Jogging with the FT: Mark Stephens

Dressed in a fleecy top, tracksuit trousers and a chunky pair of trainers, Mark Stephens tells me how busy he is. You might recognise him as the lawyer who keeps popping up on TV, always standing up for the little guy; until recently, he represented Julian Assange. He is very tall, quite burly, and his curly hair, which is receding, sticks up at funny angles. He’s not at all crusty or condescending, and talks like a much younger man – say about 35, rather than 54, which is his real age. It becomes clear, after a few minutes, that he is formidably bright.

But for a while, Stephens has had a problem. He’s so busy standing up for the little guy – flying to America to protest the death penalty, to the Caribbean to discuss reform of the libel law in Jamaica, to the Gulf to give talks on human rights – that he tends to put on weight. “I’m unfit,” he says. “That’s really the point. Like most lawyers, I go to a lot of cocktail parties, business lunches, business dinners.” When he travels, he gets no time to exercise at all. “I’ve put on far more weight than I should’ve done,” he says.

His wife came up with a solution, in the form of a Christmas present. On Christmas Day 2006, Stephens was given the services of a personal trainer. “It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever had,” he says. Up to three times a week, he meets his trainer at his central London office, does some stretching, some abdominal exercises, “sit ups, those kinds of things”, and then they go for a jog around Regent’s Park. The plan was for me to join them – but, alas, the day before I wrenched a ligament in my foot, and it’s as much as I can do to hobble. So Stephens will run, and I’ll limp along, and talk to him while sitting on a park bench.

It’s 8.30am. “This week,” he says, “is the week of getting back up to fitness.” In the past few months he has been travelling a lot, and running rather less. For instance, he was in Atlanta for the execution, by lethal injection, of Troy Davis. The circumstances were particularly gruesome. “He was due to be killed at 7pm local time,” says Stephens. But the Supreme Court in Washington, his last chance of a reprieve, went hours over time. “The local authorities,” says Stephens, “demanded to put him on a gurney, strapped down, with his IV tube already in place. He got the thumbs down some hours later.”

Stephens’ voice reminds me of someone. After a while, I realise who it is. It’s Colin Firth. Received Pronunciation, but not snooty. Actually, he went to a secondary school in Knap Hill, Woking, and later to Strode’s, a grammar school in Egham. His father was an artist; his mother was a secretary and then a social worker. “I came from a very poor family,” he says. After school, he read law at the North East London Polytechnic, now the University of East London, where he is currently chairman of the governors. He also chairs the Contemporary Art Society, and the Design and Artists Copyright Society. Imagine all those dinners. The puddings. The wine. You can see why he needs to jog.

Actually, he says, he was quite sporty as a boy. His thing was swimming – he swam for his county – and, later, scuba diving. He was the second-best swimmer in the school. “I used to row a bit – I’ve downgraded that to punting,” he tells me. When he was a student, he dived whenever he could. “Anywhere in England. Made my own wetsuit. You buy bits of Neoprene, and cut them out, and glue them together, and stitch the insides of the seams. You have to only stitch halfway through the Neoprene, otherwise it’ll rip.” For a while he was interested in skiing. He went to the Alps a lot. “And then you get older, have children, become more slovenly and sedentary. The lawyer’s lifestyle takes its toll.”

Still, he’s fighting back. He jogs off, around the park, with a surprisingly elegant stride. He says he doesn’t get a runner’s high. “For me, there’s not an enormous amount of pleasure in it.” But if he sticks at it, he can lose “a couple of inches”. Sitting on the bench, with my bad foot, I think about Stephens’ life. He travels around, and sits in rooms, eating and drinking, all in the cause of standing up for causes and clients. This is not good for his health. So he must jog around the park, to keep himself fit enough for another round of flights and speeches and dinners.

After his run, which is a couple of miles, Stephens says goodbye to his trainer, Keir Kennedy-Mitchell, who also trains the newsreader Jon Snow. Then he does some stretches against my bench. Recently, he says, he found a dead body under one of the benches.

I ask him about Julian Assange. He says he’s not prepared to say anything. He no longer represents the Australian whistle-blower.

But we have a tangential and fascinating conversation about the concept of sexual consent. He says that there are examples of men asking their putative lovers for consent via text message. He’s a fount of nuanced knowledge.

We go for coffee and a croissant in an Italian restaurant opposite his office. He is flushed with effort. I wince every time my left foot touches the ground. In the restaurant, we discuss his work. He’s extremely charming.

He tells me about the people he has represented over the years. There was J.S.G. Boggs, an artist who drew banknotes so beautifully that restaurants were prepared to accept them instead of real currency. “The Bank of England didn’t think that was very funny,” says Stephens. His client was prosecuted for forgery, but acquitted. Stephens also represented the Tasmanian Aboriginal community in their efforts to recover the remains of their ancestors, which had been looted and displayed in museums in the 19th century. He won.

I tell him I recently heard him on the radio, sticking up for Jeremy Clarkson after Clarkson said he would like it if the public sector strikers were “shot”. “One of my beliefs,” he says, “is that people have the right to free expression, and that includes Jeremy Clarkson.” For Stephens, when something is obviously a joke, it should be treated as a joke. We drink two cups of coffee each. He’s great company. But now, perhaps marginally fitter, he gets up, shakes my hand, and walks across the road to his office, a big man with a spring in his step.

William Leith’s next book is about entrepreneurs.

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