An Englishman in New York

I speculated long and hard about what awaited me on the other side of the pond when my firm Freshfields sent me on secondment to New York firm Davis Polk & Wardwell last April.

I had visited New York twice in the past, watched countless films set in the city and felt sure I would fit in.

I was less sure about what work they would have in store. Like everybody else, I had seen The Firm. Did lawyers really work 3,000 hours a year? Was an aggressive, kill-or-be-killed attitude really the norm? And most importantly, when they had calmed down and left their desks in the evening, how did US lawyers spend those colossal salaries?

Seven months have now passed. I would be lying if I said that life in New York has turned out to be good. It has turned out to be much better than that. It is fantastic. This really is the city that never sleeps. I lived in central London for seven years and never tired of its fast pace and endless variety. For me, London is a pretty tough place to beat. New York, however, takes urban energy, vitality and diversity to new heights.

At only 10 cents a minute (plus tax, of course) for transatlantic calls and with a very comfortable guest bed in my “with view” apartment on the Upper West Side close to Central Park, keeping in touch with friends and family has not been a problem.

Sadly, I have seen very little of my favourite sports, or beloved Newcastle United, which receive little or no TV coverage over here. However, the way things turned out in the FA Cup Final and World Cup, this was probably no bad thing. As for the cricket, I have found baseball (and the New York Yankees in particular) to be a worthwhile substitute for the real thing.

As far as work is concerned, I am delighted to say that in my experience, working in a US law firm has not had the dark side that the movies often portray. The 3000-hour year is, thankfully, well above the norm.

Lawyers work hard here, as they do in London, when the situation or the client demands. However, workaholics aside, most are keen to mix work with plenty of pleasure. As for the aggressive kill-or-be-killed attitude, I have not encountered it.

On the whole, the lawyers I have had contact with have been friendly and helpful as well as highly capable. There are no obvious legal equivalents of Wall Street's Gordon Gekko practising law here, or if there are, I have not met any of them.

As for lawyer's remuneration, I am afraid it is true that the average fresh-out-of-law-school recruit at a Wall Street law firm is paid around three times the salary of a London trainee and around twice the salary of a newly-qualified London solicitor.

However, once federal, state and city taxes, health insurance, rent on a tiny (but extortionately priced) Manhattan apartment and law school loan repayments ($US80,000 is not uncommon) have been deducted from the monthly salary cheque, junior New York lawyers are not as comparatively well off as the base salary figures might suggest.

It is interesting to note that like their London counterparts, New York lawyers gripe about the meanness of their salaries – especially when compared with the salaries earned by college friends working in New York's financial institutions.

I am pleased to see that while the law of the two jurisdictions is different, the basic legal skills required to practise law are very similar indeed.

There are, of course, differences in the way in which work gets done here in comparison with London. But it is difficult for me to make a true comparison, because while I am assigned to the corporate department at Davis Polk, my time at Freshfields has so far been spent in the litigation department. It could be that the differences I perceive are the result of the different work practices of litigators and non-litigators, rather than the different approaches taken in London and New York.

Nonetheless, I seem to spend less time in face-to-face meetings than before and more time on conference calls. New York lawyers appear to do less “paper shuffling” than their London counterparts (though there is still a considerable amount of it to do). Voicemail is used as a means of communication to a far greater extent in New York than in London.

Life in New York does not suit everyone. To some, the constant “buzz” is a problem. There are very few places in New York where life proceeds at even a normal pace. In addition, it is very difficult to get away from the city without going to considerable lengths. In Manhattan especially, very few people own a car.

Train services from the city are slower and less comprehensive than in London. Getting away from it all usually involves a trek to one of New York's airports followed by a plane ride. If you are the type of person who craves peace and quiet or bracing walks in the country and you are considering a long stint in New York, I would strongly advise you to – as the locals here say – “foggedaboudit”.