Lord Collins of Mapesbury

New Heights

Lawrence A. Collins ’65 LL.M. reflects on his career in the law, a winding road that has taken him from law firm success to the highest court in the United Kingdom

By Mary Johnson

Winter 2010

In October of last year, Lawrence A. Collins ’65 LL.M. (Lord Collins of Mapesbury) became a justice on the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. The accomplishment is paramount, and, Collins freely admits, he still can’t quite believe he is among the 12 justices now presiding over the country’s highest court.  

Indeed, when Lawrence Collins graduated from the University of Cambridge in 1964, he never dreamed he would ascend to such a level—in part because that level did not exist. The U.K. Supreme Court was established just last year, as a result of the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005, which sought to impose stricter boundaries between the different branches of government. Under the old system, the reigning “law lords” of the country’s superior court were members of the upper house of the legislature, although they acted purely as a court. The creation of the new Supreme Court was designed to ensure a formal separation of powers. 

“It is uniquely satisfying to be able to dispense justice, and also to develop the law,” Collins notes.

Since assuming his new post this past October, the bespectacled justice has plunged into his work with an energy that belies his four-plus decades in the law. The cases have been intriguing, with the court’s rulings prompting headlines in the country’s largest papers, and the position requires that Collins adjust to a new title: The rules of the British peerage state that when a peer has the same surname as another peer (dead or alive), a place name must be added to distinguish him or her from the other. When Collins was named a law lord just a few months prior to joining the Supreme Court, he obtained permission to use the name Mapesbury, which refers to the district where he was brought up, to distinguish himself from Lord Collins—a law lord in the early 20th century and a former Master of the Rolls. Since adopting the name, Collins has served the court as the Right Honorable the Lord Collins of Mapesbury. 

In addition to his LL.B. and LL.M., Collins also holds a doctor of laws degree from Cambridge, and he has been the general editor of Dicey, Morris & Collins: The Conflict of Laws, currently in its 14th edition, for more than 20 years. Collins is also a Fellow of the British Academy and an elected member of the Institut de Droit International.

Still, a distinguished career alone was not enough to earn Collins entry into the British high courts; instead, he owes that opportunity in large part to well-timed legislative action:

When Collins embarked on his legal career as a solicitor (an attorney who typically does not take cases to trial) in 1968, lawyers with such qualifications were barred from becoming high court judges. It wasn’t until 1990, long after Collins had become a well-respected partner in the London office of Herbert Smith, that those rules were amended, opening a door long closed to solicitors like Collins.

In 1997, he became one of the first two solicitors to be named a practicing Queen’s Counsel. The next year, that position allowed him to appear before the country’s high court on behalf of the Chilean government in a battle over the extradition to Spain of Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet.

That case served as the prelude to Collins’ meteoric rise through the judicial ranks. He subsequently became the first solicitor ever appointed to the High Court bench (Chancery Division) straight from private practice, as well as the first former solicitor named to the Court of Appeal. And, shortly before taking his position on the Supreme Court, Collins was named a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary—which was, at the time, the highest judicial post in the country.

Just a few months after taking his seat on the Supreme Court, the City of London Law Society honored Collins with the organization’s lifetime achievement award. Unable to attend the ceremony, Collins delivered his acceptance speech via a brief, two-minute video in which he recalled his first day in the London office of Herbert Smith more than 40 years ago and the momentous career that ensued. “I have often been asked whether I am glad I became a judge,” Collins said. “What I say is that I have enjoyed every minute of it.”