The idea of the ‘one-man show’ of the legal profession is dying.
In the centre of town, we now have the leviathan legal offices of Arthur Cox, Goodbody and Matheson. The increasingly complex legal sphere now demands a dedicated team to close cases and sift through stacks of papers and files that the tenacious Law Society may inspect at a moment’s notice.
Firms assign the multiple areas of modern litigation to their various staff members, who in turn call upon the many barristers of the capital to assimilate, represent, and wax vocal upon their often painstakingly assembled cases. There’s a reason Hollywood favours the ‘lawyer flick’ over the ‘solicitor slog’.
So those who remain ‘lone wolves’ of the legal profession are nearly all passed or retired, pleased to have filed their last depositions and said farewell to their remaining clients.
And then there’s David Bell.
At one time, a young trainee solicitor fresh out of UCD, a criminal law expert running his own firm, then Master of Taxation of the High Court, and once more back to the office game of papers, elastic bands, staplers and stamps.
He tells me, at his house in Dundrum, where he lives with his daughter Cathy, that he’s “just about finishing off the last of it now, though a solicitor’s work is never really done”. Even at 95 years old.
A loaded saucer of biscuits keenly draws the eye downwards. There is a family picture with Eamon de Valera on the living room shelf, and stacked cardboard boxes of files surround the bed downstairs that he now retires to each night.
When Bell was born on 18 January 1920, the state was not yet legal or even formed and women in the US were still not allowed to vote. He belongs to that generation and period where “nothing of that sort could or would be discussed”, but now he’s about to witness the passing, in legislation, of same-sex marriage.
As he wanders back to the kitchen table with another document in hand, I set to work on finding out what he’s seen and why, as his century approaches, he still goes on.
Mr Bell, as I knew him for several years previous to our meeting, originally hails from Waterford town, where he “would take the barge across the river Suir to ferry [him] to school each morning”.
At 18, he enrolled at UCD to study law, and after he got his degree in October 1942, he entered the practice of Peadar Cowan of Dame Street on 24 March 1943.
While studying for his degree, he one day “crossed over O’Connell Street only to encounter the ‘stop-press’ lad who was declaring war in Europe”. The young solicitor was about to enter the world of the Emergencia, the Glimmer Man and the criminal underbelly of wartime Dublin, whom he would come to represent in court.
As rationing took effect and precious commodities were increasingly scarce, some individuals took the initiative to illegally import certain goods into Dublin Port; linens, sugar, tobacco and bicycle tires were amongst the illicit cargo often unloaded.
Those unlucky enough to be caught were brought before a military-style tribunal set up in the Four Courts to deal with such smuggling undesirables. The young solicitor of Dame Street was their representative.
“They were tough judges in the courts then, they were soldiers more than anything else, as such they couldn’t or rather wouldn’t accept the nuances of the legal system. It was my job to present a fair and reasoned case in defence of the men who smuggled the goods through,” said Bell.
In 1943, a criminal law solicitor was as precious a commodity as those smuggled up the Liffey. Bell reckons there were only about 900 solicitors practising in the country at the time, compared to the 8,894 in 2013. And it was these early cases that convinced Bell to continue in the same vein.
In 1951, he branched out on his own, establishing his firm at No. 13 Bachelors Walk. In the epicentre of the city, Bell, as a criminal law solicitor, was simultaneously a stone’s throw from the courts, the scenes of the many crimes he determined to examine, and of the representatives of state he came to know.
Around this time, whilst employing the likes of future Circuit Court Judge Frank O’Donnell and Michael Moriarty, the future tribunal Wizengamot, to represent at court, Bell came to know legendary Dublin Garda James “Lugs” Branigan, a figure he describes as “very much his own man . . . he was rarely seen in uniform and a great inspiration for the young lads he reprimanded.”
“Lugs was a boxer and he was determined to convert the young men of Dublin away from crime through the sport, a big guy few dared to mess with”.
It becomes obvious talking to David that he, like few others in Dublin at the time, had a position only a representative of the law could hold: on the one hand, a professional on good terms with the mechanics of the State, on the other, with those the State would rather have locked away.
“In those days, I’d be up working until three or four in the morning, drive home and then I’d be up again at eight. I had a young family at the time. I came to realise down the line that criminal law is a young man’s game. The late hours take their toll, not to mention your presence in four different courts at the same time. I knew it couldn’t be sustained,” he said.
Though certain moments could not be missed for the ever-dutiful solicitor: “I’d just finished up a deposition in Rathfarnam one day, it was the summer of ’63. I got in the car only to hear the radio broadcast live from Arbour Hill, where Kennedy had just paid tribute to the leaders of ’16. I sped off in the direction of Merrion Square at a furious speed and had parked just in time to see the motorcade and the man himself wave to those assembled on Clare Street.”
As successive Fianna Fail governments oversaw such historic events, Bell continued in private practice throughout the ’60s until, with the election of 1969 and the assumption of Jack Lynch, he was offered the role of Taxing Master of the High Court, a role which essentially adjudicates and manages the costs incurred by solicitors in their work.
Bell accepted the job offer and assumed his new position in 1970. It’s quite easily forgotten, given his verve and incredible memory for dates and names, that Mr Bell was no spring chicken when, aged 50, he entered the role of the law’s official accountant.
It’s position he describes as “a hangover from the British Empire”, and it required complete loyalty. The Chancery Taxing Master Act of 1845 states that “no person, while he holds any office or employment under this act, shall practice . . . as a solicitor and every solicitor who shall accept any office or employment under this act shall be struck of [sic] the roll of solicitors of the High Court”.
Thus, he was disbarred from any further work in the field of criminal law. Bell is quick to point out how times have changed since his day as Tax Master General, noting that between “1927 and 1972 there were only five of them yet there have been five since I departed in 1990”.
Bell could then have easily have taken his pension, bid adieu to the courts and taken up residence at Slipperville. He had, at 70, already had a great career, earned the respect of his many colleagues, earned enough to see his days to a close. But he didn’t.
“I couldn’t retire. Call it habit if you want, but I still stay up at night until the early hours. The toll still has to be paid. I still have stuff to do. One important lesson you learn from a life with the law is to see to your own affairs and the remains of your cases. I legally have to keep my files for six years after they’ve closed,” he said.
Initially considering a move back into criminal law, Bell decided to work across the board from 1990 onwards, and took up residence in the office of Moriarty & Co. on Anglesea Street in Temple Bar, until 2012 when the company disbanded.
He then moved next door into Carley and Connellan solicitors until last year, when he made the final move home to finish off his correspondence. In the world of modern litigation, of increasingly complex acts and legislation, Bell is well aware of his throwback status.
“I had a phone; lost it. I’ve seen computers, but have not a clue as to how they work. But I’m still going all the time, it beats sitting here like a zombie. My legs hurt, yes, these damn pills I was prescribed have messed with my legs the last few months.
“Ultimately, it’s a tough life in litigation and now there are so many young solicitors and barristers out there. Is it a career path one should choose? I don’t know, but the whole system has changed. I was a one-man show. That just couldn’t happen today.”
One suspects Mr Bell will go on and on, again and again.
Is he Larkin’s own representative, the “ruin-bibber, randy for antique”?
Has his career, since time immemorial, taught him nothing but a steady flow of cases and files never quite closed?
I wonder if it’s boredom, nothing better to do. He has his children and grandchildren, his Sunday churchgoing, his Monday papers. It seems though, with faculties intact and a solid vessel, retirement is very much for the birds.
The recollection of past pleasures benefits this profile, yet weeks hence he’ll still be pouring over cases and costs. Stimulated by a life of duty and depositions, the young solicitor fresh out of college still shines through. The elderly gentleman remains unwilling to head into that mysterious night.