Letter from London

It takes a while to get over squandering an empire. As our habit of placing the prefix “Great” before “Britain” suggests, we’re still not quite there yet. But deep down we know we blew it. The evidence is everywhere: from our dentists, who don’t really know what they’re doing anymore, to our universities, which are crumbling, just like our schools, hospitals, and public transport.

Somehow, though, the U.K’s legal system has avoided being dragged into this spiral of decline. Yes, we’re still good at law — so good, in fact, that London is the top destination in the world for international companies to settle disputes, and English law the most popular among international in-house counsel (40% use it, with just 14% opting for New York law). And, in spite of the relatively tiny size of the British domestic legal market, our law firms manage to give yours a run for their money, with the Magic Circle quartet of Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Freshfields and A&O outdoing most of their U.S. rivals in terms of turnover and profits.

Doubtless part of this success stems from the fact that Britain is the home of the Common Law, which, unless some joker on Wikipedia is deceiving me, was invented around the 1150s by King Henry II. And as we saw during the April nuptials between Prince William and his bride Kate, our “Ye Olde Ingland” nostalgia sells very nicely to foreigners….

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Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the day a little-known heroin addict called Russell Brand turned up for work dressed as Osama Bin Laden, and was promptly fired by his then-employer, MTV.

After some ensuing years knocking around the lower echelons of British light entertainment, Brand got himself together and landed a role presenting the VMAs — from which he launched himself into mega-stardom when he branded George W. Bush a “retarded cowboy fella.”

Now, you don’t get career paths like that in law. Having said that, I do know of a London Biglaw associate who was once asked to replace his brightly-coloured socks with a more sober pair in advance of an important client meeting, in which he performed impressively.

Please don’t interpret that as a snarky suggestion that all lawyers are boring. As legal market-watchers well know, many attorneys — especially the litigators — are often anything but. They’re just good at hiding the madness. Usually, anyway….

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Ed. note: Welcome to Letter from London, a weekly look at the U.K. legal world by our London correspondent, Alex Aldridge. Alex previously covered the London riots and the royal wedding for Above the Law.

“Thank God” Britain didn’t join the Euro, said U.K. chancellor George Osborne last month, as the debt crisis in Greece began to spread to the much larger economies of Italy and Spain. But with the fortunes of the U.K. tightly bound to the rest of Europe (its biggest trading partner), the reality is that we’ll be hit almost as hard as our single currency-sharing neighbours if, as many expect, the crisis worsens.

Last week, as I did the rounds of the U.S. law firms in London in preparation for the commencement of these regular installments from across the pond, I asked various managing partners what European debt contagion would mean for large law firms in the U.K. And, predictably, they reeled off the standard recession line about law firms being “well placed to handle the anticipated wave of restructuring work.”

Doubtless there’s some truth to this. Indeed, Skadden and Linklaters are already riding the wave, with the pair currently advising on the merger between Greece’s second- and third-largest banks. Such are the demands of the deal that much of Skadden’s relatively small London office has apparently been required to temporarily decamp to Athens.

The worry is what happens after the restructuring is complete, with experts predicting that Eurozone sovereign debt defaults could precipitate a decade-long depression. This would be especially bad for the legal profession….

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Ed. note This is the final installment in London-based journalist Alex Aldridge’s series of stories for Above the Law about the royal wedding of HRH Prince William and Kate Middleton. You can read the prior posts here and here.

Well, they got married.

Best man Prince Harry remembered the ring. None of Wills’ disgruntled exes opted to speak now rather than forever hold their peace. And Kate — who has been made a Duchess rather than a Princess — even smiled. So now for the party!

Unless, that is, you work at one of London’s U.S. law firms, where lawyers staffing American deals are missing out on the public holiday everyone else in Britain is enjoying. “There are no celebrations here,” one cheery soul told me this morning in that weird Madonna accent Yanks acquire when they’ve been in London too long.

Don’t worry, though, the joke will be on us on next week, when we enter the existential crisis that customarily follows royal hysteria.

“What the hell happened there?” we’ll mutter, warm beer still on our breath.

“Oh no, we’ve only gone and got over-excited about that bunch of royal weirdos again,” we’ll groan, as we remove our commemorative Wills & Kate mugs from view and pour our tea into alternative vessels.

“Why do we, the country that brought the world the rule of law, have a royal family at all?” we’ll wonder indignantly, gnashing our yellow teeth and feeling a touch murderous….

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Ed. note This is the second in a series of posts that Alex Aldridge, a London-based journalist who covers legal affairs, will be writing for Above the Law about the upcoming royal wedding of HRH Prince William and Kate Middleton. You can read the first post here.

In Britain, middle-class people who don’t know what to do with their lives have the option of trying to wed a royal.

If that doesn’t work, the situation is much the same as in the US: they become lawyers. A case in point is Prince Harry’s on-and-off girlfriend, Chelsy Davy, who will begin a traineeship with “Magic Circle” law firm Allen & Overy in September, having failed to secure the ginger hell-raiser on a permanent basis. Had Kate Middleton’s 2007 split with Prince William proved final, our future queen — whose ex is an in-house lawyer — may well have gone down the same route.

Needless to say, royals don’t do law. It’s too aspirational. They don’t even sue; one lawyer who has had dealings with The Firm once told me (in jest, possibly): “The royal family don’t take people to court, they kill them.”

Perhaps this explains why they’re so keen on the military: Wills and Harry have followed family tradition by going into the air force and army, respectively. They probably won’t stick around long, though. Like Princes Charles and Andrew before them, the pair will soon be eased into a middle age of government handouts and state-provided housing. Royals, bless ‘em, are basically very rich poor people.

So is a union between a very rich poor person and a member of the middle class likely to work?

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Letter from London Queen.JPGEd. note: The legal world is much bigger than New York, or Washington, or even the United States. Welcome to Letter from London, a weekly dispatch from the other side of the pond. Our U.K. correspondent, Isaac Smith, will expose ATL readers to the latest goings-on in the London legal world. You can reach Isaac by email, at isaacsmithlondon@googlemail.com.

Hey, we love the Skadden “Sidebar” programme – which, like a year-old Hollywood movie, washed up belatedly on these shores last week. A third of your massive salary to do whatever you want, no strings attached – plus you’re exempt from any redundancy rounds while you’re away! And the reassuringly accomplished Sidebar branding means you really believe them when they say that.

The bitter irony is, of course, that this thing is being wasted on lawyers. “So what would you do if you had a whole year to do anything you fancied and still get paid?” I asked a group of London Big Law associate friends over some drinks in the pub last week.

“I’m fascinated by different cultures, so I’d go skiing,” said one.

“I’d have my bathroom refitted – you get a much higher standard of finish when you’re there to monitor the work yourself,” contributed another.

“A combination of the two would afford a sensible balance,” added a third.

After the jump, is expansion the answer?

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Letter from London Queen.JPGEd. note: The legal world is much bigger than New York, or Washington, or even the United States. Welcome to Letter from London, a weekly dispatch from the other side of the pond. Our U.K. correspondent, Isaac Smith, will expose ATL readers to the latest goings-on in the London legal world. You can reach Isaac by email, at isaacsmithlondon@googlemail.com.

The G20 summit, accompanied by its anti-capitalist sideshow, arrives in London this week – and UK Big Law is feeling a little scared.

Law firms are warning employees not to wear suits on Wednesday or Thursday so as to avoid being targeted in the violent protests planned around London’s financial district.

Which provokes an interesting question: how ghetto does a corporate lawyer need to dress in order to avoid arousing suspicion as to their true identity?

We’ll soon find out.

It all seems a bit unfair, really. It’s not as if lawyers got the super big bonuses. And now their salaries are actually falling. If those nasty anti-capitalists had bothered to have a quick scan of The Lawyer last Wednesday, they’d have seen that Shearman & Sterling’s London office had followed Freshfields in cutting newly qualified associate salaries by 8%.

Are we going back in time? More after the jump.

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Letter from London Queen.JPGEd. note: The legal world is much bigger than New York, or Washington, or even the United States. Welcome to Letter from London, a weekly dispatch from the other side of the pond. Our U.K. correspondent, Isaac Smith, will expose ATL readers to the latest goings-on in the London legal world. You can reach Isaac by email, at isaacsmithlondon@googlemail.com.

On his recent trip to the US, Prime Minister Brown presented President Obama with an ornamental pen holder, carved from the timbers of the Victorian anti-slave ship HMS Gannet.

In return, Obama gave Brown some DVDs — which, it was revealed on Wednesday, don’t work in UK DVD players.

Why humiliate us like this?

Maybe Obama was angry at the UK because London-based firm Clifford Chance laid off 35 business support staff from its New York and DC offices at the end of last year. But news of that only emerged last week — after Obama purchased the DVDs.

Perhaps Obama has a thing against the British. We do, after all, “sound gay and smell like Indian food” — as one poster on last Monday’s column observed. But your new president doesn’t seem the sort of chap to be burdened by petty prejudices — aside from, of course, his hatred of the disabled.

Or could it be that Obama is pissed off that he had to meet Brown instead of Tony Blair? Yeah, that makes sense. Americans f**king love Tony Blair.

Something you might not know about Tony Blair, after the jump.

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Letter from London Queen.JPGEd. note: The legal world is much bigger than New York, or Washington, or even the United States. Welcome to the inaugural installment of “Letter from London,” a weekly dispatch from the other side of the pond. Our U.K. correspondent, Isaac Smith, will expose ATL readers to the latest goings-on in the London legal world. You can reach Isaac by email, at isaacsmithlondon@googlemail.com.

Firms in the U.S. often try to keep their layoffs nice and quiet, with instructions not to communicate with the media or the odd scare tactic… Cousins, you’re not alone.

A recent meeting between DLA Piper’s UK management team and employee reps over its stingy redundancy package got off to a bad start when London Managing Partner Catherine Usher pleaded for “ideas on how we can keep the information confidential” — words which were leaked, along with the rest of the minutes, to just about every legal news publication in London last week.

Some quick background: DLA, which launched its second redundancy consultation in January (with criteria including number of sick days taken), is paying out the statutory minimum to UK-based lawyers who get the chop. This equates to one week’s pay (capped at £350 a week) for each year’s service. By way of comparison, Linklaters is said to be offering three weeks’ pay (at the full rate, without any cap) for every year with the firm, plus three months’ notice. DLA’s US arm is also being considerably more generous.

More of the DLA minutes:

Meeting begins with Usher urging associates to stop leaking things to the press.

Employee rep points out link between firm’s less-than-generous redundancy package and press leaks.

Heated exchanges ensue.

Hapless HR manager tries to pacify the crowd, but her misguided recommendations that (a) associates go out for some morale-boosting team drinks and (b) the fired ones use an “an advice line” which provides “guidance about the impact of redundancy and what to do next” only make situation worse.

Anger boils over and Usher and HR Manager set upon by frenzied mob.

Ok, that last bit may not have happened.

Addition London news, after the jump.

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