What happens when you put thirty American lawyers in a London pub where the drinks are free for the evening? Well, let’s just say it’s rather different to what happens when thirty British lawyers are assembled in equivalent conditions.

The attendees at last week’s inaugural Benedict Arnold Society meeting for young and young-ish American lawyers in the United Kingdom, held at the Witness Box pub in the heart of London’s legal district, were impeccably behaved. No one collapsed, vomited or — in spite of my continual prying for insider information — gave away a single secret about their firms. In fact, I think I was the only one there who was drunk.

Still, my memories of at least the first part of the evening remain. What stood out was how nicely many of the assembled Yank expats had done by coming to London — be it because they had saved money on legal education costs, were enjoying heightened status due to their willingness to travel, or were appreciating the health-inducing lighter U.K. workloads.

Several had undertaken their legal studies in the U.K., thus circumventing the enormous fees charged by U.S. law schools….

“I have no debt and I earn lots of money!” one told me exultantly, as she tossed a cluster of £50 notes into the air. In Britain, anyone with an undergraduate degree can become a lawyer by doing a year-long law conversion course (costing around £9,000/$14,000), followed by a seven- to nine-month professional skills qualification called the Legal Practice Course (which costs £13,000/$20,500). That’s $35,000 all in.

The downside with this route is that it takes longer for British graduates to earn big bucks; they must complete a two year “training contract” with a law firm upon completion of their studies before they can officially practise. Still, with “trainees” at the top London firms earning around £35,000/$55,000 a year –- a sum that quickly jumps to around £60,000/$94,000 upon qualification –- they’re not exactly poor. And, as established above, they’re far less heavily burdened by law school loans than their U.S counterparts.

The majority of Benedict Arnolders, though, had been though law school in the States, secured jobs with international firms, then come over here. Maybe they were being modest, but several I spoke with suggested that by taking this route they had been able to secure positions at higher-rated firms than if they had stayed in the States. The best represented of this bunch was the eight-strong cohort from Magic Circle firm Allen & Overy (A&O). They find themselves in the U.K. following a decision by the firm’s U.S. law team to hire a raft of American lawyers straight out of law school last year and immediately ship them across the Atlantic in anticipation of an uptick in the European capital markets. A few months later, the Euro crisis hit. These lucky souls insist they have still been busy, but their carefree demeanours and unlined complexions tell a different story.

Recently I’ve had a spate of emails from jobless U.S. law graduates asking how they, too, can wangle jobs at tranquil London law firms. The other week, one wrote: “Do you have any advice for a newly-minted attorney that is essentially looking for a job at a [British] law firm? Is the best way to get an international gig still getting a U.S. job and transferring over after a few years? Are British law firms not the biggest fans of American grads?”

I put these questions to the lawyers I met at the Benedict Arnold meet-up. They said that they hadn’t heard of any U.S. law school graduates who had landed a job in London by applying directly to firms here from the States. I also spoke to some of my contacts at London firms about how they look on U.S. qualified applicants.

Simon Firth, a partner at Linklaters with graduate recruitment expertise, said that any U.S. law school graduates hired by the firm with no practical experience couldn’t commence as associates in London, but instead would have to go through the two year “training contract” process, then complete an English law transfer exam – known as the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Scheme (QLTS). He added that because of the hassle involved it was rare for attorneys to follow this path. Meanwhile, David Carter, graduate recruitment partner at Ashurst, the U.K.’s 12th largest law firm, said he has known lawyers to come through this route occasionally, but warned Americans that “foreign candidates often struggle to tailor their applications sufficiently to British firms.” Carter insisted, however, that those who can translate their résumés into something that make sense to U.K. recruiters would get equal treatment.

The next meeting of the Benedict Arnold Club for young-ish American lawyers in London will take place towards the end of next month — date and location to be confirmed.

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 [email protected].


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