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From punk rock to law degree - the unusual career of Paul Johnstone

Wednesday, 02 December 2015
Published in News
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Paul Johnstone is one of YouKnow's advisers. This interview with him is from Chronicle Live. His career path is surprising and unusual as he has direct experience of caring for the elderly and people with learning difficulties. --


Punk and the law are not typically conducive to each other, but they sit in perfect harmony on Paul Johnstone’s CV.

It’s a bright November morning on the banks of the Tyne and the mellow employment lawyer is leaning on a railing that runs along the banks of the Tyne at Newcastle Business Park. He’s sporting jeans, blazer and black Chelsea Boots.

Paul’s self-effacing manner and talk of “being authentic” subtly differentiate him from contemporaries in the sector. He’d probably rubbish the notion of being typical of anything, let alone a lawyer.

His early years were spent at the “end of the Roman empire” – Wallsend to be exact.

The men in his family worked in the shipyards. His father, brother, uncle and grandfather all clocked in each morning at Swan Hunters, but even from an early age the hard toil on Walker Riverside didn’t appeal to Paul. Something sweeter and more theatrical had captured his young imagination.

“I’d been brought up in this fairly tough shipbuilding environment, and all the wonderful things that came with it, so when I saw Marc Bolan on Top of the Pops I loved it. It was a totally different vision of what you could be: larger than life, almost superhuman. It was so much fun and had such excitement and energy.”

Fortunately auntie Kitty was on hand to chaperone 11 year-old Paul and his cousin Gerard to see Bolan in the flesh at Newcastle City Hall. Astutely, the pair had been pooling their pocket money to spend on chart records in places like Listen Ear and Virgin Records in Newcastle or Disc and Tompkins in Wallsend.

“It was revelatory. I’m not exaggerating when I say it was akin to a religious experience in its intensity. At such a young age to see your hero at the front of this huge band was incredible.”

Paul still has a copy of the Sex Pistols’ insurrectionary single Anarchy in the UK that he bought as a 13 year-old. And at 14 he was armed with a guitar to join in the crusade.

“That whole era was captivating. When the Sex Pistols were public enemy number one, they were banned from Newcastle City Hall because of the local council, and there was a real fear about it.

“People think of punk as this macho thing, but it isn’t and never was. It was our pop music in the late ‘70s. If you look at the charts at the time there was stuff like Abba and Saturday Night Fever nestled among The Buzzcocks and Generation X.”

As the sound and the fury of punk occupied Paul, his school books were getting only cursory attention. Fortunately he got away with it, and passed the Eleven Plus, which gave him a ticket to the all boys grammar St Cuthbert’s.

“I must admit I wasn’t the most conscientious student. But I passed all my O Levels and left St Cuthbert’s to go back to the high school in Wallsend, because I wanted to find a girlfriend.”

The move paid off as Paul met his future wife, Jackie, who shared vocal duties in their emerging band – Darkness & Jive.

In the summer of 1982 Paul and three of his band mates got the train to London. Their mission was to collect signatures of music industry luminaries, on a petition they had launched to persuade Newcastle City Council to fund a city venue for young bands to play. Their efforts would eventually manifest as the iconic Riverside venue.

On doorstep of Radio 1 they bumped into Beatles producer George Martin.

“I think he was surprised to be accosted by a group of scruffy looking lads from the North East, but he was impressed we knew who he was. He looked like a bank manager!”

The gang of three was armed with a cassette demo they had recorded in a four track studio called Desert Sounds that was above a bicycle repair shop in Felling. Their persistence got them in front of DJs like Bruno Brookes and Kid Jensen, but the real target was legendary BBC DJ John Peel. Paul describes him as one of the most genuine blokes he has ever met.

“He took us for a couple of pints at the pub, and was just genuinely really interested in us and what we were up to. He asked us to come back later on and we sat in on one of his shows.”

Some weeks later Peel made an on-air appeal for the band to get in touch. It was 1981 and true to their DIY form, the band hadn’t even left a phone number but the DJ wanted them to do a session.

On a CD reissue of Darkness & Jive’s Peel Sessions a 19 year-old Paul – in full angry young man mode – delivers some of the band’s brooding numbers before Peel’s voice gently fades in: “they really are a very good band.”

The coveted seal of approval was enough to cement the band as a full-time occupation for Paul and his mates. A couple of singles were released on independent labels; recording studios were shared with the likes of Sting and black metal pioneers Venom and TV appearances were made on the likes of The Tube spin-off, TX45.

Their manager was Sharon Osbourne’s father, the notoriously ruthless operator, Don Arden. The band was signed to his Jet Records label, and a lawsuit emerged between Impulse Studios and Floating World Records over payment for master tapes.

“The idea was very much to make music and make a living. Being rich and famous must have been in the back of our minds but it wasn’t the be all and end all. The main thing for us was to be free to do what we wanted to do, and express ourselves creatively. Tolerance of difference is, and always has been, a strong part of my principles.”

By 1984 Paul was married to Jackie and their first daughter had arrived. He pursued the band for several more years, even when the pair had their second daughter in 1987.

“The balance shifted and I realised the family came first. Not that anybody put that pressure on me, it was my own decision.”

By this point legal wranglings between the two record labels had left Paul stuck in the middle. He watched the lawyers from the sidelines and in the spirit of punk, convinced himself he could do better. The idea took him back to night classes for A levels in sociology and law, and then onto university. He kept the family afloat by working jobs at Ladbrokes and then social services.

Paul Johnstone of Collingwood LegalPaul Johnstone of Collingwood Legal
In four years he hardly took a day off. Between work with elderly people and youngsters with learning difficulties, Paul earned himself a law degree and a prize for the best dissertation. He graduated while in the thick of fatherhood, now with three daughters between the ages of six and two.

The first break came via Newcastle law firm Hay & Kilner, and then partners Alun Williams and Ruth Harbottle. After earning his stripes in personal injury and employment law cases, Paul found an opening at Muckle where he could devote all his energies to the employment side.

“I’ve always been interested in fairness and justice. If I go all the way back, I think it was my Dad who triggered that. As a young kid I remember watching the telly with him – documentaries like World in Action and Panorama.” His father’s time as a unionised shipyard worker would also prove to have left its mark on Paul.

Punk’s indelible association with social justice must have had a bearing on Paul. But, chatting in the more staid surroundings of Collingwood Legal’s board room, you still get a flavour of the potent desire for justice that sits at his core.

“When I started down the legal route it was never the case that I just wanted to be a ‘lawyer’. I wouldn’t thank you for a lot of legal jobs, I wanted to be an employment lawyer. Within employment law that’s where principles of equality and anti-discrimination come in. Psychologically that’s a key trigger for me, because I see those components as akin to America’s civil rights legislation.”

That appetite is apparent in Paul’s track record as a lawyer. We delve into some of his successful cases – a man with terminal cancer who was dismissed unfairly and a woman HR director who was subjected to vile comments.

“There’s a strong sense of fairness among a lot of the companies I work with – many of them great examples of successful owner-managed firms in the North East. As a firm it’s important for us to deliver excellent quality legal advice and work with companies that want to turn a profit, but also look after their employees and customers and provide long term job security.”

The musical flame is still very much alight in Paul. He still records under his own name, and with tongue firmly in cheek, gigs as the frontman for Zombie Punk Squad – a horror-themed cover outfit hammering home classics. Their last turn, aptly on Halloween, attracted 200 punters to The Cluny in Newcastle.

“Some of it is quite out-there, a little noisy and left field. But what I love about playing music and my job is the creativity. I don’t see the two things as contradictory. Trying to create something from nothing is intellectually stimulating.

“When punk came along it was very immediate, direct and raw. You felt like you could give it a go because the sounds were ones that you could replicate yourself.

“Occasionally people say to me ‘you’re not like a typical lawyer’, and that’s great because I’ve always tried to be me. Some of my clients have been to see the band, and invariably they have a great time. The passion and energy creates a really good atmosphere and in a way I still feel very much like a teenager when we play.

“We’re all given labels in our lives. I’m a Dad, a lawyer, and an ex-punk rocker but you’re never just one thing. It’s a complicated existence and I like to take time to enjoy each part of my life.

“It’s not always easy to get the balance right but that’s how I get a great deal of enjoyment from my job and my passion for music.”