Benedict Arnold

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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