Alex Aldridge

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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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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“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.)

“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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