once more. One remained as the Lewis Silkin we know today and became the commercial practice based in Westminster, the other became Glazer Delmar and remained in Peckham. Glazer Delmar continues to this day as a successful high street practice specialising in housing, matrimonial and private client work.

One of Spicer Oppenheim's other recommendations was to appoint a Practice Manager who would run the support system under the lead partner. The first appointee was Simon Sanger Anderson who introduced the firm's first networked computer system. Before that, there were separate systems for accounts and word processing. Out of this change, the support departments of IT, HR, Marketing and library were established.
In around 1990 Michael Burd was the only solicitor in the firm focussing on employment work. He was joined in 1992 by James Davies who had previously been at Denton Hall. James became a partner in 1995 and Michael and James rapidly built up the grouping based on lawyers having a combination of contentious and non contentious practice. Lewis Silkin was amongst the first law firms to develop an employment specialism in this way.

In 1992 the firm of Hancock and Willis merged with Lewis Silkin - with Trevor Watkins, Fergus Payne, Philip Foster and Clive Greenwood joining the firm. Hancock and Willis had offices in Chancery Lane, at number 27, and also a small office in Farnham dealing with residential developments. In September 1998 the Farnham office closed the work transferred to a Bristol firm.

Roger Alexander stepped down as lead partner after 10 years and became Senior Partner in 2000 when Trevor Watkins was elected as Managing Partner.

In 2001 the firm moved from its Westminster bases of Windsor House, Victoria Street and 1 Butler Place to the City and began its occupation of 12 Gough Square, which is located next to Dr Johnson's house.
In 2002 Employment became a separate department (having been until then part of the Litigation department). In April 2003 the new department changed its name to Employment and Incentives. In April 2004 Russell Brimelow and a number of other lawyers joined from Boodle Hatfield's Oxford office. Initially the office was in temporary accommodation but then moved to its current location of King Charles House in June 2004.

In April 2004 the Property Department moved from Gough Square into overflow accommodation in adjacent Hill House.

In 2005, Ian Jeffery took over as Managing Partner from Trevor Watkins. At around the same time, MBT (Media, Brands and Technology) became a full department in its own right (with its members having previously been in either the Litigation Department or the Corporate Department).

In April 2006 the firm became an LLP and a month later moved to 5 Chancery Lane, its current home.
In early 2009 the firm was first recognised as one of the Best 100 Companies to work for in the Sunday Times annual league table. It has featured in this table each year since then and in 2012 was awarded three stars as an 'Extraordinary' Employer by Best Companies and achieved position number 19 in the Sunday Times Top 100 listing - the highest ranking law firm in the list.

Roger Alexander retired in 2010 after 50 years with the firm.

In April 2011, the Property, Housing and Construction team became Real Estate and Development and the Employment and Incentives team became Employment, Reward and Immigration, both as a result of the changing nature of their business.

As at March 2014 the firm has 63 partners, five departments (Corporate, Media, Brands and Technology, Litigation and Dispute Resolution, Real Estate and Development and Employment, Reward and Immigration) and a total staff of over 300. The firm is a member of two global alliances (Ius Laboris specialising in employment law and GALA, the Global Advertising Lawyers Alliance).