It was exactly 25 years ago this morning that Barbara Coll and I put the key in the door of our newly rented premises at 149 The Strand and walked up the narrow flight of stairs to the three rooms on the first floor we had rented to open up our new enterprise, a law firm specialising in immigration law cases with a particular emphasis on those raising international human rights issues.
Barbara, then a recent graduate in law from South Bank University, had proven her merit as an unflappable, tenacious and genuinely compassionate lawyer-in-the-making when she had served as my paralegal during her studies at what was then B M Birnberg & Co (now Birnberg Peirce) and was quite genuinely my inspiration, at the relatively advanced age of 45, to take the step of setting up on my own when it proved difficult for her to find a training contract elsewhere.
I recall very clearly that my good friend Robin Dormer, when hearing of the initiative, suggested that I was perhaps overreaching and potentially violating ‘truth in advertising’ standards by dubbing the firm “Wesley Gryk Solicitors” when, in fact, our initiative consisted of but a single solicitor and his trusty sidekick.
The Strand address seemed rather grand – and, indeed, the premises were reputed to have been the home of the renowned 18th-19th century actress Sarah Siddons, whom her contemporary critic William Hazlitt, perhaps inauspiciously for us, had dubbed ‘tragedy personified’. The reality of the premises was less grand, basically three rooms over a Balti House (whose rich aromas would assault us in particular during the summer months when windows needed to be open for circulation) in that still rather undeveloped string of buildings between King’s College and Waterloo Bridge. (Although then and now, one stand out premises on this particular stretch is The India Club located on the first floor of the still more than slightly dilapidated Hotel Strand Continental at 143 The Strand, which became the official ‘club’ of the firm for many years and remains my ‘go to’ West End Bar for a quiet drink and conversation with a friend.)
If one were to choose a single adjective to describe Barbara’s and my feelings when entering our new home it would be ‘daunted’. We had purchased from the previous occupants of the offices a job lot of all of the furniture they were leaving behind, which we found stacked up in piles in the main office. Subsequently, on a trip to Berlin, when visiting the Stasi (the secret police of East Germany) Headquarters in the Lichtenberg district of the city, I was to make the discovery that our job lot of what seemed rather tacky blond-veneered furniture was the old East Germany’s premier furniture line and graced the offices of no less a personage than the infamous head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke!
We had electricity, running water and I can’t quite recall whether the landlines were operating although I am pretty certain they weren’t. (Large brick like mobile telephones were not to become available in the firm until at least several years later.) We couldn’t quite face the prospect of lugging down the stacked desks from their heaps that first morning and, quite sensibly, decided that a more positive initiative would be to take a long walk to the headquarters of the British Section of Amnesty International to buy some posters to stick on the walls. The one poster we purchased that morning which remains very much in my memory was a large black and white photograph of the lone citizen of the People’s Republic of China (since dubbed ‘Tank Man’) who stood up to the onslaught of tanks during the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989.
Rather portentously, we saw the image of that single man standing up to the powers of the State as emblematic of what we hoped to achieve.
To cut a long story short, the phones were indeed eventually connected and little by little they began to ring. As with any new enterprise, we had to begin by taking the messy and complicated and difficult cases that no one wanted. We got a boost when, through previous contacts in the Gulf States, we were hired to ensure the grant of asylum to a cluster of leading Shia dissidents from Bahrain. And nicely juxtaposed and contrasting with that work was the very rewarding work which we were doing with same sex couples to try to establish their immigration rights in the United Kingdom.
Barbara, after two long stints with the firm, has gone on to do great things in the field of international humanitarian protection work, most recently serving a dangerous tour of duty with an INGO inside the Syrian border where her mission was the legal protection of international refugees and internally displaced Syrians, a mission which had to be curtailed when President Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops from the area.
Happily, the firm has gone on to justify the use of the plural in its name, with now a total of four partners (two of whom, Alison Hunter and Barry O’Leary, have been hard working and faithful companions through thick and thin for more than 20 years—with Diana Baxter, the relative ‘youngster’ in the partnership, having joined us in January 2008), five other solicitors, six trainees and paralegals and five support staff (including our practice manager Robert Connor, a more than twenty year veteran and Barrie Tate, who reaches his 20th anniversary with the firm as a legal secretary in July).
A key moment in terms of the firm’s securing a solid position came in the year 2000 when, with the generous help of three large loans from my late dad, a friend and the bank, we acquired our current premises at 140 Lower Marsh, a characterful market street behind Waterloo Station. Again, not luxurious, but very much ‘fit for purpose’ and our home ever since.
Perhaps the key point which I can make for anyone else contemplating the leap of setting up their own practice is that I have never for a moment regretted the decision notwithstanding all of the vicissitudes which we have encountered along the way, not least of which has been our decision to ‘flounce out’ of the legal aid system when we felt it had been eviscerated to the point where it was not feasible for us to offer the same service to our legally aided clients as to our fee-paying clients.
More recent challenges, of course, have been the imposition of the ‘hostile environment’ by then Home Secretary Theresa May in 2012, which continues to affect the decision making of the Home Office today; Brexit and the uncertainty which it has brought to the future of millions of Europeans in the United Kingdom who have for decades been making a powerful contribution to our society; the resultant rise of social attitudes all too tolerant of xenophobic and anti-immigration propaganda; and, most recently on a mundane level, the integration into the Home Office’s immigration procedures of private contractors who, while clearly reaping large profits at the expense of the immigration system, have made our day-to-day attempts to operate in that system a bureaucratic nightmare through their ineptitude.
In spite of it all, it remains a worthwhile and fulfilling project to be standing up to such challenges and it provides a focus for our energies in the current political environment which otherwise would be likely to lead us to despair. I am sure that this is a feeling which we share with the hundreds of friends and allies with whom we continue to work and cooperate in the legal and NGO worlds. Long may our struggle together continue.