As I reach my middle years I find much to admire and celebrate about the legal profession, and lawyers in general. This column is not going to be about any of that stuff. Instead, we turn to a facet of the typical lawyer’s character that does them no credit: the obsession with joining a crowd, or rather a club that the lawyer believes says something ego-stroking about them.
Whatever you call a law firm, however factually you try to describe it, that firm will want a different, self-authored tag and often one that stretches credibility. One firm’s comms team has stalked me for years demanding I call a practice that generates less than 15% of its revenue outside the UK, and a good deal of its income from the UK regions, ‘global’. Golden Circle, Silver Circle – when I heard these terms years ago, I figured there was no way they’d catch on. Magic Circle sounds bad enough as it is, but it became currency because it defined a basic truth: as bluechip advisers, five London law firms were in a league of their own by the end of the 1990s. They still are.
But I was wrong and, before you knew it, credible, intelligent lawyers were telling me they were members of the Silver Circle, which I suppose sounds better than mid-tier.
Even the Magic Circle is at it now, complaining about how the brand plays on Wall Street (New York firms, of course, without irony moan about ‘white-shoe’ sounding elitist). Well, they can call themselves Global Elite if they like – they can call themselves Susan for all the difference it will make. If the Magic Circle delivers the goods in Manhattan, they will ultimately be seen as a success and if they don’t, they won’t. Even if they do brilliantly, New York lawyers will take 20 years to admit it because that’s what they’re like.
The thing about lawyers is that it is very difficult to exaggerate their obsession with status. They’re always alert for some grouping that elevates them and allows the luxury of looking down on someone else who is actually pretty similar. The only breed worse on the status front are bankers. And journalists. They’re worse than anyone.
To be fair, there is a fig leaf of justification to all this these days. Twenty years of globalisation and consolidation means that distinctions like regional, national, City or US law firm mean a good deal less than they once did. When I first covered law, you could easily tell from talking to the average partner which bracket their firm fit in. Now the regional firms sound posher and the City firms more estuary. They all have more in common in this professional global village. So why not do away with tags entirely?
Apart from being amusing, do any of these pretentions matter? In one regard, yes. Joining a club so easily morphs into chasing the herd. For all the rhetoric about innovation, law firms in general still struggle to set out their own path. Even the innovation looks a bit samey. I sometimes wonder what the profession could achieve if its work ethic, integrity and high standards were allied to a little more independence of spirit.