Benedict Arnold was a general during the American Revolutionary War who started out in the Continental Army but later defected to the Brits. So when in the early 1990s U.S. lawyers Jeffrey Golden and Thomas Joyce quit, respectively, Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Dorsey & Whitney to join U.K. firms Allen & Overy (A&O) and Freshfields, the pair were jokingly likened to Arnold.
Having found themselves ostracised from their old club of U.S. securities lawyers, “The Ad Hoc Committee,” in the wake of their traitorous moves, they founded a new association for the growing band of turncoats like them populating London firms. Its official name was “The Permanent Committee,” but it quickly attracted the moniker, “The Benedict Arnold Society.”
These days, with the one-man U.K. firm U.S. legal practices started by Golden and Joyce now employing hundreds of American lawyers, the Benedict Arnold Society is going stronger than ever; its Yank expat members meeting for dinners that go late into the night every month at the offices of their adopted British law firms.
Jeff Golden, who retired from A&O in 2010 and is now a professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), still sometimes struggles to believe the level of change that has taken place since he and Tom Joyce set up the club in 1993….
“I was at university in the 1960s, which we thought were really revolutionary times then. But in terms of rate of change, the bigger, more revolutionary transformation I’ve witnessed has been the last 20 years in the legal profession,” Golden says.
One of a number of catalysts for this change was the scrapping of a U.K. rule in the early 90s that prevented English lawyers from partnering with non-English lawyers. This driver behind the decision was to create inter-European Union partnerships, but the effect was that a host of U.K. firms developed U.S legal practices.
At that time, the notion of a London law firms providing advice on U.S. law bordered on the outrageous. “To cross the lines 17 years ago without U.S. law firm infrastructure – for example, library support on U.S. law – was a pretty daunting prospect,” recalls Golden, evoking a verse from Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken, by way of explanation for why he did it.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
Golden adds that in its early days, the main achievement of the Benedict Arnold Society, apart providing a forum for the discussion of U.S. legal developments, was “to keep people brave, following their hearts, and reminding them not to underestimate the opportunities that being a pioneer often affords.”
That pioneer spirit may have faded as U.S. practices at London firms have become entrenched, but the Society is still useful in providing new arrivals from the U.S. with support as they make the adjustment to London life. Brits’ collective problem with alcohol and frequent tendency to be aloof in their dealings with new U.S. recruits are frequent topics of discussion. However, the lack of work ethic in the U.K. — once a notorious bugbear among Americans — is much less of an issue than it used to be as London has assumed a more New York-style culture over the last couple of decades.
In the future, though, with British giants like Allen & Overy and Linklaters shedding jobs, and the London offices of U.S. firms in growth mode, will the Benedict Arnold path continue to be so well trodden?
Golden – an anglophile who did part of his undergraduate studies at the LSE – concedes that the short term may be tough for U.K. firms, but reckons that, in the medium to long term, they will be fine. “I am very optimistic about the legal profession in this city. London has as strong a legal pedigree as anywhere else I can think of, and remains an exciting place to practise.”
As for the Euro crisis, he optimistically predicts that “the speculated break-up of the Euro would, of course, throw up plenty of interesting legal issues and, rather than damaging business prospects, it could just as easily give lawyers lots to do and think about.”
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.