Biglaw, George Bush, Letter from London, Litigators, O.J. Simpson, United Kingdom / Great Britain

Letter from London: Barristers Behaving Badly

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the day a little-known heroin addict called Russell Brand turned up for work dressed as Osama Bin Laden, and was promptly fired by his then-employer, MTV.

After some ensuing years knocking around the lower echelons of British light entertainment, Brand got himself together and landed a role presenting the VMAs — from which he launched himself into mega-stardom when he branded George W. Bush a “retarded cowboy fella.”

Now, you don’t get career paths like that in law. Having said that, I do know of a London Biglaw associate who was once asked to replace his brightly-coloured socks with a more sober pair in advance of an important client meeting, in which he performed impressively.

Please don’t interpret that as a snarky suggestion that all lawyers are boring. As legal market-watchers well know, many attorneys — especially the litigators — are often anything but. They’re just good at hiding the madness. Usually, anyway….

Just look at Christopher Grierson, the “likeable, restrained and quietly spoken” former Hogan Lovells litigation partner who astonishingly amassed £1m in false expenses by booking flights on his credit card and claiming the value back from the firm.

Or consider James Hett, the barrister (the British term for a trial lawyer) suspended from practising for two months for maliciously ordering advertising material for sado-masochistic equipment, cess pits, and cosmetic surgery on someone else’s behalf.

And then there’s the sad tale of divorce lawyer Mark Saunders, who in 2008 was shot dead by police after a row with his wife somehow turned into an armed siege.

Given the mental fragility of members of this branch of the profession, it’s no wonder so much concern has been provoked by the recent decision to allow TV cameras into U.K. courtrooms. (I know you’ve been filming what goes on in court for ages, at least in certain state courts, but we’re old-fashioned.)

“Until now, the greatness of our judicial system has been that it is chillingly faceless and enigmatic. Justice is blind and terrible and lacking in human emotion – hence the wigs,” wrote Telegraph journalist Nigel Farndale in response to the news, which some fear could result in O.J. Simpson-style media circuses occurring on these genteel shores.

Meanwhile, barrister Felicity Gerry reckons the press will target certain legal “characters” who’ll then find it “impossible to prevent editing and the use of sound bites.” She added that media figures would be “sharpening their comedy pencils for the enormous amount of material about to be handed to them on a plate,” particularly from proceedings in the U.K.’s main criminal court, the Crown Court.

However, legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg saw the lighter side of things, speculating that the cameras — which will be focused largely on the delivery of judgments — might spawn a generation of celebrity judges. “Could some of Her Majesty’s judges soon become as famous as their counterparts on The X Factor?” he asked, before going on to highlight three members of the British judiciary, past and present, with Judge Judy-like star quality.

One, the retired Mr. Justice Singer, has a propensity for racist jokes (his most famous gags came during a divorce case, when he quipped that a Saudi sheikh departed “on his flying carpet” after giving evidence that was “gelatinous … like turkish delight”). Another, Mr. Justice Peter Smith, embedded a coded message based on the Fibonacci sequence into his 2006 judgment in a copyright challenge to Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. And a third, the late James Pickles, once called an impromptu press conference in a pub to defend himself against criticism for having jailed a young woman and her baby after she had been convicted of theft.

To watch more fun British blokes like these live, click here.

Alex Aldridge is a London-based journalist specialising in legal affairs. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and contributes regularly to specialist legal publications. Previously Alex was Associate Editor of Legal Week, having begun his career with The Times. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexAldridgeUK or email him at

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