Biglaw, Law Schools, Letter from London, Unemployment, United Kingdom / Great Britain, Wall Street

Letter from London: Occupy Biglaw

When news emerged last week that the Wall Street protests were spreading to London, I dared to dream. Maybe I could inculcate myself among the protesters, I wondered, and persuade their leaders to target a Biglaw firm rather than a bank. Then, I fantasized, having obtained the relevant door-code from one of my disgruntled Biglaw contacts, perhaps I could lead the protesters inside to set up an encampment. At which point, I hallucinated, I’d be able to live-tweet my experiences and, as the only journalist on the scene, become a star.

Disappointingly, it didn’t work out that way. The protesters proved frustratingly unmoved by my suggestions that they target a law firm. Instead, they tried to occupy the square in front of the London Stock Exchange. Prevented from doing so by the police, they ended up milling around the adjoining forecourt of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where their hard-core was diluted by confused tourists. What the New York Times accurately described as “a picnic atmosphere” prevailed, with “people streaming in and out of a nearby Starbucks.”

Even an appearance by Wikileaks founder Julian Assange — who arrived mid-afternoon wearing a Guy Fawkes mask to deliver a sermon on the steps of St. Paul’s — wasn’t enough to kick-start some proper rebellion. Indeed, with his claim that the Occupy Wall Street/London Stock Exchange movement “is not about the destruction of law, but the construction of law,” Assange sounded less like a revolutionary, and more a regulatory expert in the U.K. on a business trip….

Perhaps the problem here is burn out. Our appetites in Britain for anarchic destruction were well sated by the riots we held in August. And three years on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, our anger at greedy bankers seems to be waning, too. Could it be that we’re simply getting bored of being in a recession?

Or, from the perspective of an optimist, maybe we sense better times are ’round the corner. After all, the Eurozone now looks like it probably won’t spectacularly implode, China has confounded the doubters to keep growing, and the other week Warren Buffett even went so far as to announce that “the recovery is still under way.”

For Buffett, the key to economic recovery is neither spending nor saving. It’s housing: “We will come back big-time on employment when residential construction comes back,” he argued recently, adding that the excess of U.S. homes will run out, and construction resume again, around 2013.

If he is right, I wonder if the Occupy London protesters — many of whom remain camped outside St. Paul’s — will continue their commitment to outdoor living? Or will they instead find themselves back at mummy and daddy’s flicking through law school prospectuses?

Hopefully it’ll be the latter, because there could be a real need for these part-time rebels. Figures produced earlier this year suggest that Britain could face a shortfall of lawyers if the economy bounces back quicker than expected. Indeed, according to one not entirely impartial interpretation by the College of Law, there could be 14% more legal traineeships than there are graduates eligible to fill them by as soon as next year.

Of course, it’s in the interest of the law schools — which have been hit hard by a growing perception that there are few jobs in law — to say this sort of thing. And certainly the projection of a lack of law graduates by 2012 looks excitable to say the least. But history suggests that, sooner or later, there will probably be a shortfall: in the 1990s, as the UK legal profession emerged from the recession, an oversupply of law graduates morphed rapidly into a shortage. “Firms may have undergone structural changes this time around, but many are still performing well. Historically the legal graduate recruitment market always over-corrects,” says Professor Richard Moorhead of Cardiff Law School, author of the Lawyer Watch blog.

For the London and Wall Street protesters — pro-regulation team-players drawn to the buzz of financial districts –- what better career than Biglaw?

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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