SJ Berwin partner and shadow solicitor general Jonathan Djanogly on drafting the Companies Bill, the postal service and too many village fetes
Currently, in the legal world, I am a corporate partner at City law firm SJ Berwin. In the political world, I am a shadow minister for the Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), and also shadow Solicitor General.
At the age of 19, I joined the Conservative Party and started my law degree. There has not been a time since then that I have not maintained an interest in both of these camps.
Although I studied a combined politics and law degree at Oxford Polytechnic in the mid 1980s, I cannot point to any damascene moment in my choice of vocations.
My interest and passion for politics began after the left-wing student union banned its own rag mag for being ‘sexist and racist’. I didn’t much like the idea of being told what I could not read and went along to a Conservative meeting. Thus started a long progress towards becoming an MP. And law? Well, it was more a case of not being much good with numbers or blood rather than with falling in love with Salomon v Salomon.
The profession did not really grab me until I started practising at SJ Berwin where I really enjoyed working with many bright and engaging colleagues and clients.
I have always run my interests in law and politics side by side. In 1994 I was elected to the Regent’s Park ward of Westminster Council. In order to juggle both roles as a young corporate associate in a City law firm and a councillor, I would often leave the firm at 7pm to attend council meetings and then return at about 10pm to carry on working. In fact, my wife told me that I am the only person that she has heard of, whose working hours have eased since being elected as an MP. As a councillor, I chaired a planning committee, the social services committee, the environment committee and the contracts committee. To get this level of responsibility and experience in my 20s was a great opportunity and I do try to encourage young people to engage in local politics.
After a first attempt at a parliamentary seat in 1997 in Oxford East, I was successful in being elected to the Huntingdon seat, vacated by Sir John Major in 2001. In fact, I am only the third Huntingdon MP since the war, with another illustrious barrister, Lord (David) Renton having held the seat from 1945-79.
Since May 2004, I have been working on the front bench as shadow Solicitor General. The role is somewhat strange, in so far as shadow law officers have no prosecuting role in opposition, although I am called on to give general legal pointers to the shadow cabinet.
For the most part, however, my role is to assist the shadow Ministry of Justice team on issues such as the new Supreme Court, the Legal Services Act and currently on electoral law.
In 2005, the powers that be realised that a corporate lawyer would be helpful to deal with the Companies Bill, so I was also appointed a shadow DTI (now BERR) minister. This role has now expanded to deal with corporate governance, corporate social responsibility, employment law and industrial relations, and business regulations. Oh – and I nearly forgot postal services – which is an interesting one at the moment with Lord Mandelson’s privatisation proposals to deal with.
There really is no such thing as a typical day although if I am in committee this will involve around six hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the duration, which can be for months on a long bill. Other than whipped votes, MPs have no set commitments at all, so a disciplined approach is essential. Some may be tempted to do little while others may choose to fill their days going to endless meetings and receptions. The trick is to narrow down one’s areas of interest and then to cover the chosen area well. Expertise is recognised, and valued, by colleagues and opponents alike.
On weekends, I tackle my constituency work. Huntingdon is a large rural constituency of 180 square miles with four towns and some 60 villages. In summer I can attend up to 10 events in a weekend! These may include opening village fetes, visiting hospitals and meeting with local voluntary organisations and businesses. I always look forward to getting out to the countryside and enjoy moving around my constituency and seeing the huge amount of voluntary work that makes our communities tick.
All in all though, several factors make my life easier. Firstly, the skills necessary for both of my roles complement each other. To be an effective corporate lawyer some of the most important skills are the ability to listen to clients’ needs, effective negotiation skills and managing the workload. This is largely the same skill set required to be an MP.
Also, my legal background does mean that I have a trained eye for unpicking and understanding the workings of legislation. This is invaluable for a line by line examination of a bill at committee stage! Like every other walk in life, Parliament needs its lawyers. In practice, I get to do a lot of bills, which I enjoy once I get into them. Given that I was the only lawyer in the Tory intake of 2001, may explain why I do so many bills. Next up will be the Bribery Bill, which has some really important issues for corporate Britain.
SJ Berwin provides me with a trainee, who joins me in the House for three months during their training contract. With dozens of amendments to draft, they are quickly thrown into the bill process. The opportunity to learn how to create law, rather than just interpret it, is an enticing one and I have become the most popular trainee seat as a result.
Furthermore, I take ideas, observations and innovations from what I see in the City and feed them into my parliamentary activities. In 2006, I led the opposition team on the Companies Bill (the longest piece of legislation ever!) which relates to the area of law I specialise in. Being able to utilise my own expertise and experience of the market place when considering the Bill was of invaluable help.
There is a section of the public who think MPs should not have outside interests. I totally disagree with this position. In my view, we do not need more ‘professional MPs’, we need more with outside interests and current relevant skills.
I am often asked, how do I manage my time? There is little rocket science here. I try to run a disciplined diary and am not shy of early starts and late finishes. But the most crucial element of all, is that I love what I do. That is at the heart of what keeps me going every day and makes it easy.
Last month, the Government lost a key vote on rights for Ghurkhas and Gordon Brown’s hold over his Party looks increasingly shaky. With 12 years of opposition under our belts, a spell in government would be very welcome.
Jonathan Djanogly MP is shadow minister for business and shadow solicitor general and a partner at SJ Berwin.