Sex, fees and videotape
5 July 1996
18 October 2013
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11 March 2013
Amy Jenkins has a lot to answer for. As the author of BBC2's This Life programme, she is responsible for the new image of young lawyers as therapy-dependent dope-smokers.
Yet it is hard to think of anyone better qualified to write about life as a legal trainee. Jenkins, 29, read law at University College London and went on to a traineeship with City firm Theodore Goddard. But, one year into her training, she decided to give up the legal life.
Like her dreamy character Egg, Jenkins felt suffocated in an office environment and knew her heart lay elsewhere. "Giving up my traineeship was quite scary," she says. "I felt I had to jump off. I felt like I was on a moving train and that it would be much harder to step out of it later on.
"People treasured the moments when they were not in the office. And I could see there were women who had been doing this for 15 years. I didn't want to spend my life like that."
So she left the security of a career in law to sell jumpers in the Portobello Road and organise nightclub raves.
"There was a time when I had no idea that I'd make it as a writer," she says. "I felt very nervous about not having a profession.
"For years I thought that doing my law degree was a waste of time. But now I think it was very good for my work. It helped my writing in that it made me more rigorous about the structure and meaning of words."
But Jenkins' desire to write was probably in her blood. Her father was well-known journalist Peter Jenkins and there was always a culture of writing in her family.
She chose to focus on a world she was familiar with and took bits of people she knew to create the characters. Jenkins acknowledges her characters are more colourful than trainees in real life.
"I was really interested in the characters and not so much the fact that they were lawyers," she says. "Of course not all law trainees take drugs, 95 per cent don't. Mostly lawyers are more straight."
She adds: "The programme is not meant to be a critique of the law. Rather my motivation in writing This Life was to entertain."
And also, perhaps, to exorcise some old demons. Jenkins' latest project - a film about a northern lass who goes to Paris to work as a dancer - is a world apart from the conservative confines of a City law firm. Writing This Life, it seems, has truly allowed Jenkins to break free from the shackles of her past.
But what about the programme itself? Dispelling a myth is usually a thankless task, but sometimes the temptation is too great to resist. We asked four trainees who lived together at the start of their traineeships to judge how realistic This Life is.
Katherine Levy, from London firm Meyrick Mills, Kate Ball-Dodd of Eversheds, Penny Fry from DJ Freeman and Peter Dooley from Ashurst Morris Crisp agreed to watch This Life and deliver their verdict.
From the first, opinion was unanimous: the series "is completely removed from real life in a law firm".
Sadly, it seems that law firms are not hotbeds of sexual tensions after all.
One criticism of the programme was that "it's making a college type atmosphere within a career". "It's too matey, too chummy, and there's not a lot of business going on."
Sex in the toilets just doesn't happen - or not to these trainees anyway. "And," says Kate, "I am very pleased I have never come across my senior partner or, indeed, any of my partners having a massage."
On the whole, these real-life trainees are more self-assured and careful than their fictitious counterparts. They believe that, as a generation who experienced both the Eighties and the recession, they are cautious and hardworking.
In fact it is hard not to resist attaching labels like 'conformist' and 'conventional' to trainees as a group.
Kate, Penny and Katherine describe the time they went out for a birthday meal as part of a large group of law students. Everybody was paying their way and, when all the contributions were totted up, the amount was right to the penny - nobody had tried to cheat, nobody pretended they had forgotten their purse.
Penny says: "I think if you come to a City firm you have to conform to a certain image. People become quite sensible - you have to be sensible." So much so that she has started a pension even though she is still paying off her student loans.
But all four are keen to point out that sensible is not the same as boring. In fact they felt that the main thing This Life missed out was trainees going out to the pub and having a laugh.
They described the programme as inward-looking, "too intense" and "full of angst".
Trainees, it seems, are too busy to bicker over stolen yoghurt and fret about their sexuality. In fact, Penny felt that, at some stages of her traineeship, No Life would have been a more appropriate title.
The plot was described as "blatant" and "see-through" and the series was essentially "a mini soap". Pete says: "As a drama I'm sure it's not bad but it's nothing to do with law.
"This Life makes us look like scumbags," he adds and was keen to set the record straight: "Lawyers are lovely really."
Yet despite their damning critique, all four appreciated the fact that This Life "takes it away from wigs and gowns" and provokes public thought about the law.
As Katherine points out: "The rest of the world tends to have a very negative view of the law and so in that respect they are making it look more human."
And both Kate and Penny thought they would probably watch the programme again. Penny says: "It's mildly compelling because you want to know what's happening next."
Finally, we asked all four to give the series a mark out of five for realism.
Katherine: one out of five - "because they are in the law".