The Occupy movement has reached the legal profession, with an unemployed law graduate launching a campaign to occupy the Inns of Court (London’s legal quarter).
“Through no fault of our own, a generation of [law school] graduates find ourselves with no jobs — or no jobs as lawyers anyway,” wrote the graduate under the alias “OccupyTheInns” on Legal Cheek, a blog I edit. “The lucky ones are paralegals. The unlucky ones work in bars (not the Bar)… It is for these reasons that I propose peaceful direct action. It is time to occupy the Inns of Court.”
Responses to the plan have mostly been negative, but the broad sentiment of discontent has struck a chord. Catrin Griffiths, editor of The Lawyer magazine, summed up the mood: “I don’t buy much of [OccupyTheInns'] argument, which smacks too much of entitlement, but it signifies something bigger, related to the growing crisis of a million young people unemployed in the U.K.”
However, even with our spiralling unemployment rates, and love of protesting, I’d be surprised if an occupation of legal London took off. While many U.K. law school graduates are jobless and indebted, most still have a decent shot of making it into the profession. As such, they have too much to lose by winding up the establishment.
Maybe OccupyTheInns should instead re-direct their energies to recruiting the potentially far more vulnerable, high-earning, senior lawyers who look set to lose their jobs over the next few months?
As the U.K. enters what now seems almost certain to be a double dip recession, the redundancies have already begun, with Field Fisher Waterhouse, a mid-size London corporate firm, last week announcing it was cutting several lawyers in its public and regulatory team. Yesterday morning, meanwhile, magic circle giant Allen & Overy confirmed it was asking 3% of its equity partners to go.
Back in 2009, U.K. Biglaw, like U.S. Biglaw, went through a dramatic series of cuts, with many firms ditching well over 100 employees each. This time around it could be even worse, as three years of pretty stagnant market conditions have left all but the most strategically prescient severely weakened. Hard-headed commentators like Barclays Corporate’s Jane Galvin are predicting over a third of U.K. law firms could be forced into mergers for defensive reasons. To work, these tie-ups would require heavy job losses.
With economists talking about a protracted recovery spanning half a decade, it’s difficult to see many of the lawyers who are laid off over the coming months getting back into work anytime soon. Why hire a partner on £500,000 ($772,000) a year, or an associate on £60-£100,000 ($93,000-$154,000), when there’s such a vast pool of cheap graduate labour who can be trained up relatively cheaply? According to my senior contacts at firms in the City, London’s financial district, the mood right now is bleaker, and more fearful, than they have ever known it.
In other cheery — and perhaps not entirely unrelated — news, recent research has found that 15-24% of British lawyers will suffer from alcoholism during their careers. I spent my Tuesday evening the other week wandering around the pubs in legal London for an article exploring this shocking statistic for the Guardian. And indeed, the pubs were packed with red-faced, boozy lawyers.
Fittingly, the late George Best (the genius soccer player, whose skills on the field were matched by a prodigious appetite for booze), said the biggest drinker he ever met was a lawyer — the legendary British libel barrister George Carman QC. In his 2003 autobiography, Scoring at Half Time, Best wrote: “People ask me who was the greatest drinker I ever knew. I have to say it was George Carman. His legs were truly hollow. He could drink and drink and drink.”
But my favourite booze-related legal anecdote is this exchange — relayed by a partner writing for Legal Cheek — between the lawyer-turned politician F. E. Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) and a High Court Judge.
F. E. Smith: “My client was as drunk as a Judge…”
Judge (interrupting): “I believe the normal saying is ‘drunk as a Lord’”
F. E. Smith (thoughtfully): “As your Lordship pleases…”
Alex Aldridge is Above the Law’s U.K. correspondent. He also writes a weekly column for The Guardian and is the Editor of Legal Cheek. Previously Alex was Associate Editor of Legal Week, having begun his career with The Times. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexAldridgeUK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.