John McNeil, CBE, WS: an appreciation
Tribute to David John McNeil, property lawyer and former Law Society of Scotland President, born 24 March 1937; died 25 January 2012
John McNeil was someone whose background as a classicist and property lawyer belied a sociable man and a real character, as well as one dedicated to the service of his profession.
After his schooling at Daniel Stewart’s, Edinburgh, John took an MA in classics at Edinburgh University before embarking on his LLB in 1959. At the same time, as was then the practice, he became an apprentice solicitor, with Davidson & Syme WS.
“We signed on for all the 9am and 4pm classes, even if they didn’t exist, and would nip off up to the union and play snooker or cards”, his colleague and subsequent lifelong friend David Bennett recalls. “We regarded these spells as appropriate revision and recovery from the ardours of the apprenticeship (which were not very severe).
“And we studied. John was a good lawyer, good fun, good company. He smoked a lot, enjoyed a drink, and played quite good snooker. He was great fun to know and to have social events of all kinds with, and that continued for the best part of 50 years.”
On qualifying, John moved to Fraser Stodart & Ballingall WS, becoming a partner in 1963. Five years later the firm amalgamated with Morton Smart Macdonald & Milligan to become Morton Fraser & Milligan, subsequently Morton Fraser, where he remained a partner, and latterly senior partner, until his retiral in 2002.
A skilled draftsman, John specialised in property law, although he was one of the last of a generation of lawyers who had a much broader range of expertise and also advised many individual clients, families and trusts. His practice looked forward too, and he was one of the first solicitors in Scotland to handle volume secured loans for a major lender.
In the early 1980s, John joined his friend David Bennett on the board of company searchers Oswalds of Edinburgh, which had been taken over by Jordans. They decided that there was an opportunity to move into property searches, and it was John’s property law expertise that underpinned the service it then provided.
As early as 1963 John had been appointed to the Law Society of Scotland’s Conveyancing Committee, on which he kept up a unique and unbroken record of service until his death, including a period as convener. In 1977 he became one of the Society representatives on the Joint Consultative Committee that had been set up between the Society and Registers of Scotland, initially to plan for the coming of the Land Register, and on which he also continued to serve except during his time as a Society office bearer.
First elected to the Society’s Council in 1972, John was chosen as President for the year 1986-87. The 1980s were times of increasingly rapid and increasingly radical change for the profession, and John was involved with issues over the introduction of permitted advertising by solicitors, and, once more with David Bennett, in drafting the incorporated practices rules, the content of which has remained largely unchanged.
The breadth of his interests was demonstrated when he became the only Scot to serve on the committee chaired by Dame Mary Warnock, which, in 1984, produced a major report on Human Fertilisation and Embryology, paving the way for the 1990 legislation.
He was awarded the CBE for his services to the legal profession.
While proud of his academic background, John is remembered at Morton Fraser as a very amusing and witty companion who got on with a wide spectrum of people, and as someone who always generated great loyalty from his team in the office.
His outside interests were considerable, notably in amateur dramatics with the Linlithgow Players, in the town which he made his home. Memories abound of him filling roles from cardinal to Mother Goose. He had a very good knowledge of classical music, particularly opera, for which he was a real enthusiast. Bridge was another passion. So were Jaguar cars, but so far as is known, he was never caught speeding.
John’s wife Avril, whom he married in 1962 (days after acquiring his bachelor’s degree!) died in 2005, but Patricia McCleland, his later partner, was an important part of his final years. He is also survived by his children Jane, Donald and Suzy, and his five grandchildren, of whom he was very proud.
His many friends were stunned at his death, which followed a short illness. He is a great loss to them and to the legal profession.
Compiled by the Editor from contributions by David Bennett, Morton Fraser and others, whose assistance is gratefully acknowledged