Alex Aldridge

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

Posts by Alex Aldridge

Be careful what you write when you’re young and idealistic.

In 2003, David Wolfe, a lawyer who works alongside Cherie Blair at top London human rights shop Matrix Chambers, decided he was unhappy with the way the British legal hierarchy works. So he co-signed an open letter criticising the Queen’s Counsel (QC) system –- a process that sees a handful of barristers (British trial lawyers) promoted to the elite QC rank each year, enabling them to charge clients more money. “The QC system cannot be justified as being in the public interest or promoting competition,” the letter stated.

Nine years on, and last week Wolfe found himself made up to QC — an honour which, despite the name, involves no input from the Queen or her family members. He didn’t decline. Indeed, all QCs have to actively apply in order to gain the title. Unfortunately for Wolfe, someone mentioned his youthful letter to RollOnFriday, a widely read U.K. legal blog.

When contacted about the letter, Wolfe responded….

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Last week Britain was treated to the surreal sight of a junior lawyer collecting a lifetime achievement award for his services to pop music. Dave Rowntree, drummer in the band Blur — honoured with a lifetime achievement award at Wednesday’s BRIT awards — now spends his days working as a trainee lawyer at London corporate firm Kingsley Napley, and plays music part-time. Judging by his constant fiddling with his Blackberry during the awards ceremony, Rowntree seems to have got into the spirit of Biglaw.

The lure of the legal profession hangs heavily over celebrities in Britain….

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Last week, the Duchess of Cornwall Camilla Parker-Bowles became an honorary barrister (British for trial lawyer). Upon receiving the award in a ceremony at Gray’s Inn — one of the quasi-law schools (known collectively as the Inns of Court) which help train up barristers — the Mon Fertile Finishing School alumnus said: “I think it’s very important to keep everything sort of ticking.”

The Duchess follows in the footsteps of her husband, Prince Charles, and her step son, William Saviour of the Falkland Islands, in attaining elite legal status. Charles was called to the Bar, also at Gray’s Inn, in 1975, while William was made an honorary barrister by another Inn of Court, Middle Temple, in 2009. Guided by Prince Harry’s on-off girlfriend Chelsy Davy — a real lawyer at Allen & Overy –- the group are expected to team up to form Windsors LLP.

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It was just another day at Shearman & Sterling. Daniel England, a British trainee lawyer based out of the firm’s Singapore office, took a break from whatever thrilling piece of work he was doing to email his friends about their forthcoming vacation in Dubai.

Being a rules-obsessed lawyer, he included a list of “do’s and don’ts” for the group — two of whom work in London’s financial district, the City — to follow on the trip. A few days later, the poor fellow found the email plastered across the British press.

“‘Cheating on our girls is allowed… We must boast about how rich we are’: City boys are ruled offside after rugby tour ‘rules’ email goes viral,” bellowed the Daily Mail on Thursday.

“For four young City high-fliers, the adage ‘what goes on tour, stays on tour’ has unravelled after a private email with their ‘tour rules’ went viral,” crowed The Telegraph.

Here are those tour rules…

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History is littered with examples of Aussies sticking it to the Brits: from early convict rebellions to the time Rupert Murdoch bought our favourite tabloid newspaper, The Sun, and had a photo of a topless woman placed on its inside page each day — a tradition that continues to this day (semi-NSFW link).

Last week they were at it again when Australian law firm Slater & Gordon used some of the millions generated from its 2007 public listing — the first ever for a law firm — to snap up the large British personal injury firm Russell Jones & Walker (RJW), in an unprecedented £54m ($85 million) cash and shares deal. Once again, the people of the U.K. were left shaking their heads.

Of course, we should have seen it coming. British lawyers have been talking about the deregulatory provisions of the U.K. Legal Services Act (LSA) for years now. And it’s not as if we haven’t been watching the rapid growth of Slater & Gordon — where turnover, staff numbers and office locations have nearly tripled since the firm responded to Australia’s enactment of a similar law by going public — with eyebrow-raised interest from afar.

For some reason, though, we failed to put the two together….

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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….

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“Oh, What a tangled web we weave, When first we practise to deceive,” said Judge Guy Anthony, quoting Sir Walter Scott’s poem Marmion, as he sentenced British Biglaw attorney Francis Bridgeman to 12 months in prison on Friday. The former Allen & Overy (A&O) and Macfarlanes partner, who had already had his membership of the latter firm’s limited liability partnership terminated, then collapsed in the dock.

Until recently, Bridgeman, 43, was just another hotshot Biglaw equity partner enjoying a millionaire’s life-style. Educated at Oxford University, he joined Magic Circle firm A&O in the early 1990s and rose through the ranks so quickly that he made partner in 2000, aged just 32. Having got married, he bought a big house in the countryside outside London and became a governor at a local school. Three years ago, he capitalised on his success by moving to boutique financial law firm Macfarlanes, where profit per equity partner is still high for U.K. standards (last year it came in at £752,000) but the hours and stress are generally considered less than at the likes of A&O.

Then, on April 6 2010, everything changed for Bridgeman, in the most unexpected and surreal way….

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“I thought Freshfields [Bruckhaus Deringer] was a supermarket when I got here,” says Kirsty Grant, a fourth-year associate in the London office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. Happily, Grant — a fast-learner who got through law school in L.A. while working full-time during the day — quickly figured out that the Anglo-German law firm, a member of the Magic Circle, wasn’t the place to fulfill her grocery needs.

The cultural assimilation enjoyed by the UCLA and Loyola graduate since she arrived in London last March hasn’t stopped there. “At first I couldn’t believe the drinking culture here,” she recalls. “The first Friday after work that I went to the pub, I thought, ‘I haven’t had any food; I can’t do this.’ And then the London lawyers went on until 5 a.m. I just don’t have the liver for it, but it shocks me less now.”

Not that Grant, 33, has oceans of spare cash to splash on boozy nights out. How do her finances as an American abroad compare to those of her Biglaw counterparts back home?

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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….

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A few months ago, one of the public relations staff at Linklaters invited me to have lunch with him in the firm’s canteen. Now, I know that if I was a client, or even a journalist of greater rank, my PR acquaintance would have probably deemed me worthy of a trip to a restaurant on the expenses account. But, hey, times are tough, so I didn’t hold it against him. And in any case, I was curious to see what a Biglaw canteen looked like.

To my surprise, it looked a lot like a school canteen. A super-deluxe school canteen, you understand, with all sorts of fancy food options, and tasteful decor, and wholesome-looking — if oddly mature — students. Having finished my generous portion of chicken curry, side salad and smoothie, I relaxed back in my chair and, looking around me, wondered how those Linklaters people stayed so slim. Then I remembered the on-site gym I’d read about somewhere, which, I assume, nestles alongside the on-site doctor, dentist, physiotherapist and dry-cleaners, deep within Linklaters’ lovely womb-like central London offices.

In that moment, I wanted to never leave. It all just felt so… safe. But was it?

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(Layoffs at Linklaters, at the partner level.)

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