‘Readiness to stand up to the Prime Minister, as Lord Carrington did when he persuaded Mrs T to settle Rhodesia by holding elections that brought Mugabe to power. Plus energy for constant travel, keeping on top of things and listening to people,’ says Sir Michael Wood, former chief legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and a Bencher of Gray’s Inn. He notes that Sir Alec Douglas-Home ‘got on well with people’, Robin Cook was ‘very bright and, while not a lawyer, understood the law’, but the job’s got so big that ‘it’s a near impossible task nowadays’.

Sir Michael’s time at the FCO reads like a modern history textbook and covers the invasion of Iraq in 2003: before, during and after. ‘I put together teams of FCO lawyers to work on nothing else. I advised that the invasion was unlawful. It’s now all covered in the evidence to the Chilcot Report. The Attorney General of the day – Lord Goldsmith QC – eventually concluded that it was lawful, and I respect that.’ One of Sir Michael’s legal colleagues resigned because she did not agree with the invasion. Should he have? ‘That could be regarded as an impertinent question,’ he says gently. ‘I’ve never needed to justify not resigning. We couldn’t all resign. Someone has to carry on running the show.’

He studied law for four years at Cambridge, choosing it over English. ‘At first I didn’t see law as an academic subject – until I discovered international law, in which I went on to specialise at postgraduate level. I was interested in the policy behind the law, in the history and international relations. I had outstanding teachers – Clive Parry, Eli Lauterpacht and John Collier – all practitioners as well as academics. Practice brings a heavy dose of reality and makes for inspirational teaching. Clive Parry encouraged me to apply to the FCO Legal Advisers, for which I am eternally grateful,’ he adds.

By then Sir Michael had passed his Bar finals, finished university, lined up a pupillage in chambers, and embarked on a new one-year scholarship at the Institute of European Studies, Brussels. ‘I studied the law of the Common Market and the Council of Europe (including human rights), which set me up for what followed.’

He joined the FCO in 1970 straight from Brussels, bypassing pupillage on the insistence of the FCO. His first assignments were to advise chiefly on diplomatic privileges and immunities: ‘Things were dumped on my desk and I was expected to get on with it. But the questions were well set out by policy colleagues who knew their stuff.’

A series of high profile responsibilities followed on accession to the European Communities: ‘Three months in Brussels, translating treaty texts into English – all done in a hurry, hoping I got it right! Then several years attending the seemingly endless law of the sea conference, interrupted by dealing with Rhodesia and the transition to an independent Zimbabwe; three months at Lancaster House for the independence negotiations, followed by the same period in what is now Harare.’ Then many years acting as UK agent in cases before the European Court of Human Rights, which ‘helped me to get to know Whitehall’.

Sir Michael experienced his first proper foreign posting in the early 80s to the West German capital, Bonn, ‘helping the group of Western Allies decide their policy for Berlin and then negotiate with the Soviet Union’. He co-wrote a leading work on the Legal Status of Berlin. Later, when in a more senior role, he describes as a career highlight his work on German unification: ‘I spent months going to all the meetings and negotiating the various treaties on the unification of Germany and winding up the Second World War.’

Other highlights included the 1991 Cambodian peace agreement (‘endless meetings in Paris and Djakarta’) and the 1995 Dayton Conference ‘bringing peace to Bosnia’. The most significant responsibility on the way to the top was a three-year spell in the early 90s as legal counsellor at the UK Mission to the UN in New York. ‘The Security Council was very active after the Cold War and the first Gulf War. A huge number of resolutions all had to be properly drafted. I would prepare the first draft of a resolution and then take account of the comments made in the Security Council. An effective Security Council is in the UK’s interests, with sound policies and well drafted resolutions.’

I ask what is the art of the lawyer-diplomat? ‘Patience, common sense, never losing your temper, knowing your subject, getting on well with people. It’s not about being a brilliant lawyer.’ Sir Michael goes on to share a few tricks of the trade: ‘Ensure that the right person chairs the meeting; not seeking the chair yourself if you have serious points of substance to make, because it is difficult to do that from the chair.’

How did he approach management? ‘In the FCO the 20-25 lawyers acted rather like a barristers’ chambers. Although the management of legal work was light touch, the people management was heavier. As chief FCO legal adviser (from 1999 to 2006) at least 50% of my time went on management: who did what; who went where to fill various legal postings around the world (including Baghdad); whom to hire; how to develop our people. The numbers started to increase in my time, to 30, and there were more later.’

He looked to recruit ‘bright lawyers, with a generalist background in public international law, not just human rights or international criminal law. The FCO needs lawyers who can provide continuity in the development and application of policy.’

Sir Michael left the FCO in 2006. Since then his career has been equally varied. He now practises from 20 Essex Street. His UK experience includes appointment by the Attorney General as ‘amicus’ in a remarkable case about whether a judgment containing details of the sex life of the Sultan of Brunei should be published. Sir Michael argued for a yes. ‘I think I won. The answer was yes, with redactions.’ Other cases have concerned the implementation of UN sanctions, the immunity of people on special missions, and the handling of the Mau Mau emergency in Kenya.

His many international cases have involved the law of the sea, the delimitation of sea and land boundaries, the immunity of senior officials, the legality of the use of force; and his client governments come from every continent. ‘Dealing with foreign governments,’ he says, ‘is just like working for the British government. They can never find the key documents either!’ He usually appears before the Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, the International Court of Justice, and inter-State arbitral tribunals. The Kosovo case before the ICJ ‘was particularly exciting’. ‘I led their team in a two-year case. Was their declaration of independence in accordance with international law? The ICJ said it was ‘not contrary to international law’. So I suppose we won.’

International advocacy is ‘completely different from domestic’, Sir Michael explains. ‘The written advocacy is invariably voluminous. The oral advocacy usually consists in reading out a written speech. This has to be given to the interpreters before the hearing. In some cases, especially before arbitral tribunals, oral questions are asked on the day, sometimes, though rarely, quite a few. The advocate needs to aim at 15 or 21 judges from around the world. Questions may follow the hearing, to be answered in writing.’ Sir Michael normally gets his clients to agree that he may take on research assistants to work on these cases, rather than junior counsel, for a mixture of reasons including language skills, research ability and cost; an unusual model in UK cases but one which works well in international ones.

Along with writing articles, he is a member of the UN International Law Commission, which works to promote the codification and progressive development of international law, a delicate task requiring the brokering of drafts among 34 international lawyers from around the world, drafts that mustn’t be too objectionable to governments and so left on the shelf. This is a major commitment, involving 10-12 weeks every year in Geneva plus considerable preparation time and is what he likes best. ‘On the back of that I do quite a lot of lecturing in the UK and around the world, in particular to explain the work of the Commission.’

Looking back at his career, what advice would he give to students? ‘I’d very strongly advise students interested in international law to consider an FCO career. The advocate concentrates on the case but in the FCO you can see the big picture, of which the case is only part.’

Contributor Anthony Inglese CB, formerly Head of Legal in five departments over a 38-year career at the Government Legal Department