‘A force of nature’ – Stephenson Harwood mourns death of veteran litigator

John Fordham, 74, spent 50 years at London firm, 25 as head of litigation

John Fordham

Stephenson Harwood has announced the death of veteran litigator John Fordham, describing him as “widely regarded by those who worked for, with or against him, as a force of nature”.

Fordham, who was 74, led Stephenson Harwood's litigation department for 25 years and acted in a string of high profile cases, among them advising Lonrho in a bitterly fought battle over the ownership of Harrods in the late 1980s.

He was also an integral part of the Stephenson Harwood team that, through their role as adviser to the Iranian bank Markazi, helped secure the release in 1981 of 50 hostages held in the US Embassy in Tehran. 

Stephenson Harwood’s statement read: “He was a man of extraordinary energy and passion with a character larger than life, his booming voice audible across the office floor each day. He was fiercely loyal and devoted to his clients, the firm and his work and enjoyed an epic career that spanned more than 50 years, all of it at Stephenson Harwood. 

“To so many of us he was inspirational; he showed that litigating could be fun, that time spent teaching less experienced lawyers was time well spent, and above all that you should always lead from the front.”

Fordham joined Stephenson Harwood in 1972, following his legal studies at Cambridge University, qualifying as a commercial litigator and making partner in 1979. 

Having run the firm’s graduate recruitment programme, he later headed the firm’s commercial litigation department for 25 years, a record that is unlikely to be surpassed by his successors. 

Such was his drive that, on retiring from the firm in 2022, the role was split into two, not least owing to the size of the firm’s practice, having recently attracted talents like Dan Smith and Genevieve Quierin, alongside established partners including Kamal Shah, Sue Millar, Ed Davies and Paul Thwaite.   

He continued to work for the firm as a consultant, focusing on mediation, of which he was an early and enthusiastic adopter.

Fordham’s expertise spanned many high-profile disputes; ranging from the Maxwell Pensioners’ claims to litigation against Dame Shirley Porter in the ‘Homes for Votes’ scandal.

During the battle for control of Harrods, he was joined as a defendant to proceedings against Lonrho’s CEO Tiny Rowland and Donald Trelford, then editor of The Observer, for contempt of the House of Lords for handling a leaked copy of the DTI inspectors’ report into the Fayeds.

He told The Times it was his worst day as a lawyer, before adding: “Needless to say, one of my best days was when the complaint was dismissed and my conduct expressly approved by their lordships.”

The firm said: “John was renowned for his sharp intellect, a trait that was both admired and could, at times, be challenging. He had an innate sense of linguistic precision and was particularly displeased by split infinitives and other grammatical misdemeanours.” 

It also stressed his personal generosity as well as his interests in cricket, art and travel, including the firm’s biennial litigation department trips around Europe.

John Reynolds, of Meysan Partners, which launched in London in July, wrote on LinkedIn that Fordham was “a great litigator, a generous member of the wider disputes community and a good person to spend time with.” Former Law Society president, David Greene, said Fordham was “gracious and kind but a litigator with steel giving outstanding service to his clients”.

Among barristers he instructed who paid tribute to him was Paul McGrath KC, of Essex Court, who said his commitment to working hard for his clients was legendary. 

His chambers colleague, Jeffrey Gruder KC, said he found Fordham “a charming, knowledgeable and urbane instructing solicitor who always went the extra mile for his clients”. He added: “The news of his death is indeed shocking and leaves a void.” 

Fordham is survived by his wife Sarah, children Rebecca and Ben, and five grandchildren.

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