Simon Firth

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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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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