Obituary: John Kerr, much-respected and highly popular Scottish lawyer

John Neilson Kerr LLB, Writer to the Signet. Born 23 September 1956 in Edinburgh. Died 17 March 2019 in Edinburgh, aged 62

John Kerr
John Kerr

On 23 May 2019 the Association of European Lawyers (AEL) established an annual prize to recognise an outstanding contribution by a young lawyer from one of its 40 firms covering 42 jurisdictions. I t did so in memory of John Kerr. It is a fitting legacy – John was a friend, support and patient mentor to many young lawyers and for more than 25 years did much to promote the AEL and its values of excellent client service, investment in people and collaboration across borders in the promotion of the Rule of Law.

John died at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary on 17 March 2019 after a short illness, with his wife Adrienne and sons Struan and Moray by his side.

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On the sunny spring morning of 28 March 2019, St Stephen’s Church in Comely Bank, Edinburgh, was packed for John’s funeral service, which was conducted by the Rev George Vidits. Every pew was filled, a mark of the great love, respect and affection that we all have for John.

During that service, Struan and Moray gave eloquent, moving tributes to their Dad, Annabel Rockett delivered a beautiful interpretation of “Bring Him Home” and we all recognised that the void we are left with at John’s passing is quickly filled with the happy memories we have of him.

And John would want that. He would want us to remember the happiness we shared with him, rather than the sadness of losing him. Here is some of his background, and stories we shared that day.

John had an outstanding academic career. He attended John Watson’s Primary and Secondary Schools, where he was Head Boy and Dux. He was awarded a First Class Honours Degree in Law from Edinburgh University in 1978 and later tutored there in Mercantile Law. In autumn 1978 he joined Strathern & Blair WS as an apprentice to George S Russell, John W Blair, Tom Campbell, John Reid and others. John excelled during his training and was kept on to do a variety of legal work serving personal, corporate and public authority clients and also appearing regularly in the District and Sheriff Courts. John was admitted as a WS (Writer to the Signet) on 9 December 1980, as a solicitor on 18 December 1980 and was assumed as a partner at S&B in 1984. He was instrumental in promoting the merger with J&F Anderson WS in 1992 to form Anderson Strathern, where he remained a partner until his death, serving the firm on both its Management Committee and its Board.

As legal practice became more specialised John became primarily a corporate lawyer, but one of his exceptional strengths was his versatility. It was one of the many remarkable coincidences of John’s life, given Struan’s career as a firefighter, that John was a co-author – with his friend and former partner Sheriff Robert Fife – of the section on Fire in the Stair Encyclopaedia of Scots Law, and seemed to know most of the rest of it!

John’s legal expertise also included education, charities, governance and food and drink. Famously, in 2014 he acted for members of the MacKinnon family in the sale of Drambuie and the transfer of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s secret recipe, which Anderson Strathern held in its safe.

That breadth of expertise included Sports Law, which saw John recognised with a top tier ranking in the legal directories. He became involved in legal matters across virtually every sporting discipline including for Hibs, in helping bring the Scottish Open to Gullane, for Sports Scotland and for the Scottish governing bodies for badminton, boxing, cricket, tennis and for the SRU.

John himself was a keen golfer, tennis player at Abercorn and rugby player and fan. His enthusiasm and organisational skills merited him a place on the first ever Stewart’s Melville RFC Rugby Tour to Canada in 1980, in an era where he was in the company of Calders, MacKenzies, Brewsters, Blackwood, Littlefair, Scott, Morgan and other legends. And John became a legend: as an excellent tourer. Many members of that tour party attended his funeral.

John never lost his appetite for court work and was a Director of the Sports Dispute Resolution Panel.

But let’s return to the stories.

We are back to 12 October 1991 and Scotland are playing Ireland at Murrayfield in the Rugby World Cup. John and Adrienne miss the game but they don’t mind. They are in Hawick, getting married. As Adrienne walks down the aisle a message is relayed by the chauffeur of the bridal car. Whispers ripple up through the congregation. Scotland are ahead! Lindsay Ross delivers a cracking fraternal best man’s speech capturing John’s attributes and occasional misdemeanours.

We are in January 2002 and at an Anderson Strathern partners’ meeting. John is enthusiastically commending a new sponsorship opportunity he has identified. There’s a 14-year-old tennis player from Dunblane who is the best he has ever seen. John explains that this lad has already won the Orange Bowl tournament for under-12s in Florida. Perhaps the family are looking for support to send him to Barcelona and AS could offer a lifetime sponsorship that in years to come would see our logo at Grand Slams around the globe? A world champion tennis player from Dunblane! The partners torpedo the proposition. So despite John’s eloquence and best endeavours, Sir Andy Murray OBE missed out on a lifetime of AS sponsorship.

It’s October 2013 and Adrienne has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, a terrific achievement in aid of the “It’s Good 2 Give” charity, which supports children and young adults with cancer and is the charity Adrienne and the boys choose to support at John’s funeral. That year Adrienne also gains a Masters in Fashion and Textiles from Heriot Watt University that helps launch her pattern and design business. John is immensely proud of Adrienne’s achievements and those of the boys.

It’s 21 September 2018 and John and Adrienne are attending the 30th Birthday AGM of the Association of European Lawyers in Shoreditch. John has been active with the AEL since 1993, with Adrienne at his side, and a member of its Executive Committee for many years. The effervescent joy of life John and Adrienne share mean they are both hugely popular and have formed strong bonds with other members of the AEL family. The boys fondly remember a trip to the Loire to stay with Phillippe and Isabel Courtois. AEL close friends from Bristol, Dublin, Paris, Liverpool, London, Munich, Amsterdam and Milan attend John’s funeral.

Under John’s cheerful and witty exterior was a sharp intellect. We all learned a long time ago to respect his views and observations – often one-step ahead and always expressed kindly, diplomatically and with a canny smile.

We are convinced he would have been aware of the magnificent performance Scotland gave at Twickenham the evening before he passed away. It was the most fitting tribute they could have paid to such a loyal supporter and champion.

Because of our stories and his virtues, John will never be lost to us. John lit up every room, every event, every gathering. John was a great character, a great lawyer, and a great family man. He leaves us all a great legacy. Thank you John.

Robert Carr, Partner, ANDERSON STRATHERN