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 aldridge_alex@hotmail.com.

Posts by Alex Aldridge

“Privacy is for paedos,” announced tabloid journalist Paul McMullan, formerly of Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct British tabloid News of the World, while speaking last week at an enquiry set up in response to this summer’s phone hacking scandal. Firmly unapologetic for having harassed celebrities via an impressive range of mediums, McMullan continued: “Fundamentally, no one else needs it. Privacy is evil.” He fast became the villain of what the Financial Times has dubbed as “the best free show in London.”

As for the heroes, well, none of the celebrities who have given evidence so far — including Divine Brown blow jobee Hugh Grant, comedian Steve Coogan, author JK Rowling, and Tony Blair’s former press secretary Alastair Campbell — have shone particularly. Most of the army of lawyers in attendance, meanwhile, have been, well, lawyerly.

Notably, one junior lawyer at the enquiry, Carine Patry Hoskins, did steal the show for a few hours last month, albeit on account of her good looks rather than any show of heroism, when she became one of the world’s most popular topics on Twitter during the Hugh Grant’s testimony. Having caught the attention of Tweeters, the attractive brunette was given the hashtag #womanontheleft — which quickly shot to most read thread in the U.K., before trending prominently worldwide….

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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?

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Down on your luck? Feel like cheering yourself up by, say, arresting a judge? Or perhaps you just fancy seizing a courtroom for the day? Well, the “Freeman-on-the-land” movement could be for you.

“Freemen” argue that the law can be circumvented by, for example, evoking an ancient text and then sending an affidavit to the Queen.

Here’s a clip of them in action (go to 4:21 for the hilarious pseudo-legal speech)….

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As Europeans from the sun-dappled Mediterranean to the icy North Sea brace themselves for doomsday, I thought I’d ignore the wildfire-like turmoil sweeping my continent to write you a sweet little piece about the difference between British and American English.

The hook, as we say in the U.K. media, is the Economist’s recent ‘British Americanisation’ survey. As with most things produced by the Economist, it’s pretty dull, revealing, amongst other things, that some British people have started saying ‘vacation’ instead of ‘holiday’. Others have begun traitorously moving the stress on the word ‘controversy’ from the second to the first syllable. Crazy, eh?! But I know marginally more about linguistics than economics, so I’ll plough on.

Actually, I’m underselling this column. I’ve been wanting to write something ‘you say tomato, I say tomato’ for ages, because British people’s use of Americanisms is highly revealing — about them, about the U.K.’s relationship with America, about the continuing popularity of U.S. T.V. series on these shores….

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To qualify as a lawyer in the U.K., you first have to eat 12 dinners. Seriously. OK, it’s only barristers (British trial lawyers) who must meet this requirement. And they have to pass legal exams as well as eat. But the essence of my slightly sensationalised opening sentence is true: no dinners, no qualification.

Here’s what happens: students go to law school in the day, then every month or so go and eat a formal dinner at one of London’s inns of court (ancient clubs for trial lawyers). The medieval ritual has its roots in the pre-law school days when “sons of country gentlemen” from across Britain would come to lodge in the inns, attending lectures, taking part in mock courts, and dining together in the inns’ main halls (Harry Potter-style places that are famous for hosting Shakespeare’s original plays). Certain traditions are still followed, like toasting the Queen and refusing to shake hands with anyone (barristers are historically forbidden from shaking hands each other’s hands). But mainly it’s about getting drunk — on port, the U.K. establishment’s tipple of choice.

Why am I telling you about this? To give you a sense of port’s central role in the education of our young, as a primer for a story about the Oxford University Conservative association accidentally revealing its hate-filled Nazi soul at a recent “port and policy” night….

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It’s been a bad few days for the Church of England. First, it gets slammed for siding with the bankers, rather than the protesters, after its flagship venue, St Paul’s Cathedral, finds itself at the heart of Occupy London. Second, a change to the U.K.’s ancient royal succession laws strikes a blow for its great rival, Rome, as a ban on royal family members who marry Catholics taking the throne is lifted.

Beginning with the Occupy London controversy: the protesters’ original plan was to occupy St Paul’s neighbour, the London Stock Exchange, which nestles alongside the U.K. branch of O’Melveny & Myers on an adjoining square. But they were blocked by the police, forcing them instead to set up camp on the forecourt of the great cathedral (built from the ashes of the Great Fire of London in 1666). At first this seemed like a defeat, as the Church of England played victim, shutting the doors of St Paul’s to visitors for the first time since the Second World War on what it claimed were health and safety grounds.

Here’s what the encampment looked like:

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When Hitler came to power in January 1933, more than half of Berlin’s 3,400 lawyers were of Jewish origin. All of them, alongside the thousands of other Jews practising law throughout the rest of Germany, were forced to re-apply for admission to the national bar. At which point, only German-Jewish lawyers who had qualified before 1914, or who had fought at the front line in the First World War, were granted the right to continue in their profession. And in November 1938, even this select group was banned from practising. Many German-Jewish lawyers would subsequently be murdered in concentration camps. Others managed to flee to the U.S., where some, like the late Coudert Brothers lawyer Ernst Stiefel, eventually re-qualified as U.S. attorneys.

I learnt about Stiefel — who, before being admitted in the States, completed spells as a chauffeur, busboy, and dishwasher in New York, having undergone a period of internment as an “enemy alien” in the U.K. — from an excellent pamphlet produced by the German Federal Bar and the American Bar Association, “Jewish Lawyers in Germany under the Third Reich,” that I happened upon last week in the reception room of the English Law Society’s office in Brussels. I was there to listen to the English legal representative body’s arguments against a proposal for a new single Europe-wide contract law, having spent the first part of the day listening to the E.U.’s arguments in favour of the plan.

At face value, a single European contract law is about exciting as, well, Brussels (imagine an Eiffel Tower-less Paris without the joie de vivre, or a diluted Euro-version of Washington, D.C.)….

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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….

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The Financial Times Innovative Lawyers Awards ceremony, held in London last Wednesday, was most notable for the contrast between the puppy-like excitement of the lawyer nominees and the auto-pilot professionalism of the host, FT editor Lionel Barber, whose aura was of a man who’d rather be at home watching TV.

This was a shame, not only for the confused lawyers struggling to understand why Barber wasn’t high-fiving them as they collected their trophies, but because it overshadowed the setting of a world record. Never before has the adjective “innovative” — or its derivations “innovate,” “innovation,” and “innovator” — been used with such frequency in a single evening.

Between them, these four words featured in 14 of the 15 award names, peppered the subsequent acceptance speeches, dominated the copy of the awards brochure, and strangled the dinner conversation. Hypnotised by the repetition, I was convinced by the end that lawyers could see the future and were responsible for all of the great achievements of humankind.

However, having regained my sense of reality during the Tube ride home, it slowly dawned on me that most of the innovation I’d spent the last five hours being bombarded with wasn’t innovation at all, but simply lawyers doing their jobs. The “innovation in corporate law” award, for example, went to two law firms which acted on a merger, and the “innovation in dispute resolution” prize was given to a firm that won a case.

At other times, “innovation” was employed as a euphemism for not especially original ways to cut jobs….

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Last week it emerged that a British teenager had been jailed for two months for taking a photo on his cellphone from the public gallery of a courtroom. Now, I know in the U.S. you’d probably just have executed the kid, but to us effete Europeans it seems a little harsh to dish out prison time for such a minor offence.

The sentence — which drew criticism even from the right-leaning Times newspaper — follows the unusually tough terms given to those involved in the U.K.’s August riots. In one instance, a judge jailed two men for four years each for setting up Facebook pages inciting others to riot — despite the fact that neither page resulted in any rioting. In another case, a 23-year old electrical-engineering student with no previous convictions was given a six-month custodial sentence for stealing a £3.50 ($5.45) case of bottled water from a ransacked discount store in South London.

Brits are split on this new mood of authoritarianism….

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