Chambers & Partners, the leading publisher of directories for the global legal profession, describes him as “a legend on the local scene”. But spend five minutes in the company of Joseph Emanuel Triay, QC – or JE as he is better known – and it quickly becomes evident that this is not a description he is comfortable with. In fact, it is clear he would rather move swiftly on to the next subject.
“I was brought up in a profession where you should not advertise yourself or self promote,” he says. “All this business of legend and whatever, there’s nothing legendary about it. All there is is somebody who has applied himself to his work and been successful. I know that I’ve fielded some very difficult points of law in my career, and won some.”
And then he chuckles, adding: “But I’ve probably lost more cases than I’ve won.”
J.E. Triay was born in Gibraltar in 1931 in a house on Main Street, adjacent to the Supreme Court where he was to spend much of his working life. The son of lawyer Sergio Pelayo Triay, KC, he knew early on that he would follow in his father’s footsteps. “Fundamentally, I’m a lawyer because my father was a lawyer,” Mr Triay says. “I’m a lawyer because I said at a very early age that that is what I would be. I was committed to law, though I didn’t then know what law was about.”
Mr Triay has stepped back from his court practising but still handles consultancy work from an office at Triay & Triay, the law firm founded in 1905 by his father’s partner, Arthur C. Carrara CMG, KC. There he works surrounded by his father’s books and furniture. They are items that hark back to a different era, a different way of doing things. It is also a decor that embodies an upright sense of formality and continuity, a link to the past that is evident both in the man that now occupies that office, and in the legal practice he inherited and built up. Mr Triay describes it as “traditionalism” and he learnt it here, in this building at 28 Irish Town, working under the tutorship of his father.
“I would regard my father as my pattern of life,” he says. “I never had any legal experience anywhere else but under my father. It is the traditionalism that you learn, wherever you learn it, that matters. It is the traditionalism that matters because that is where the principles are enshrined, the codes of conduct. I never needed to read a code of conduct to know what the proper behaviour was. No one ever had to say to me ‘this is against the rules’. Because one was circumspect about conduct. Certainly one had to defend one’s clients, but not in a way that one would not approve of oneself.”
The early years of the young J.E. Triay were scarred by war, first in Spain, then across Europe. The onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 had a dramatic impact on Mr Triay’s family life. His mother was from Algeciras and most of her friends leaned to the right of the political spectrum, whereas his father was a liberal. “So we had a family situation which was very awkward,” Mr Triay says. “My mother’s family used to regard my father as almost a communist. And yet at the time of the bombardment of Algeciras, the whole of the Algeciras family came to Gibraltar and lived with him.”
As a young boy, Mr Triay spent many weekends in Spain. But all that stopped when his father was blacklisted by the Franco regime. These were turbulent years that remain marked in his memory to this day. In 1939, just before his eighth birthday, the young J.E. Triay was sent to boarding school in England, St George’s College in Weybridge. Shortly after he and his family arrived, war was declared in Europe.
Through a series of events and frustrated travel plans, the Triay family was to spend the duration of World War II trapped in England. In the early part of the war the elder Mr Triay, who had been appointed assistant Attorney General in Gibraltar, had hoped to move his family to Tangiers and commute to the Rock for work. But there were no ships from England and a plan to cross the English Channel and travel by train to Marseilles, then onwards by sea to Morocco, fell through when German forces overran France. Later he tried to emigrate to Jamaica, where there was already a sizeable community of Gibraltarian evacuees. But that plan too fell apart on news that a German battleship was hunting Allied tonnage in the Atlantic. Surrounded by sea and war and almost penniless, a breakthrough finally came in the form of employment for Rawlinson & Hunter, the auditors of Nestlé. Sergio Triay was recruited and continued working for Nestlé after the war as head of the company’s legal department, first in New York and later in Switzerland. The young J.E. Triay tagged along until 1947 when, now a young teenager with ambitious ideas, he returned to England and his studies.
Perhaps it was his unusual childhood, the fact that from a young age he was exposed to the wider world and the harsh realities of a life upturned by war. Or perhaps it was the experience of international business during his later professional life. Whatever the reason, J.E. Triay does not subscribe to the view that Gibraltar is somehow different to the rest of the world. His is an internationalist outlook, forged through an upbringing in troubled times and a career that had a global focus well before globalisation became a trendy word. “I’m totally opposed to this concept that Gibraltar is in any way special,” he says. “What is special in Gibraltar is the particular conditions under which we live. We are a very close community. We are a community whose importance has been pumped up artificially by military interests. And as a society we behave a little bit abnormally because our conditions are abnormal.”
Abnormal or not, Gibraltar is home for J.E. Triay and, after completing his studies in London, he returned to practice law alongside his father and brother. He was perhaps younger than most graduate lawyers, having opted out of sixth form to plunge strait into the study of law as an external student of the University of London. He says he worked at his own pace and took exams when he felt ready.
Mr Triay was called to the Bar in December, 1952, and, like lawyers nowadays, cut his teeth in the Magistrates Court. It was a steep learning curve that intensified with the death in July, 1954, of Sergio Triay. His sons were left to take the reins of the family business.
“We had to take over the practice that my father had left,” Mr Triay says. “We were very lucky because all the cases that my father had left, we succeeded in winning. That gave us a great start and it also gave us confidence, which is one of the things that you lack as a young man landed with a responsibility that you can’t really handle.”
Looking back on those years, he recalls a case that marked a landmark in his career. He received a call from a man named J.R. Mullion, a client of his father’s who was active in shipping and had interests in Hong Kong. They conducted a case against the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank on his behalf and secured a settlement of £1.25m after what Mr Triay describes as “a tricky negotiation”. The year was 1966, and that was a large sum. The case was important too because a key role was played by an old friend of Sergio Triay’s, “a fellow traveler lawyer” named D.N. Pritt. The elder Mr Triay and Mr Pritt had met years earlier handling the case of the SS Stancroft, a ship that was hijacked into Gibraltar amid claims that it was carrying munitions during the Spanish Civil War. The two developed a friendship that was never to be broken, and now Mr Pritt was working with the younger Triays.
“That case was certainly a landmark,” Mr Triay says. “For some time after that, I had become almost the in-house lawyer of this client, hopping onto planes at least once a month, mostly to London but also at least once a year to Hong Kong.”
As he recounts the story of his working life, J.E. Triay regularly veers off into a philosophical analysis of the practice of law. He says that when he started out, he believed law to be an objective career. But he quickly found that it was, in practice, filled with subjectivity and individual quirks. “While one has to work within certain objective legal principles and the parameters of the law as it is, what is never realised is that the clients are anything but objective,” he says. “So to have to handle your case in a way that is satisfactory to your client, who is full of subjectivities, and present his case in an objective manner, takes thought and patience, and a healthy dose of diplomacy.”
Mr Triay never specialized in any particular area of law, believing that a good lawyer should have the analytical skills to handle any type of case. He describes himself as “a very ample generalist”, in the sense that he was never afraid to take on a specialist case. “Even now, if someone comes with a problem, I don’t have any difficulty in getting the books, seeing how the land lies and developing an opinion,” he says.
Time and again Mr Triay returns to the question of “traditionalism”, the guiding principle that he has tried to make the backbone of his practice of law over the years. He recalls cross-examining an English solicitor and being told subsequently that, despite the grilling, “it was never personally unpleasant.”
“The law gives you plenty of opportunity of bullying,” he says. “Lawyers that bully don’t only bully the other side, they end up bullying their own clients as well. At the end of the day, whether you’re a doctor, an architect or a lawyer, you have a basic ego. And you can disguise that if you want to, but that comes out. It’s down to the individual and his own experience. What you have experienced in life shapes the way that you’re going to behave.”
“Mr Triay believes that the experience of being able to work with his father underpinned a vocational approach to the way he conducted his own career. Whilst, the vocational approach is still evident in many professionals, he also reflects on underlying factors that are leading to change, not always for the better. He believes that professional training of an ever widening field of recruitment, lays insufficient emphasis
on the vocational aspects of the traditions of practice. Lawyers have a powerful position in society, and if the vocational aspect of the profession which is traditional, is neglected, the profession merely becomes a powerhouse for self advancement. Where the vocational aspect is lacking, the powerhouse syndrome can take over, and this does no good to the profession or the society that it serves.
These days Mr Triay no longer runs the practice, a role he handed over to the partners of Triay &Triay, five of whom are his own sons. He says Triay & Triay is a very different firm to the one that he used to run in his prime, “which was almost a one-man band.” One of the oldest law firms in Gibraltar, Triay & Triay’s staff of over 30 lawyers with offices in Gibraltar and Spain are active across many areas of law ranging from commercial, finance and admiralty to property, insolvency, private client work and criminal litigation.
“I’m not organizational so I’m very happy that I’ve got partners, five of whom are my own sons, that have been able to bring this practice into the modern world, because it might otherwise have died of traditionalism,” Mr Triay says, smiling.
“It is a different beast, but it’s a changing world.”
Mention J.E. Triay in Gibraltar and, inevitably, the conversation will at some point turn to politics. Mr Triay was one of a group of local lawyers and businessmen who, under the pseudonym ‘The Doves, advocated a settlement with Spain in the late 1960s, to furious and violent reaction in Gibraltar.
Mr Triay has since adjusted his views on the Gibraltar question, at least in part. He no longer believes, for example, that Gibraltar is sufficiently self-dependent to seek autonomy. But he still believes that Gibraltar, as a community of 30,000 people attached to a country of 46m people with which it must live, must seek agreement of some sort with Spain. “I think that above all, the biggest priority that Gibraltar can have is a settlement with Spain,” he says. “If Spain wants to forget its sovereignty claim over Gibraltar, well, even that doesn’t solve our problem, which is one of dependence on Spain anyway. We’ve still got to do that on terms that both Gibraltarians and the Spaniards are happy with and in order to ensure Gibraltar can survive. Therefore a settlement, to me, is absolutely essential.” He qualifies that position in that he is a staunch advocate of the English legal system, which he says must be preserved. “But I am convinced that there is nothing in what I call ‘Gibraltarianism’ that is not available from Spain.”
He believes that economics should be the real driver to resolving the Gibraltar question. He reflects, for example, on how Gibraltar has lost its prominence in key areas of economic activity in the past decades. The Rock used to be the leading airport for southern Spain, for example, the main port in the region and its principal shopping destination too.
“We’ve lost that, and what do we have today?” he asks. “Gambling and the finance centre, all artificial businesses which we could lose overnight. It’s a very serious situation. So what is the economic future of Gibraltar? The economic future of Gibraltar is to forget our politics and get on with our economy. We’re over-politicised in Gibraltar. We have trained people to think that they can eat and drink politics. And they can’t.”