Magic Circle

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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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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* “It seems no one can use dirty words, except Steven Spielberg.” Well, sh*t, I’ll be damned. Is Elena Kagan going to be the voice of reason in the Supreme Court’s FCC profanity case? [Los Angeles Times]

* Ken Cuccinelli filed an emergency motion to get Virginia’s primary ballots printed. You can’t wait three days for Perry’s hearing? It’s on Friday the 13th. You know how that’s going to go. [Bloomberg]

* The Tenth Circuit upheld a ruling to block an Oklahoma law barring the consideration of Sharia law in court decisions. If this pisses you off, go and watch Homeland. You’ll feel better. [MSNBC]

* Dewey want to join the Magic Circle? Bloody hell, of course! Clifford Chance has snagged two mergers and acquisitions partners from Dewey & LeBoeuf. [DealBook / New York Times]

* What will an LL.M. get you in today’s job market? Not a whole lot. And if you’re counting that extra year of loan debt as something of value, then you’re just a masochist. [National Law Journal]

* Heather Peters, the former lawyer suing Honda in small claims court, may be SOL because of a SOL issue. Stay tuned for the results at her second hearing later this month. [Huffington Post]

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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Oh happy Indian man, you know this globalization trend works both ways, don't you?

Protectionism is a song as old as time. We do it, and other countries do it to us. Every country is trying to figure our how to maximize the benefits of globalization without making their own people join a frenzied “dey tuk er jerbbbs” mob.

And that’s fine. This economic competition is good for standards of living all across the world — unless, of course, it leads to nuclear war.

But sometimes the lack of global reciprocity can become maddening. Take the outsourcing of legal work. For years we’ve been talking about how entry level, “document monkey” jobs are going from junior Biglaw attorneys to cheaper workers in India and a few other countries. Ever since the American Bar Association changed its rules in 2008 and allowed American legal work to be done offshore, competition from India over low-end legal work has been a key factor for those who care about the future of Biglaw.

And yet India remains a closed legal market to U.S. and British firms. Western firms are not allowed to do legal work in India, even though Western firms and clients are free to send work to India at the cost of American jobs.

Does this mean whoever keeps an eye on the Indian legal economy is doing a far, far better job than our own American Bar Association? Sure. But it’s hardly breaking news that the ABA is ineffective.

What’s far more newsworthy is that this fundamental inequity between the two legal markets might be changing — not because the ABA is magically getting its act together, but because Indian authorities might be willing to stop being a$$holes….

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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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Maybe it was the hypnotic effect Pippa Middleton’s ass had on Prince Harry? Or perhaps it was simply that Chelsy Davy didn’t want to marry into the crazy old royal family? Either way, shortly after William and Kate tied the knot in April, Harry and Chelsy split up.

And what did the Zimbabwean blonde bombshell do next? She became a lawyer. Yes, last week the ex-girlfriend of Princess Diana’s youngest son started life as a trainee with top London law firm Allen & Overy.

“Let’s watch Chelsy,” the Sun newspaper crowed on Wednesday, after snapping suit-clad Davy making her way through London’s financial district to the Magic Circle giant’s office. The article, fascinatingly, went on to note that Davy “really was legally blonde.” And that was it. End of story. In fact, according to an A&O press officer I spoke with the other day, Davy starting work at the firm is “no story at all.”

But I beg to differ….

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Deidre Dare

Last month, we reported on the latest adventures of Deidre Dare, the sexy expat lawyer who once worked in the Moscow office of Allen & Overy. Her London lawsuit against the firm was dismissed, but Dare is now suing A&O here in New York, seeking $35 million in punitive and compensatory damages.

In the same post, we mentioned that Dare was seeking to raise $25,000 to publish Expat, a book based on her time in Allen & Overy’s Moscow office. Dare described it as “a novel about a group of Westerners living and working in Moscow, Russia and their extravagant but dangerous lifestyle,” with a plot “inspired by a British Petroleum scandal that happened when I was there.”

Dare was trying to raise the $25K on Kickstarter, the popular website that serves as a fundraising platform for creative types with a surplus of ideas and a shortage of cash. Did she succeed?

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