In its leader last week, The Lawyer bemoaned the rise of certain firms comprised solely of a youthful generation of monochrome drones at the expense of a more pluralist culture. It is right to be concerned. Not only is there something inherently offensive about the ascent of what might best be called a veal crate ethos, but there are clear signs that it heralds the emergence of something far more sinister – the genetically modified law firm.
Imagine what it must be like to work in these places, being greeted every day by row upon row of bright, young singletons churning out the work as if their lives depended on it (which, of course, they do). By definition, the ideal candidates are young, single and, naturally, in this bastion of survival-of-the-fittest, straight-A-first-class-honours-types. In other words, the sort of people who look good, if not their best, on paper.
It isn’t just the GM firms which like their trainees on the academic side. The universities like them as well. So much so that the entry requirement to study law at major (and not so major) universities is now edging towards a minimum of three A grade A-levels.
The trouble with looking good on paper is that the pros are strictly two dimensional. Cindy Crawford looks good on paper, but you would not want her drafting your high yield derivatives.
Future lawyers may be irrefutably bright, but they’re not necessarily sharp or commercially aware. Indeed, straight A graders are rarely original thinkers. They are people who have an uncanny affinity with received wisdoms and who cleave to orthodoxies like flies to a chop. They spend their lives digesting other people’s food, regurgitating the tough bits and even then they cannot seem to make the outcome palatable. What’s more, despite the fact that universities’ law faculties are full of straight A students, only 30 or 40 per cent go into practice.
One of the most heart-warming moments at The Lawyer Awards last year was the presentation of Assistant Solicitor of the Year to a young lawyer from Clarke Willmott & Clarke.
Not that the award was the only thing he had to show for his time in the law. He had also in his relatively short exposure to the profession bagged 585 rejection letters…for daring to imagine that a lousy second class honours degree would secure him a training contract with a leading firm. One of his returned CVs even had the words “You must be joking” written on it, which, as nice touches go, is up there with torturing cats.
Anyone who knows clients knows that they do not want Conan the Librarian handling their business. Nor do they want supercharged trainees dispensing arcane knowledge with the bedside manner of a speaking clock. The best new lawyers are communicators and facilitators. They have sharp insights into people, which they are just as likely to have gained through gap years spent travelling than by gulping force-fed jurisprudence and knowing how to convey a slave.
Without biodiversity, there is every likelihood that GM firms will come to resemble the indistinguishable rows of fruit and veg on supermarket shelves – bright, homogeneous, polished, but ultimately lacking in colour, flavour or bite.
Leslie Perrin is managing partner of Osborne Clarke. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org