Investigations podcast: Episode 2 – Polly Sprenger
Read below for a transcript of the second episode of our new podcast series - Investigations
Hi, I’m Steve Holt and welcome to the Investigations Podcast.
This is the first episode of the podcast which has been recorded entirely remotely, so without any face-to-face meetings, so please do forgive any issues with sound that are more or not to originate as a result of me being unable to use recording technology properly.
My guest in this episode is Polly Springer. Now Polly is a partner in the global investigations and contentious regularity group at Addleshaw Goddard LLP, and is a fascinating person with great experience and great stories, and I’m really pleased she will allow us to share them with you.
So, without any further ado, here is the conversation:
Hi Polly, thanks for taking time to speak to me. I appreciate you are super busy and life in lockdown is quite unusual. How are you getting on working from home?
Erm, I am very embarrassed about this, but I love lockdown! I feel like I shouldn’t say that publicly, because everyone will think that I caused the coronavirus, or at least, all the Americans, but I think it’s wonderful. It’s just so easy to work and you can get so much more accomplished and still have time for yourself.
So I guess the point/purpose of the conversation is to really talk about you and your career and how you got to where you are now.
I know that you have had a slightly different path to many in our industry, so maybe we start with talking about your... well... I don’t know how to describe it, but your formative years/early years of study and how you found yourself doing what you do now?
Well, like all people at the white-collar bar, I started life as a part-time carpenter and part-time journalist in Minneapolis. So, I have much in common with my peers in global Investigations, working in London, but yeah, I went to University in Minnesota and studied magazine and book publishing, which was kind of a made-up degree.
It sounds like it is, but I was not overly committed to academia, but I was very committed to journalism, so my whole ambition as a young person was to be a journalist and I started working as a journalist.
I think when I was about eight, I started a newspaper at my elementary school and it was full of lots of contentious reports about the librarian and undercover journalism from sixth grade, and from there I went to work for a local paper in my hometown in Felton, California.
I worked on a local paper called “The Valley press” after school writing a column of... as far as I can remember, it’s been a long time ago now... but it was a column about what high schoolers think about the local town. I hope I’m not being fact checked by the Valley press *laughs*.
And actually, I think my Dad was a bit instrumental. He wasn’t a journalist; he was an inventor. No, there is no correlation whatsoever, but in the small town where we lived there was a very active, religious group that had started, even back as the early 80s had started to kind of get people from their religious right onto the local school board and they brought up lots of the local downtown and they would advocate for the schools. It’s a very liberal area, but there is this one, very-active religious group, and my dad, who was not very political, he became very obsessed with exposing their cultish tendencies.
When I was 15, I remember me and my dad going down to the local library. and me and him going through what must have been the 1980s equivalent of Lexis Nexis to track down information from where this church group had come; that it had links to “campus Christians for Christ”, I think was the name of the cult.
So, yeah, we started trying to uncover it, and I think it just became a hobby, but something I think back now on and it’s so simple to Google and have all the information in the world within five minutes, and my dad and I would have rings matrix on paper, the computer paper. We had piles of it, and all this stuff we could find out from the library about this local church group.
I remember the name of the cult; it was campus crusaders for Christ.
A footnote to that story is a good friend of mine from California moved to London a few years ago and she didn’t know any other people in London, so we became friends again. We hadn’t really seen each other since high school and she was in that church group. Now that she’s been here a couple of years, we have become good friends again and I was talking to her about the research project my dad and I had done and said that my dad and I were convinced that everyone from that group was from campus crusaders for Christ! And she said, “oh yeah, they were. My mom and dad were both in it”. Her dad is a pastor in the Church, so that is where they all met, in this cult.
So, going back to the early days, you were always interested in digging and, I guess, getting that from some of your family, and understanding what’s happening, why it’s happening, who’s connected to who and what that means. I guess that is a thread that goes through a lot of investigating work we do. It is a thirst for knowledge in one way, but in the other way, just being incredibly nosey and wondering why something works.
Yeah, its nosiness, its curiosity, it is a certain amount of entitlement. We believe we are entitled to know everything.
I do, however, think a part of it is to know the intellectual challenge of it, that it is a bit of a battle. Someone has some information that I am not entitled to know, because they don’t want me to know, but need to find a way to uncover that.
Not to skip ahead in the bizarre chronology of Polly’s career, but I think that’s how I ended up a lawyer, because there is only so far you can go as an investigator. You need either some compulsory powers, so you join the police or you join the serious crowd office or you become a lawyer, and find out that there is so many remedies that a lawyer can use to enforce disclosure, and I think that’s one of the reasons I specialize in the practice area I do - doing asset tracing and fraud investigations - because the bulk of the legal work in those cases is all about getting access to information or preventing access to information.
I am very disparaging of my legal career, I think. It is a great tool in the box to have when being a good investigator.
It is interesting you frame it that way, because for my sins, I am an accountant, but I don’t often refer to myself as an accountant. I’m an investigator, and I like to figure out why something's gone wrong and how to fix it; to do what you have to use the skill sets you get from certain areas of our worlds, such as the legal skills/corporate intelligence, if you will, and the ability to understand technical information and communicate that to a non-technical audience.
I think that is very important.
To tell a story with it, that is the real trick isn’t it!
So, if you think, there are forensic accountants for whom the numbers are their own story, but the whole purpose of these multi-dissimilar teams we all create - the lawyer, the forensic accountant, the intelligence gatherer - you need all three of those people because the numbers tell one story, my court orders force the telling of another story, and the investigations intelligence gathering round out the picture, so all of it without trying to create a narrative, but ultimately the end of it, whether you are talking about numbers or talking about legal action, it’s all about people screwing up and screwing each other over, and ripping each other off, however, we tried it in the contract, in the corporate filings, in the record, it is ultimately just a story of people.
Your career as a journalist moved away from local news to more nationally available.
I went from California and, a couple of times, I bounced around a bit.
I went to five different university’s before I actually finished my degree, and I finished up at University of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota is fantastic for journalism. Not only is it a great J school, but it also has the Minnesota Daily, that’s the largest-circulation college campus daily.
University of Minnesota, bizarrely, is one of these huge big-10 universities, where 75,000 people on that campus were every single day... Well that’s what the numbers were in 1996 anyway. I don’t know what they are now, but to be honest my academic career was not exactly checkered but not exactly stellar. I did what I needed to do to get my degree and spent most my time working on the paper.
So, after you graduated, do you move back home? Was that right?
I did yeah, but I graduated in 1996 from University of Minnesota and moved back home to San Francisco, and as I have already confessed to you, I did it to follow a boy, God bless him, but learned my lesson and moved back home, whilst toying between two different career paths, both equally obscure, but I wanted to pursue this journalism career, but I had this artistic leaning as well.
I had a minor in studio arts in addition to my journalism degree, and what I loved was wood working and building. I had been an apprentice to a woodworker in Minneapolis for the latter part of university, and then, when I went back home to San Francisco, I was an apprentice to a furniture maker there... there, called Debbie Zito, which is a quite well known one now, and to pay my bills because of course apprenticeships are unpaid, I was working for woodworking and tool magazines.
I confess that the working for woodwork magazines was not much about a burning passion to do journalism or to be a great journalist, it was more of the fact that of, if you did tool reviews for the tool magazines, you could get free tools, so I pretty much used it to outfit myself with all the woodwork UUni equipment and tools that I needed.
Presumably, your investigative skills were used to understand if the tools were up to the job *laughs*
*laughs* I can’t correlate that with my current career, Steven, no matter how hard I try *laughs*
Funny enough though, I do, in the only way of my woodwork interest, - which I still do, - have a 800 -square foot workshop downstairs. The only correlation, really, is that I use a lot of woodworking metaphors in my work, so my juniors may credit me for it, as I have lots of like “well, the toolbox we can use to approach this problem” and “building a solid foundation for the case”, comparing three-legged stools and kicking one leg out is not strong joinery structures, and things like that - that’s really the only connection of what I think.
I think that, oddly enough, I can relate to that, not the woodworking, because I am absolutely useless. I’m certainly not... well, I would never consider myself anything near a crafts person. I actually have some quite-horrible furniture, which is probably quite dangerous, where I have proved I tried, but it has gone horribly wrong and too proud to throw it away. I think, using metaphors and painting a picture is really important in what we do. You have to be able to connect with people and appreciate people won’t necessarily look at things from a legal or accounting perspective, so then stories actually gets people buying into, and getting into, and talking about it.
I think that’s true, and I think one of the things that frustrates me about lawyers is... and the same does not apply to accountants... but lawyers, in particular, when they are unable to explain in the legal concepts what they are trying to advise on.
That really frustrates me because the law is simple and should be simple. If you are explaining it in a way your client can’t understand, that means you don’t understand it, and you are just a quoting statute black letter law at somebody.
There is always an underlying human explanation for why the legal rules are what they are and our job should be, not just to know what the rules are because it’s all in a book, you don’t have to walk around with this stuff in your head - although the geeks do, myself included - but what you have to do is be able to translate that to the human problem you are grappling with, and I’m not sure if that makes me a better lawyer or a worse lawyer, because I always want to contextualize every legal problem, and I must learn a lesson that not everybody cares.
The law is how it is. Some people just want to know the answer, but I always want to explain the fascinating detail behind these decisions and why we’ve arrived at the position we are in.
I guess that in part goes back to the good-journalism origins of your career and that explaining, and contextualizing, is the key thing in getting across a message sometimes, and it depends on what sort of journalism, maybe not so such in tool reviews, but also in talking about technology, which I think was a next major step from memory.
Yeah it was.
I actually don’t consider myself very technology minded, or even have that much interest in it, but I was living in Silicon Valley, and I was a young journalist who needed a job, so when it got to the point where I needed to make a living...
...I think I bought a house, that was why I did it...
I bought my first house when I was about 21 and had to become a grown up quite quickly, so I needed a job that would actually pay a living wage. it was Silicon Valley in the mid–late 90s, and the easiest job to get was one in technology journalism.
My first job was on this magazine called The Local Area Network Times. I’ve worked in some seriously budget-train journals in my day. I once worked a summer for a magazine called The Canner and Can-maker, which was a magazine for the can-making industry, and the most challenging part of that job was - because it was all about cans and can technology - you could not use the word 'can', in its ordinary meaning, or whatever it is... *laughs*
You’d say something like “it may”, or “it would”, or “it could”, or “it might”, or “it should”, but you just couldn’t say 'can', because you have to say 'can' so many other times...
That sounds like a challenge...
Yeah, it was an incredible challenge...
So, yeah, I went to work on Local Area Network Times, as a database reporter, and might seem to be utterly disconnecting, but that did mean, for a year all, I did was learned about was databases and had people explain them to me in super tech-geeky detail, and it came in really handy in later life when data analysis became a huge part of my job, because I understood these underline structures about databases and in a way that not many people from the professional side of the investigation - the accountants, the lawyers and so on - have. An in-depth knowledge of database and how they should be employed to do data analysis.
I have never wanted to go down that technology route and become a programmer or anything like that, it’s just useful to know how they function, how they are set up, and how they are built to bring us back to the earlier point.
Ha-ha, fantastic! That was very smooth I’ll give you that.
Thank you, yes!
I then went from LAN Times to Wired News, which was the website for Wired magazine. It was great fun working there. It was one of my beats, I can’t remember what, but I remember a big beat was pornography, so yeah, I covered the porn industry back in the late 90s, when it was extremely interesting because, of course, and I think we’ve talked about this before, but pornography was one of the early prime movers in commercializing and commodifying the internet.
We take it for granted now that we are all able to transact without difficulty online, but back then everyone was scratching their head thinking “how do we make money from this new media?” and it was a bit read- made for porn, because, dare I say, its anonymous and you can do it from the comfort of your own home, so I wrote a lot about the industry of pornography. It was interesting and you met some bizarre characters.
I can imagine! Just thinking out loud, I guess, in one way, the porn industry in the late 90s isn’t too different from NASA in the late 60s/early 70s, where the technology employed went on to have multiple different uses on day-to-day items we wouldn’t necessarily expect.
You may be the first person to draw that parallel, but I certainly see where you are going with it... *laughs*
It is quite an uncomfortable parallel. I’m not saying that NASA and the porn industry are 'bed buddies' for want of a better description.
Well, I was wondering if it was to do with the shape of the rockets or something like that.
Ha! Well, less said about that the better, but I guess it’s using tools that are designed for one purpose in a much broader other purpose, which is... Again, this may be stretching it, but it’s kind of what we do.
I guess you would use certain legal remedies, which are designed or may have historically been designed, for a certain situation, which would apply to a different situation, which you can get more information of and protect the client in a certain way.
Oh, absolutely, although the segue may be inelegant, but the point is true, and that’s because law develops in response to problems, doesn’t it?
So, you set a remedy or mechanism for one problem, and then a new problem emerges and lawyers can take an earlier president and start pushing the law in that direction. And I have to say, that’s where I find the practice the most interesting. But pushing forward into new areas, and it all comes back to this idea that the law is a mechanism to serve civil society. It is mutable for our own public policy decisions. We can make the law do what we need it to do through certain time-tested measures/passing new statute or developing new judgement law, but nobody can do that if there’s no outside pressures pushing for the law to change, so you need to have ambitious lawyers that are trying to push forward the law in order the judges can make decisions that will take the law forward in a new way, but equally you need to have lots of public policy adaptation to force parliament to change the law in a certain way as well. I think that law changes because people need it to and want to.
Your next step into journalism was not into law straight away. I guess your next step was moving to London, instead of moving the UK?
1999, I came here and, originally at the time, I came to look after my aging grandmother. She was 88 years old then, and she was very unwell.
I didn’t know her very well, as I grew up in the States. My father was English and was her only child, but he had lived for 20-30 years in America, and we didn’t go back very often, so I only really met her once or twice in my life. But after my Dad died in 1993, she became the responsibility of us four kids. So, when she became unwell, we got together and said who’s going to come look after her? Does she need some help?
She is our responsibility, so I went because I was a journalist and it was easy for me to go and move, and I also had itchy feet when I was in my 20s. But it really surprises me that I’ve been in London for 20 years, because the five or six years before I came here, I moved every couple of years. I’m a change junkie. So, I came over working for a technology magazine called the Industry Standard, which was all about '.com', but what people call now, The World.
So yeah. I moved over to the European office and looked after my grandma. I did think I was going to be back in six months. I didn’t think that the sick 88-year-old lady would still be around in 2015, when she finally died at 103! But, she was the reason why I came to London and stayed because, once I was here, having taken responsibility for her, I could not go back.
I did a couple of years at the Industry Standard and got recruited by The Guardian City, and was asked to work for them. It’s fair to say that my brief period at The Guardian finished off my journalism career completely. I just didn’t want to do it anymore, especially after being with the Guardian.
I no longer felt the love of reporting and the mess that comes with working on a daily newspaper. It’s very sharp-elbows and sometimes feels like all your fighting for is another byline, and it was also a period of time where broadsheets and national journalism was a bit confused where I was going to go next as the internet had arrived and there was no understanding as to how many papers fit into that. The newspapers made their money off selling papers and, suddenly, you can’t sell papers anymore and everything’s free, so how do you make money off that?
The Guardian was very confused about it, but it looked at the time that the investigating capacity of journalism was going to be really threatened and, although I wasn’t writing about this, The Guardian Investigations had gone on to bring some of the biggest stories in the world, but it seemed, at the time, that there wasn’t going to be a salary there for someone who wanted to spend six months on a story instead of 15 minutes, but I did love investigations so my next move was into private investigations.
So, how did that come about? Was that just a continuation of wanting to know and dig and understand, contextualize information, or was there anything else behind it?
Well, now that you know me better and know nothing I do is done in an orderly or planned way, it was not a care-free or straightforward career move. I walked out of The Guardian, decided I was going to quit at lunch, went back from lunch and just quit, it was as simple as that.
I then spent two years setting up a workshop and doing carpentry and, it was only after a couple of years of being a carpenter in London, I started to miss having a white-collar job. I started to miss investigations and, overall, missed being out in the world. Building work is very solitary and the only people you need are your clients and Bill at Toucan Tools, who I did like, but after two years of conversations with Bill, I think we had used up all of our mutual interests. Although, I still go and see him when I need a new chop saw or something like that.
So, I decided I wanted to get back into a professional job and off the tools, but I did not want to go back to journalism, so I had this idea that what I loved about journalism was investigations, not writing for a daily newspaper and getting a byline.
So, I started to wonder whether I could casually turn myself into a private investigator. I did some research on how I could do it. It was an overnight research, where I sat up and read constantly, which lead me to finding 15 different corporate investigation companies and I wrote to all of them and said “do you ever hire ex-journalists who also have an extensive suit of power tools to do your private investigations work?” and one of them wrote back to me. A little company in south west London called CapCon.
I spent 18 months contracting for them and got my head around the investigations industry. I also joined the Association of British Investigators and volunteered to run their newsletter for them, which is a good trick for me getting free tools off woodworking magazines days, but it worked perfectly because I could speak to everybody in the industry.
I have just done a year-long research project on how investigations work and who the players are, companies are and how they work together and, after about a year of this, I was offered a job in a corporate investigations team at Controls Group.
How did that lead to your next step, which I think was at the SFO?
Yeah it did, I was at Control Risk for about three years. I had two children in those three years, which is something that turns your life upside-down anyway.
After I had my son - my kids are only 18 months apart, so it was a very crazy time - but after I had my second child, I decided I wanted to work part-time for a while, so I took a sub-contract job, which was a very big case for risk advisory, but it allowed me to pick my hours a little bit better, and at the end of that year, when I was sub-contracting, I was contacted from someone from the fraud office who was doing a consultation on what was then known at the time as the DeGrazia report.
So, around the 2007 & 2008 time period, Jessica DeGrazia was a New York prosecutor, who had been hired by the attorney general head of Scotland to do a review on the SFO for some high profile and well-publicised difficulties that the office had found itself in, and for the historians upon us, this was the BAE case where Tony Blair had legally intervened in the SFO’s investigation to BAE, and there was a lot of head scratching and concern around this.
I am doing it again, aren’t i? I am contextualizing and making a short story long, the whole point was that the SFO had a new director. The DeGrazia report had just been published and it was full of recommendations on how the SFO needed to change in order to be ready for the next coming with fraud.
It was also in the midst/very early days of the financial crisis - the 2008 financial crisis - so what it meant was that the SFO was trying hard to do things in a new way, so there was this consultation going on. I met the consultant who was running the consultation and he said, “how could we adopt certain principles from the private investigation industry and corporate investigations, and apply them to the SFO’s task admission in order to remediate some of these problems we’ve been having of getting cases off the ground and developing/generating our own cases, which is better than waiting for referrals” and this was just over a coffee at Pret A Manger in Grayson Road!
It wasn’t a very formal pitch on my part, but what I said was “why don’t you take the dataset that exists internally and for all the cold cases the SFO has not successfully prosecuted, take all of those defendants who found a technical defense or decided not to prosecute as the evidence was insufficient and were pretty sure they had a good case, and cross reference that with open-source cross data from Companies House and the FSA register, and try and see what the fraudsters that got away with it are doing now? And then start opening cases on that", because, if I have learned one thing from my lifetime of reporting and investigating against fraudsters is that they don’t change unless you force them to. No fraudster gets away from something they are getting away with.
So, this was my proposal for a cold-case review and, as I say, made up on the spot at a Pret A Manger in Grayson Road. I got a call the next day from the director of the SFO saying “you know that proposal you made to my colleague? I would like you to come and do it for me and be my new head of intelligence”.
This was very baffling for me, as I was not aware I had made a proposal... *laughs*
If journalism teaches you one thing, it is thinking on your feet, so I rallied myself and said, “yes absolutely, I’d be more than happy to consider your approach” and I started work around a week later.
Yeah, so, weird coincidence. The more I thought about it, the more I thought this was a really good idea and it worked.
We started launching cases within months, the first case I put together was “Fast Eddie Davenport” and that came about because we had reports from lots of different people that it had been sitting in different databases. So, the first thing I did was build a collective database that brought together this sort of hotline where people could call in and tell things to the SFO.
I matched that dataset with our cold cases, so previous attempts of convictions or convictions. I then put out what’s called a red notice. I would try and find out from other police forces to see if they had heard of any of these suspects and that led me to a wonderful guy, whose name I’m not going to remember.
He is an investigator at the insolvency service, and he had been tracking this group of very prolific, very effective fraudsters for many years, but had been unable to get a case away. It was just bigger than he could cope with, so that led to the prosecution of Gresham and Edward Davenport, along with five/six associated co-conspirators, and it may well still be the SFO’s largest confiscation order. The ultimate confiscation was £30,000,000, and the SFO took possession of a former Ciara Leoni Embassy, just off Oxford Street, 33 Portland Place.
That was just one of the cases, as the same methods were applicable to all data analysis. Taking data points from various databases that didn’t use to relate, in other words talk to each other, and put them into a relational database where the data became live. Then it wasn’t just its storage system, it was an analytical system. It allowed us to make some use of the intelligence we held in a way the SFO hadn’t done before.
I guess this is the proof of the benefit of having different backgrounds, because that information was all there and accessible, just you looked at it in a different way to others and came up with results. But I guess that in a way it shows the benefit of the Rosco model, having the combination of legal and investigator on their accounts and all merged in together, after several years of working in that process you take that decision to jump, if you will, into the legal side of things, rather than the investigative side of things.
How did that come about?
I never thought about it as leaving behind investigations. It was a way to do investigations better.
As a source of some frustration for me, it occurred that there was limits to my knowledge as an investigator. I could come up with ideas, beaver away with new information and find stuff out, but there would always come a time where I’d come up against a brick wall - "we’re not legally entitled to have that information and I won’t give it to you, because I don’t believe you are legally entitled to it." And I started to rail increasingly at outer limits of my ability, my entitlement to this information, and I also had a certain amount of curiosity...
I’m trying to make it sound better than it really is. Really, Steve, it went like this…
I looked at all the lawyers around me, who I found sometimes frustrating and often incomprehensible, and thought to myself: “you don’t seem that much smarter than me. I’m going to go and get a law degree, I’m going to come back here and I will win this argument,” so that’s what I did. Sorry to pretend for a minute like broader option... *laughs*
*Laughs* No, I guess I am asking an over-simplified question to a very complex decision.
It really wasn’t complex... *laughs*
I’m just really sick of being patronised by lawyers, so I thought “if all it takes to get you to stop patronising me is for me to get a law degree and pass some exams, I’ll do it, then we can just get back to getting on with the job at hand.”
Fantastic! Fair enough. So, you become a barrister first?
Yeah, I’m a barrister only, actually. I’m not cross-qualified as a solicitor, so I became a barrister because I had a burning desire to practice advocacy and wear a wig made out of animal products on a hot summers day in an un-air-conditioned court...
Obviously, that’s not true. I became a barrister because it was one-year quicker than becoming a solicitor, and I was already 35/36 when I was called to the bar.
I think you must be getting an idea how I made snap decisions with my life. I read the rules on how you become a barrister and how you become a solicitor and thought “well, this one has a harder test but one-year quicker. This one, they say the test is slightly easier, but you have to do two years and you cannot specialise in your first two years.” So, in other words, I would have had to of done real estate seat, and a corporate seat, and employment seat, but all I want to do is white-collar crime. That’s all I know, all I do and all I have ever done.
I’m a barrister. I can just go straight to a white-collar crime set, do my pupillage and, in three years, I will be a freshly minted lawyer with my 10-15 years of investigative background, and that would be a very useful set of skills to have on the market.
It probably shouldn’t of worked because the numbers are all against you. 500 privileges every year. and 5,000 kids gunning for them, and there is no reason on earth that someone who is barely academic, comprised with a degree in magazine and book publishing from University of Minnesota, with a minor in studio arts and an NVQ in carpentry and joinery... There should be a better person selected for one of those 500 spots, but I was persistent about it.
By the skin of my teeth, I got a pupillage in chambers, which was a wonderful set. Did a lot of SFO work, made some very good friends there, learned an awful lot, and after a year of pupillage was offered a tendency.
I seem to remember you saying that some of your first cases involved your former colleagues, in a way...
So, I did my first six and second six as a pupil, and then I was offered a tendency in October 2013, and one of the people I became good friends with in chambers, Rebecca Chockley - who’s still there - was a junior on the phone-hacking trial and, at the time, the prosecution team was quite thin and very overworked, and Rebecca went to speak to the Crown Prosecution Service. The controller of the case was Gareth Minty, who is now at Mishcon De Reya, who was then with the CPS, and she went to speak to him and said “look, chambers-mate is an ex journalist and an ex private investigator. Why don’t we bring her in to help out on the trial because we are shorthanded?” so Gareth brought me in as the third junior... possibly the fourth...
I was quite down the pecking order and, oh man, I’d have paid cash money to have that seat in court. So, for the first eight months of my career at the bar, I sat in Court 12 at the Old Bailey and watched the phone-hacking trial. It was a really great introduction to the bar, but the amazing part about it was when I walked into Court 12 for the first time, with my very crisp and very new wig and gown, there was a sort of hissing noise from the press gallery. I looked over and there was a journalist from The Guardian there saying, “Polly, what are you doing over there? You are supposed to be over here.” It was a very strange meeting of all my worlds at once on the phone-hacking trial.
It’s a good way to talk about the bar to the law-firm world, I guess. What triggered that?
It wasn’t so much a trigger, but more of an ongoing plan. I intended to do my pupillage and go back to the SFO or a law firm. I really did want to go back to the SFO. I loved working there. It’s the professional mission that sits most comfortably with me. The whole job and Serious Fraud Office is to hold big money to account and to prevent misconduct where…
It's crooks in suits, Steve, that’s my opinion.
I don’t like this idea that people are walking around pretending... Big money and important professionals that won at life, when in fact they are just cheating. I don’t like cheaters.
I thought I’d go back to the SFO, but there had been a change of director, which in the three years I was gone, getting my legal qualification and then completing pupilage... there was a lot of animosity between the former director I worked for and the director at the time I finished my legal qualification.
Now, that’s not to say that’s the reason I couldn’t go back to the SFO. I did approach them and I was told politely I could apply through the front door like everyone else and phone hacking then happening, which took another year out of life...
By the time I finished the hacking trial, I had resolved myself to the fact I would be going to work in a law firm because it seems to me that that’s where you can really apply a trade as an investigative lawyer. If you can’t do it for the prosecutor, then increasingly there is a role for someone with investigative expertise who is also legally qualified, who can advise on the best way to access new material in order to supplement the investigation, but also use the investigative material in order to get a remedy for the client.
So after the hacking trial I would go and talk to all the big firms that were working in corporate crime at the time, see if anyone brought into this concept of the investigative lawyer with prosecutive bent to help conduct independent third-party investigations into clients because of this growing wave of transparency that the whole world now accepts as standard, but as soon as any bad news comes out about a company, with the next announcement to follow is we have instructed independent counsel to instruct an enquiry and internal investigation into the misconduct, but at the time I don’t think it was quite so common.
So, I joined Eversheds, and worked for three years with Neil Blundell there, and I think Neil believed in the same changes that were coming, which I was talking about.
Ok, from Eversheds you are now at Addleshaws?
Yes, that’s right.
I just found Addleshaw Goddards - really big investigations team. I have known Nicola Peters, who runs the team, since I was at the bar, and I wrote a book on firm prosecution agreements and contributed the chapter on investigations, which is how we got to know each other.
The team is big and very busy, and they are in that situation where they can’t stop to hire someone, so they are less busy, but it just so happens that Nicola and one of the other partners, Michelle, and I had dinner together last October. Nicole did say “would you ever think about coming over to join us?” and she had to get back to the office, so we started talking, which resulted in me joining the team in lockdown at the start of May 2020.
Fantastic! Now, one question I am intending to ask everyone... Of course I haven’t recorded many of these, but it sounds a bit odd to say so, but if you could go back 20 years or so and give yourself some advice with the experience you have now had, what would you say to yourself?
Don’t change a God damn thing. You are doing it ALL right. People will tell you it’s all wrong, but it’s going to work out just perfectly.
Well… I don’t think that there are many white-collar crime investigators who can say that they have founded their own newspaper, reported whether the pokes website is points to pornography, or whether China has a super laser that is going to take out the moon, expert cabinet maker and they have run their own cabinet-making workshop didn’t you say? In East London?
In East London, yes.
You then decided corporate intelligence and investigations was the way to go, qualified as a barrister, watch their colleagues or contemporaries face very difficult times, and then become a partner in such a prestigious law firm.
I cannot imagine there is anyone with the same background as you. One thing we have not touched on is all your achievements, and all of this has been alongside having a busy family life. How do you juggle and manage all your time?
I’m not quite sure...
I suppose I keep myself busy, because I fear for people around me if I’m not busy. Nobody wants that full force of that intention, but I have been entirely unapologetic about being a mother with children and still being a full-time professional. The kids come first in EVERYTHING - I set that rule very early, which makes it easy to make decisions.
If I need to attend something at the kids’ school, I just announce it. If you set that tone, it makes your decision-making quite clear. It’s not to say that there aren’t moments where an overactive guilt complex kicks in, because you are trying to grapple with some urgent matter on the case and you are conscious that the children are begging at the door for some attention.
Somehow, we have managed to muddle through, being unapologetic about the facts of family life. It’s nice where things have changed when both men and women are able to give time to their family, time to their children without feeling like they are going to be criticized about it.
Yes, absolutely, I agree. I do feel we have a long way to go where we get to an even ground with it and it's accepted, but at least we are moving slowly in the right direction, if nothing else.
Yeah, and I think that this whole circumstance we find ourselves in now has helped a little bit, because we’ve all seen a lot more of the reality of each other’s family lives, and also how children do come and interrupt when we are on a conference call, and you have to apologies less for it.
Many times, I have hidden in a bathroom, where I strategically mute a conference call so the screams from the other room where children are fighting will not be heard.
Maybe we don’t have to do that so much anymore. Maybe we can all acknowledge that many of us have families, and even if it’s not our children demanding attention, you may have elderly parents you could be looking after, or you may have all kinds of family responsibilities, which you are allowed to acknowledge a little bit more now. And I like that, but I also like the fact that my kids have been a big part of my working life.
My parents had a business together and I grew up going to their office every weekend, because they were entrepreneurs and needed to spend a lot of time at work. My kids have been to my office countless times, now that they are old enough, they come on their own. If they want to come after school, they can jump on the Tube, come to the office and do their homework there.
They know about the work that I do. I talk about it a lot to them; about cases etc...
They know the difference between a case they can mention in public and a case that is confidential.
Thank you so much for making time to speak. I really appreciate it and it was super interesting.
Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed it.
There we go! I hope you found that interesting!
Thank you again to Polly for agreeing to make time to speak and putting up with my inability to record things. It's very much appreciated.
As always, please provide any feedback if it be positive or negative; anything constructive. It will be well received and, if anyone out there wants to speak on this podcast, please drop me a note.
Thanks a lot, take care. Bye.