I spent a career in the law, trying to convince myself that I was competent, then skilled and then, when finally I was offered a partnership, worthy of such promotion. Imposter Syndrome they call it and I had it, indeed still have it in spades.
Qualifying was the single most terrifying moment in that career; the idea that somehow I was now capable of advising someone on the legal pros and cons of a certain matter seemed to me the stuff of fantasy. And the fact that I was being paid to provide this wisdom was the bitter icing on this cake; if someone paid money for my words then that person would be doubly peeved to find they might have received better advice had they randomly selected 2000 words and spun them in a tombola machine before laying them out in the order they were selected.
If, therefore after six years of being deemed capable I was still employed then the idea that I might warrant a partnership began to shape into a reality. The necessary component, it seemed to me to achieving that offer of elevation comprised one specific skill: avoid visible cock-ups. Thus my last year before that decision became one of minimising the risks and being very careful.
Of course that wasn’t going to happen. At least, as we entered the final months of 1986 and the count down to decision day began nothing I had done had (a) been referred to the professional indemnity insurers or (b) caused the client to take its work elsewhere. Those joys were still to come.
One of the clients I worked for was a large, reputable, rather fusty UK pension and life assurance company. When they found a new real estate asset into which to invest some of their pension and life funds, they came to our firm and by that time, specifically, me to do the due diligence and then negotiate a contract and complete the sale.
Whilst none were routine, they generally had a certain familiarity. Some shops with good tenants, an office with good tenants, maybe a smattering of industrial premises with good tenants… you get the picture. At the end of weeks of work I would write a report following a specific formula, bind it up with copies of all relevant documents and send it to the client to sign it off. The client had one copy of the report and we kept a copy. Everything about the deal was in that folder. Pricing, contractual terms, lease summaries, warts and all. All very confidential.
So when I received a call one day to say one of these ‘bibles’ as they were called had been picked up on Tower Bridge by a passing pedestrian and handed into our clients’ London Office – because the clients’ name was printed in a large pitch on the front cover of the folder – I did the only thing a right minded lawyer trying to convince a possible sceptical partnership of his merits as a possible partner – I shat myself.
My name had come up because it was part of the reference on the first page of the report, at the bottom of page one – just after the firm’s name and the partner’s initials. That the call had come to me was perhaps fortuitous. The person ringing was on the reception at the clients’ office and someone had said we might want it back as our phone number was on that page too. No one, it seemed had twigged that very private confidential client information had somehow gone walkabout.
I told the partner. ‘It must be their copy. Maybe you’d like to suggest they improved their filing system.’
I called the client contact – more specifically the secretary. ‘No, ours is here.’
‘You wouldn’t have copied it would you?’
‘Why would we do that?’
Indeed. I asked my secretary to track down our copy…. had it gone to storage yet? No, it should still be in my room. And it wasn’t. I reverted to the partner.
Been there, done that.
‘You’d better find out how it got to Tower Bridge.’
I stood in my room and stared at the layout. Why would someone take a file and dump it on Tower Bridge?
There were lots of these Bibles. They took up a lot of space and once the deal closed they were sent to storage. But before that they lined the available spaces, including a set of shelves in front of the windows. The window was closed but if it was open… I mean I never opened it but my roommate was always moaning about how warm it was…
I opened the window and looked out. We were on the first floor. Just below the window, maybe ten to fifteen feet down, the delivery van that made trips around the city sat. On the roof there was a dent, oddly rectangular. I went and had a look at it. The white paint was slightly discoloured. Dark blue. The colour of the cover of the folder.
If one were to set off from the car park, and head for the storage facility, the first point at which you might get much above ten miles an hour was the slip road up onto the bridge. And at a certain point the friction that might keep a file on the van roof may be over taken by the momentum of the van, especially if it was cornering up onto a bridge.
It was pure speculation but just maybe…
I told the partner my theory.
‘Neat. Bollocks, obviously, but neat.’
‘Should I tell the client?’
‘Have they complained about it?’
‘No. Well, not yet.’
‘Keep it as a treat for later. Oh, and Geoff…’
‘Stay lucky. It’s not just true about Napoleon’s generals…*
Some four months later, the senior partner called me to his room. ‘Ah Geoff. We’ve been talking about you. Now this is a big decision and you’ll want to take you time about it, but we’d like to offer you a partnership.’
Obviously I gave it careful consideration. At least a minute…
*Bonaparte quote: ‘I would rather have generals who were lucky than good’.