LAWFUEL – The Legal Newswire – Forced to retire at the top of their ga…

LAWFUEL – The Legal Newswire – Forced to retire at the top of their game in their mid-50s, why are more of London’s top lawyers not snapped up by big companies? The Times reports on why so many top London lawyers are lagging behind bankers and accountants in the City’s pecking order.

Earlier this month Philip Collins, the chairman of the Office of Fair Trading, announced a record £121.5 million fine against British Airways for price-fixing. A former competition partner at law firm Lovells, Collins may well be last in line for an upgrade on his next BA flight but he can at least take some consolation in being one of the few lawyers to have risen to the top of an influential business institution in the UK.

The UK legal market is enjoying a period of unprecedented profitability, with four of the world’s ten biggest firms based in London, and yet lawyers still lag behind bankers and accountants in the City’s pecking order. To be sure, general counsel at some companies (such as Barclay’s Mark Harding, who has been heavily involved in the bank’s bid for ABN Amro) have become a stronger voice as regulation and risk-management is seen as more important. Some of them sit on boards. But there is still a perception here that lawyers have a better grasp of red tape than the broad sweep of business.

In the US, the situation is different. Lawyers there are seen as essential players in both political and business life. A number of major companies are run by lawyers: Chuck Prince was elevated to run Citigroup in 2002 after serving as general counsel for many years, while Lazard’s chairman and chief executive Bruce Wasserstein was originally a lawyer at the Wall Street firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore.

Contrast that with the UK. Last year, when Gordon Brown established the Chancellor’s High-Level City Group, he chose only one lawyer: Stuart Popham, senior partner of Clifford Chance. The 34-member advisory group included 12 bankers. Similarly, in July when the Financial Services Authority (FSA) selected a new chief executive, it chose a banker, Hector Sants, to replace John Tiner, an accountant. There is not a single solicitor on the FSA’s board, while in the US all five commissioners at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) are lawyers.

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