A lawyer's paradise lost and found

The People's Lawyerby Philip EllsVirgin 8.99Neil RoseIt is one thing to be consumed by your job, but for two years, Philip Ells found his whole identity consumed.

'The People's Liar' was how the People's Lawyer of Tuvalu was commonly addressed by friend and client alike, which just goes to show how far the profession's bad reputation travels.Tuvalu is the fourth-smallest country in the world, a Pacific Island state 12,000 miles from the City law firm which trained Mr Ells before he threw it all in and signed up to the Voluntary Service Organisation (VSO).

He learnt early on that being a litigator at mid-sized city firm DJ Freeman was poor preparation for defending his clients, whether they be charged with murder or stealing a pig.

'There was no Herbert Smithing anyone,' he recalls now, referring to the City's most feared litigators.

'It wouldn't work.'But it took him half of his two-year stint in Tuvalu, which gained independence from Britain in 1978, to work this out.

'The only way I managed to get things done was being there for more than a year.

By then they knew who I was, what I did; I'd visited all the islands, and then I was able to get a response.

Before that, I'd adopted different tactics: hate mail to individuals responsible, seek urgent court orders, and so on.

I just relied on my training.'Mr Ells, who is now 38, says a combination of circumstances led to his decision to leave the City: several major cases he was working on finished at the same time - and it is clear from the book that he did not enjoy the City lawyer life much - while he had also done a masters degree in human rights which he wanted to put to practical use.

Then there was the death in a car crash of a former girlfriend.

'It was a real shock to the system and made me feel mortal.

I thought, "my God, I've got to go and do something now".'This he most certainly did and a happy by-product of it is this book.

An agent approached him after Mr Ells was quoted in a newspaper article about VSO.

The writing has opened other doors for him and helped abate a long-standing fear that he had burnt his bridges by leaving the City and going to Tuvalu.Upon returning to England in 1996, Mr Ells spent some time working as a lawyer for the whistleblower charity Public Concern at Work, before leaving to start writing his book.

After the first draft was finished, he began work at London law firm Ashley Wilson but found he could not combine that with working on the book, so he left.

Since completing the book, he has joined Alan Edwards & Co in Notting Hill, west London, where he practises housing, general contract, sports and personal injury law.

He also lectures for Public Concern.His Tuvalu tale is an entertaining one, although the book would have been the better for some photographs and judicious editing of some of Mr Ells's cornier jokes.

It lacks a sense of time, but Mr Ells explains that this reflects how his life was on Tuvalu.

He leaves nothing out, particularly his constant illnesses caused by the environment and a poor diet.

There is also a chapter on his first sexual encounter with a Tuvalan, which he admits 'took a few goes' to write.

'I wasn't sure how forthcoming I could or should be, but in the end I decided that I'd gone so far with intestinal problems that I might as well tell the truth about this as well.'From a professional point of view as well, it took some time to adjust.

'I would say something wasn't my field and people would just look back at me blankly and say "But you're a lawyer".'So I found that I had to take on anything that came into the office.

It was stimulating and I guess it raised my professional competence through exposure to different areas of practice.

It made me less afraid of moving out of the two or three things you're allowed to do at a regular City practice.'Another aspect he had to come to terms with was advocacy.

'A legalistic approach wasn't very helpful,' he says.

'I was stiff and extremely formal to begin with until I relaxed and found that not many sections [of Acts] were ever dealt with and talked about.'Mr Ells was the only lawyer in Tuvalu apart from the judge and the attorney-general.

This meant that he acted in criminal cases, but could only act in civil cases where the claim was against the government.

When two citizens were involved, he could help both parties but not act for one.The two issues never far from the surface, in both Mr Ells's book and conversation, are illness and food.

Of the former, he had plenty - culminating in a very serious bout of hepatitis that saw him flown to Fiji for treatment - but of the latter, very little.

Rice and fish were abundant, but more homely foodstuffs, such as cornflakes (at 7 a box), were usually beyond a volunteer's salary of 45 a week.'If you've ever tasted frozen, defrosted, frozen, defrosted oranges you'll know it's easier to have a pill,' he says.

There's not much vitamin C left after all that.

It is like eating an orange potato.

And they didn't have chickens - more like frozen sparrows.' The first thing he did on returning to England was visit Pizza Hut.But the return proved more of a culture shock than arriving in Tuvalu two years before.

'It was a huge shock going [to Tuvalu] and it lasted about three days.

I was in trauma and most of the time I was puking up.

When I came home I thought I would be much more adept at settling in, but in fact there was a longer period where I wasn't sure I fitted in at all.

There were all sorts of peculiarities.'People were older, and had changed physically, while life had changed and moved on.' He went to Tuvalu knowing he had a job and a place to live; he had neither when he returned home.

Then there were all the people, traffic, cold weather and dark nights.

'It took towards a year before I felt comfortable in my own society.'But he has no regrets and hopes he can pursue his writing career.

If nothing else, his book has helped his mother get over the shock of it all.

Having given her son a traditional Jewish up-bringing, Mrs Ells went through 'dismay and shock' over his decision to go to Tuvalu, 'followed by bewilderment and grudging acceptance'.Mr Ells smiles: 'Now my mother can say "my son the author".

She used to say "my son who is no longer the City lawyer".'