“To ;be ;a ;good solicitor ;you have ;to be able to look at a single piece of paper indefinitely, wear pink shirts and to be able to say things like ‘let’s send this up the flagpole and see who salutes it’ without laughing,” says Berwin Leighton Paisner’s (BLP) in-house comedian Steve Weiner.
Training and development adviser at the firm’s London HQ, Weiner also doubles as a stand-up comic and podcast presenter and is the winner of the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year 2008 – the prestigious comedy prize that helped launch the careers of Eddie Izzard, Stewart Lee, Ardal O’Hanlon and Harry Hill. But he does not do lawyer jokes.
“I try to keep the law out of my stand-up,” he says. “If the audience finds out you’re a lawyer, you’re going to get torn to pieces.”
A solicitor by training, 28-year-old Weiner qualified at Ashurst, which he describes diplomatically as “a lovely firm”, while admitting that he did not like “the admin side of the job [or] the billing and targets”.
Although offered a position upon qualification, he left the firm for a role as a commercial litigator at West End firm Piper Smith Watton, where he spent a year and “enjoyed it, but knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be”.
It was less a problem with the firm and more a problem with being a lawyer in general, he says now. “People use the left side or the right side of their brain – the linear or the creative,” he explains. “I’m just not very linear. Personally I find it hard to focus on any document for any length of time – even menus in restaurants.”
Despite not wanting to be a lawyer, Weiner was keen to use his ability to communicate ideas and decided to combine this with his experience of the law by responding to a 2007 advert placed by BLP, which at the time was looking for a former solicitor to recruit into its training and development team.
Winning the role after an interview with training head Patrick McCann and a short mock presentation, Weiner now designs and delivers most of the training sessions for the firm’s trainees, lawyers and business service functions personnel.
“Secretaries are a tough audience,” he says. “I walk in and I can sense them asking themselves, ‘who’s this balding twentysomething who thinks he’s got stuff to say and keeps making these really underwhelming jokes?’.”
Weiner lives in Holloway, North London (“I’m pretty street”) with a friend from university who also juggles a day job with a stand-up career.
“We do this thing called ‘riffing’, where we just sit in front of the TV shouting out ideas for jokes when they pop into our vacuous heads,” Weiner says. “Honestly, it’s a recipe for autism.”
Weiner says he has three notebooks next to the telly, four next to his bed, six in various bags and one above the toilet. “Often I wake up in the middle of the night and write down a joke – 90 per cent of it is total dross, but the rest is ‘comedy gold’.”
As well as performing four to five times a week, Weiner is the co-author and presenter of a podcast in which he and a friend take a sideways look at cricket. He admits his hectic lifestyle has its drawbacks, saying: “Inevitably certain things suffer. I see my friends less and I eat crisps a lot for dinner.”
However, while juggling his two roles as a trainer and a comic is demanding, Weiner says BLP has been involved in his comedy “every step of the way”, adding: “I’ve never felt the need to be cloak and dagger about the whole thing.”
Infallibly loyal to the firm, Weiner stresses that Patrick McCann is “always flexible in terms of my hours”, while BLP staff have been to several gigs, including the Hackney Empire show. He denies having a decent impersonation of managing partner Neville Eisenberg in his repertoire, pointing out that Eisenberg in fact sent him a bottle of champagne and a handwritten note when he won the Hackney Empire prize.
“I can’t imagine some of the magic circle firms putting me on their online discussion boards after a stand-up comedy competition,” he says.
While admitting that “balancing a life of comedy with fee-earning probably wouldn’t be feasible”, Weiner is confident his stand-up experience is useful in his role as a trainer.
“In terms of my training style, Patrick McCann always tells me to make sure my humour comes over in the training sessions. As such, technically, I’m not to blame for the terrible gags I tell in most of my sessions.”
According to Weiner, training is about making sure the delegates enjoy themselves while they learn. “The best way to achieve that is to make people feel comfortable,” he says. “Then they take in more and appreciate the lessons you’re trying to impart. You need to self-deprecate a little and make people, especially new trainees, aware that there are times when you’ll get things wrong and when you’ll feel humiliated, but that that’s fine.
“You learn the most from your mistakes. I always say I learn nothing from a good stand-up gig, but I learn so much from a terrible howler.” n