The rich, the famous and anyone with a reputation to protect from our increasingly intrusive media have much to thank Keith Schilling for. William Cash meets the man they call the Silencer
WITHIN THE MONEYED sanctums, private members’ clubs and salons of London’s international rich, name-dropping has long been considered an acceptable, if competitive, social sport.
Over the years, while the aristocracy has been displaced as the ruling social class by the new moneyed A-list breed of celebrity, business tycoon or Rich Lister, one fact remains unchanged: people care very much about what other people think of them. Social position (what used to be called ‘rank’), reputation and, perhaps above all, how to use media exposure as a form of fuel to advance their status, careers and bank balances remain matters of great importance to the high-profile community.
Just as there is only one Naomi, Brad, Angelina, Keira, Nicole, Elizabeth or Kate — all Schilling clients — so there is only one Keith. Having been on the receiving end of a few of his strongly worded legal letters over the years while working as a journalist, I was relieved that my first encounter with Keith Schilling in person was not in the High Court but rather over coffee in his smart and slick offices in Bedford Square. The offices are the antithesis of the sort of stuffy Temple or Magic Circle City legal firms that his firm Schillings has been so successful in standing apart from.
‘I’ve seen things wrong with the law on both sides; it’s not just one way,’ Schilling says. ‘The real injustice has
been the invasion of privacy. I think that’s really what motivated me most in my career.’ Throughout his career he has seen the British press practising their dark arts and resorting to every dirty trick in the game to get the stories they want — under pressure from their rivals — from computer hacking to voicemail hacking to rummaging through dustbins to staging fake stings.
Although Schillings is best known for its reputation management and protection, the firm also handles a growing number of high-net-worth divorces. The Schillings Family offering is a key part of the firm’s wider reputation-protection services and appreciates that during times of conflict, the preservation of privacy and reputation is more important than ever.
Along with the wives of high-profile financiers and entrepreneurs who have gone to Schillings for their divorces, the wider Schillings client list speaks for itself. With clients that include Madonna, Kate Winslet, Lance Armstrong, Cristiano Ronaldo, JK Rowling, GlaxoSmithKline, billionaire steelmaker Lakshmi Mittal, Harrods Group and the London Stock Exchange, Schillings has an A-list client base.
Although Schilling has been a presence in the murky, inky world of Fleet Street lies and spin for 25 years, he shows no sign of any tabloid grubbiness having rubbed off on him. A member of the Groucho Club (where he often stays when in London), Keith dresses more like a hot transatlantic New York literary agent than your average London lawyer.
HAD TOM WOLFE been writing his famous 1960s essay Mid-Atlantic Man today, you feel Schilling would have been one of Wolfe’s social models, like David Frost, who jumped at the chance of succeeding in America where they could escape from the fetters of the English class system. Keith and his four partners make a formidable team of talented and experienced lawyers who dominate their area of the market. The firm last year celebrated its 25th anniversary with the establishment of a new Schillings Academy which will train Schillings staff to advanced levels.
Back in January, Keith was invited to take part in a Cambridge Union debate on press freedom with Max Mosley and James Price QC in which the motion was ‘This house believes the British press has too much freedom.’ Before the debate, he said, ‘While freedom of expression is fundamental to any democracy, there are insufficient checks on the media’s freedom which can result in significant and often irreparable harm.’
In many ways, this sentence sums up the essence of what Schilling’s career has been about to date — nothing less than a personal mission to make Schillings one of the world’s premier law firms in the field of reputation protection and safeguarding the rights of corporate brands, high-profile business leaders and celebrities.
As part of the ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the laws of privacy, libel, costs in libel cases and freedom of expression for the press, Schillings has been at the forefront of the debate. Although it might be going too far to say that Keith Schilling has single-handedly rewritten our privacy laws, he has certainly been highly instrumental in ensuring that the rich and famous have been significant — and almost unwitting — beneficiaries of the Human Rights Act of 1998.
The ‘right to privacy’ embodied in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which was adopted by the HRA, states that ‘Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.’ Where Schilling has been astute is in seizing on this legislation to protect his high-profile clients, despite the fact that Article 10 of the ECHR — dealing with the right to freedom of expression — would appear to contradict some elements of Article 8. (‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression,’ Article 10 states.)
Schillings is the law firm that begs to differ. Not the type of ‘freedom of expression’ that involves intrusive photography, for example, such as the case of JK Rowling’s 19-month-old son, who was snapped by a well-known photographic agency. Schilling represented her and won in the Court of Appeal in 2008, setting a precedent that the child of a well-known figure could expect as much privacy as any other child.
‘The internet has been a real challenge and calls for a different form of approach, not least because the blogs or sites you may have an issue with may be overseas and the authors may be anonymous,’ he says. ‘But many of these issues have now been resolved — including getting orders requiring bloggers to reveal their identities — and generally speaking, it would be wrong to regard the internet as a lawless frontier where anything goes. We regularly resolve internet issues but you often need to act quickly to prevent stories spreading, particularly into mainstream media.’
Schillings is at the forefront of examining the laws of privacy and hosted an exclusive event at the Club at the Ivy earlier this year, during which Max Mosley spoke of ‘the urgent need for change in order to protect private lives’. The event revealed the contents of a report called ‘Private Life in the Public Eye’, based on 49 interviews with key Schillings clients and their advisers. The survey concludes with ‘A Blueprint for Change’, which sets out the agenda for new guidelines that ‘protect privacy and reputations without compromising the vital principle of freedom of expression’.
The Schillings report recommends three key changes to the law: first, as stated above, that the press should be required to notify people before publishing stories that will invade their privacy; second, it should be easier to obtain injunctions preventing the publication of untrue allegations; and finally, there should be speedier trials in injunction cases.
SCHILLING HAS LEFT his mark in English law, in particular by winning a groundbreaking privacy case — suing for ‘breach of confidence’ rather than libel on behalf of Naomi Campbell. Campbell took her case to the House of Lords in 2004 after she was photographed in 2001 by the Daily Mirror coming out of a Narcotics Anonymous meeting in Chelsea.
It was held that there was no legitimate public interest in the photograph being published by Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan, and the paper was ordered to pay damages of just £3,500. The Mirror appealed and won what it regarded as a victory for free speech and the right to publish what it liked so long as it was deemed in the public interest.
This presented Schilling with the sort of challenge he relishes. While the seemingly token original award of £3,500 against the Mirror may have seemed a pyrrhic victory for Schilling and Campbell, much more significant was the fact that if Schilling and Campbell decided to take the case to the Lords and lost, Campbell would have to pay not only her own legal bill of around £350,000 (at that point) but also the Mirror’s legal costs.
Schilling raised the stakes by agreeing with Campbell to fight the Mirror on a conditional-fee agreement (CFA) basis, which allows a plaintiff to sue using a lawyer on a no-win, no-fee basis. Schilling won in the Lords and the Mirror had to pay a proportion of Schillings’ costs.
Partly thanks to the Human Rights Act, which was ironically designed to ensure fairer and wider protection for all, the Campbell case effectively helped to create a new form of privacy law to protect the ‘rights’ of celebrities and the wealthy. It also opened up a whole new world of opportunity for aggressive media lawyers such as Schilling.
Schillings’ ultra-high level of client retention is such that it is described by Chambers as a ‘Rolls-Royce claimant practice that is simply unsurpassed’. But while Keith prefers to drive a Maserati today, there was nothing Rolls-Royce about his own origins, or the driven way that he has worked his way to the top of his profession, and this is perhaps one reason why so many maverick entrepreneurs, celebrities and sports personalities like hiring him or working with him.
His clients like him because he retains that self-made edge. He might have a reputation for being a legal attack dog (he has been described as ‘the Rottweiler’), but in person he is charismatic, amusing, blunt, opinionated and always discreet.
Schilling only became a lawyer by chance. Shortly before his 16th birthday his mother, who worked in a local supermarket, turned to him and said, ‘You need to get a job.’ Keith dutifully went off to London and walked into a recruitment agency, who asked him what he wanted to do. ‘I said, “I don’t know, really. I’ve seen this programme on TV and it had a solicitor in it, and it seemed like quite an interesting thing to do, so I’d like to do that.”’
When asked if he had any A-levels, however, Schilling had to shake his head. He was sent off to three law firms, the last of which was run by the colourful and hard-working self-made entertainment lawyer Oscar Beuselinck, who had himself started work aged 14 without any qualifications and rose to become a senior partner. ‘I got a lot of encouragement from him,’ recalls Schilling.
‘To start with I was running errands, acting like a courier, just delivering letters. Sometimes I’d serve divorce petitions. I remember serving one on behalf of Peter Sellers. Another time I had to serve the Beach Boys with a writ. I was the general gofer in the office. If there was a client meeting I made the tea.’
Schilling did a four-year training contract which involved doing a law course in the evenings. His break came when he handled a high-profile case involving Sean Connery, whose manager claimed he was entitled to ongoing commission. Connery counterclaimed, saying he was negligent and owed him millions of pounds. ‘It was a very tough case,’ recalls Schilling, who was in his early twenties.
‘I remember working from eight in the morning ’til eight at night six days a week, and also going in on Sunday morning while I was still a trainee solicitor. It went to trial and we won after three days, and the judge said he had never seen a case so completely destroyed by cross-examination.’
BY THE EIGHTIES, Schilling was representing Private Eye and succeeded in getting the £600,000 damages awarded to Sonia Sutcliffe reduced to £60,000 on appeal after the magazine had alleged that she had cashed in on her notoriety as the wife of the Yorkshire Ripper. But most of the time, Schilling was suing newspapers, not working for them. ‘Even then the Daily Mail was the one we used to sue the most,’ he says.
By then the rise of the cult of celebrity meant that a star’s commercial status and personal standing could be seriously affected by newspaper reports. ‘American stars weren’t used to people going through their dustbins, coming up with things where there was no public interest, and they couldn’t really understand that. It was quite a culture shock.’
Schilling is a big believer in the sincere newspaper apology — the big apology, that is. The problem, he says, is that newspapers want to pay negligible damages and print a small apology buried away in the middle of the paper. That achieves nothing except to annoy the person injured.
His clients realise than when it comes to handling the media you need somebody who knows the rules of engagement. ‘I would never want to give up,’ says Schilling. ‘I just couldn’t face the idea of losing. I’m not generally competitive in other areas but when it came to losing cases, the clients put their trust in me. I just felt that it was my job to make sure that that happened.’
Lucy George, who looks after Elizabeth Hurley’s PR, says that what makes Schilling different is that he makes it clear that he (or at least a member of his team) is available 24 hours a day. ‘I remember we were once suing The Observer on a Saturday at around 11.30pm. The timing didn’t worry him at all — most lawyers don’t even give out their mobile numbers to clients. After hours, they are on their own. Not Keith. He is always cool and ruthlessly unflappable.’
Clients are given a 24-hour emergency mobile number to call the moment they get a call from a journalist asking them for a comment, or from their PR or lawyer warning them that a story might be about to appear. Keith Schilling is known in the media business as ‘The Silencer’ and has been known to get an injunction within less than an hour and a half from getting the first call.
For many Schillings clients, it is the opportunity to seize back control of what is posted or written about them on the internet, in addition to print. While many HNWs might think that once something appears in cyberspace it is almost impossible to remove (especially if it is written outside the UK), Schillings has pioneered effective internet reputation protection measures (including securing public apologies and deleting inaccurate stories) that have minimised any lasting damage. The firm is an expert on how to get website material removed through a procedure known as ‘Notice and Take Down’.
Most high-net-worths, says Schilling, are unfamiliar with how to handle the press should they get an unwanted call, particularly if they are used to working abroad. His advice is not necessarily to issue a statement denying a story, as that can just add fuel to the fire. ‘It may be a good idea, but I think that clients need to know their full range of options before they do it,’ he says.
‘In many cases you shouldn’t get involved because you will make more trouble and draw attention to the problem. A better option might be applying for a privacy injunction, it might be asking the journalist to state the allegations, or it might be putting contrary evidence to the newspaper’s legal department on a “not for publication” basis.’
WHAT DO YOU say? ‘We contact the legal department and say, “We’ve heard you are going to run this story, but what you probably don’t know is that you’ve got this story completely wrong.” When it is quite a serious story we often get the response, “Well, we don’t actually know anything about it.” Then I will say, “I think you might want to know about this because your journalist is about to file copy on it and your legal budget is going to disappear quite quickly.”’
In the past few years, Schilling has seen a sharp rise in the number of financial clients, from wealthy hedge-fund managers to CEOs of major companies, who often do not want anybody to know they are getting divorced. Schilling, who is himself divorced, has done plenty of high-profile divorces, including the Shan Lambert case in 2002 which became a landmark case as it was the first high-net-worth divorce case in which the wife received 50 per cent of the assets.
Again, as in the Naomi Campbell breach-of-confidence privacy ruling, it was Schilling the brash outsider who created a ground-breaking precedent, rather than a top specialist divorce firm who had been working in that field for 25–30 years and not made any changes at all.
With the divorce courts now being opened up to the media, Schilling’s strategy for clients is to avoid or minimise the amount of material that is deployed in court or, in appropriate cases, to consider asking the court to impose restrictions on what can be published. ‘A good prenuptial agreement or postnup is sometimes the best tool for protecting your privacy. People who really want to avoid a contested trial should really think about having a good prenup or a postnup, as it may mean no hearing is necessary.’
The bulk of Schillings’ matrimonial clients have traditionally been women and from the weaker financial position, although this has changed over recent years, with new clients coming from the banking world looking to protect their assets — both women and men. Interestingly, Schilling says he is not convinced that all women who come to discuss getting divorced really want to get divorced at all.
‘Very often what they are doing is trying to shock their husband into not doing what it was that they were not happy about. I think many women think of the wider family unit. In my experience, it is much more likely that the husband will break away than the wife will break away. The wife just wants to get things fixed, but trends are changing.’
Another area of expertise for Schillings is helping to track down assets that may have been hidden away. ‘Where the family money is all in trusts it’s important to find out who owns or controls what. Quite often you find in divorces that relatives or business associates suddenly pop up and say, “Don’t you remember I lent you that £100,000?” You can’t completely avoid those civil disputes, even with a postnup. Postnups help a lot but they don’t solve all the issues which can arise, such as valuations of assets and liquidity issues.’
Whether it’s footballers, heiresses, billionaires, Rich Listers or hedge-fund managers, high-profile individuals all go to Schillings the firm because often the event itself — whether it is a divorce, a boardroom bust-up or a rehab problem — is actually less important than the media coverage of it.
When I ask Schilling for any other advice for Spear’s readers, he says, ‘If you value your and your family’s privacy and reputation, take advice now and do not wait until there is a crisis. Crises can often be avoided or mitigated with preparation. We often work closely with public-relations advisers on these issues as our respective services are complementary and not competitive. For example, in-depth interviews about one’s private life are often asking for trouble if you want to protect your privacy later on.’