Lawyers Who Moonlight: Simon Leaf

In our new Lawyers Who Moonlight series we speak to lawyers about balancing a full-time legal career alongside a serious hobby, charitable role or even a part-time job. If you are in the legal profession and pursue a passionate past-time, we’d love to hear your story. Drop us a line via [email protected] [yes it]

Here’s a corner of football trivia that you may not have visited before. What do global superstar Gareth Bale; former Arsenal stalwart Theo Walcott; and the first ever Englishman to score at the new Wembley Stadium, David Bentley, all have in common?

The answer we’re looking for is that they have all been refereed by Mishcon de Reya’s Simon Leaf.

Admittedly, this isn’t trivia that’s going to threaten pub quizzes any time soon but it does underline just how high Leaf – who is now a Managing Associate specialising in Technology and Sport at MDR at just 32 – climbed during his semi-professional refereeing career which he juggled alongside school, university, his legal training and his early years as an associate at Berwin Leighton Paisner (now BCLP).

This week Legal Geek caught up with Leaf about committing his late teens and twenties to two professional pursuits – and what positives his double life brought him.

How high up the refereeing ladder did you reach?

“I reached level 3. Which meant I would be regularly running the line for Premier League reserve games and U18 games, as well as officiating on the Conference and Conference South. With last-minute changes to referee schedules, I sometimes took the whistle as well. This meant sharing the field with the likes of Gareth Bale, in a Tottenham v Arsenal reserve game featuring 10 internationals.

“There were some other lofty moments as well, such as refereeing an FA Cup fixture live on ESPN between Uxbridge and FC Wembley, who were coached by Terry Venables and Martin Keown at the time and had a number of international stars playing for them. The match was commentated on by Jon Champion who is covering the World Cup for ITV. That was a fun moment. ” [watch Simon in action in the FA Cup below]

How did you get started in refereeing?

“I’m a bit of an Arsenal fan and I used to go to games with my Grandad and saw the abuse that referees got. With my slightly biased goggles on, I always thought I could be doing a much better job than the referee. So when I was 16 – and I knew I wasn’t going to be a playing for Arsenal by then – I roped in a few of my friends to do a Monday night refereeing course over 12 weeks in central London.

“I imagined that just as a park footballer scoring 30 goals a season rises quickly up the ranks, it would be the same with refereeing. But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Football is very hierarchical with only one promotion a year available at the time. But I was ambitious and threw myself into it which meant doing as many games as I could, often in far flung places without a car to get me there. So I would get the bus to Hackney Marshes on a Sunday morning to referee players who were twice my age, and sometimes in teams that couldn’t field 11 players and were often semi-hungover. It was pretty character-building in terms of staying calm under pressure, and making difficult decisions.

“From there I got a few successive promotions and by 19 I was the youngest semi-professional referee in the south of England. I continued refereeing through a business degree at University and by the end of my course things were going very well which led me to doing law as I was attracted by being a student for another two years (it meant I could keep going with my refereeing)! I was then very fortunate to find a firm who were happy for me to continue refereeing whilst training. And that was BLP. However, a few years ago, I decided to take a step back from semi-professional refereeing and focus more on my career as a lawyer, although I still referee on an ad hoc basis.”

How did you juggle lawyering with semi-professional refereeing?

“It was quite tricky. When I was at law school I would get a call on a Monday morning saying ‘someone had pulled out of being the 4th official at Eastbourne this evening, can you fill in?’ and I would drop everything to leave at three to be down there for the game.

“Obviously when you are a law trainee in the city it’s not as easy to be flexible. The FA understood that and I gave them a list of around 30 clubs that I could get to within an hour of the City which meant in theory I could get to these grounds with only having to leave a bit early. But midweek games were difficult. At weekends though, I was able to do two games over Saturday and Sunday and the FA would try and maximise their use of me. It meant a lot of my weekends were spent travelling anywhere south of Birmingham.”

At 19, Simon became the youngest semi-professional referee in the south-east of England

Has your refereeing career helped your legal career?

“Without a doubt it has had a very positive effect. For example, I don’t think I would have gone to Cambridge had I not been a referee. It was a great life experience to draw upon in the interview process, as it was when interviewing at law firms. To questions such as ‘when have you had to show leadership’, ‘describe working together in a team in a difficult situation that you had to deal with?’, or ‘give an example of when you convinced people who didn’t initially agree with you?’ I had plenty of experience to call upon as these were all situations I had dealt with on a game-by-game basis for years as a referee. Ultimately, it taught me the importance of remaining calm under pressure, something that is important when negotiating contracts for clients.

“Another great benefit was getting used to taking feedback. As a referee, you have an assessor at more or less every game watching your every move and writing a report saying what I had done well and not done well. Having had that frequent feedback loop as a referee meant that as a junior lawyer, when clearly I didn’t know what I was doing at every point, I was much more used to hearing and taking on board feedback from above.”

“In terms of being a good commercial lawyer, there are plenty of similarities. The best lawyers (like the best referees), are there to facilitate a commercial transaction, in much the same way as a football match. It shouldn’t all be about the lawyers or the referees; both are ideally there to try to ensure a smooth and successful outcome for all interested parties.”

Legal Geek Conference

What were the wider benefits of having a serious pursuit in your life that wasn’t work, home or social life?

“It may sound a little bit ridiculous but having 22 players and sometimes thousands in the stands screaming at you and scrutinising your every move was a breath of fresh air. It’s the exposure to a completely different set of pressures that was actually refreshing, as well as getting me out and about to stay fit and active. Albeit, clients were often interested in discussing the games that I had been involved with and there were even times when clients would be at the games that I was refereeing. On those occasions, there was even more pressure to get the decisions right!

“In my view, all of that is needed when your day job can be a stressful environment. What’s more, my knowledge of the southern England’s A and B road system in order to get to obscure football grounds is now second to none!”

Simon LeafSimon Leaf is a Managing Associate at Mishcon de Reya specialising in Technology and Sport. He joined MDR in 2016 after six years at BCLP.


Recognise Simon? It might from our Mario Kart interview. Check it out below.