Ah, the training contract aka the trauma trigger. Memories of enormously time-consuming applications, answering ever-so-zany questions about “What superpower would you have and why?” and being passed unceremoniously around a firm for two years, working unconscionably long hours for often no discernible reason, in perfect and perpetual equilibrium. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. My Hotel California was, however, uniquely traumatic, with my two years playing out like a comedy spin-off of The Sopranos.
My sorry tale begun many years ago now, when I made around forty unsuccessful training contract applications. I wasn’t even getting the chance to demonstrate my Pavlovian conditioning at an interview, as a panel of lawyers banged their gavels and I seamlessly transitioned into the animal I am most like – such was my understanding of events. Fortunately, a few months into my existential crisis, an acquaintance uttered those magical words..."I know someone". The next day I was ushered into a grand boardroom, overlooking central London, and met by Richard - a tall, articulate and impressive individual. Richard eloquently explained his background and plans - and they were intriguing. He told me he needed someone who could assist his finance company and, all being well, follow him to his new, niche law firm. I liked what I heard, replacing 'unpaid lackey' with 'legal intern'.
Having spent the next ten minutes transforming what I was looking for - a job - into a more socially acceptable explanation, Richard introduced me to his business partner and antithesis, Andrew. With booming Australian vocals, this short, brash and animated individual wasted no time in providing a rather unusual tour of the office, as if he were Pablo Escobar unveiling Hacienda Nápoles. There were grand plans for each and every department, as he pored over all fifteen “delightful”, disproportionately female employees, and assured me we’d be moving to a new, lavish office, befitting the company’s growing stature. Despite his crassness, Andrew had an endearing warmth to him, and together with Richard, they were an intriguing pair. If Richard was seamlessly gracing an Etonian dining hall, Andrew was charmingly heckling the waiting staff for seconds. I was sold.
The first month with the duo was brilliant. I attended meetings, drafted contracts, and learned a lot, although business was conducted in the most bizarre fashion. Contrary to what I expected from a legal department, there were no opposing lawyers, no systems and little paperwork – and the clients were normally indeterminable amid Byzantine corporate structures. On the occasions I was invited into meetings, they always followed the same pattern - gratuitous backslapping, complex share ownership, and confirmation that the target company “would be ours”. I was then nonchalantly instructed to perform commercial alchemy, converting vague expressions into a binding contract.
This was rather different to my friends at law firms, who were guided through the drafting process and had these things called precedents I had never heard of. Thankfully, Richard was on hand to assure me that any contract over three pages was waffle, so I just needed to focus on what the parties’ intentions were. This felt somewhat plausible when drafting non-disclosure agreements or the like, but slightly less so when I found myself drafting a two-billion dollar contract for the production and transfer of thirty-nine million tonnes of cement, spanning thirteen areas of law. It was at this point that I began to realise that given Richard’s mantra appeared to be 'just sign and recline', perhaps he was not quite the scholar I thought he might be.
Over the next few months, we continued to draft hefty contracts in a rather slapdash manner. Despite my scepticism, we did actually move to plush new offices, armed with a new stockbroking division. There was really no reason to think anything was particularly wrong. Andrew also seemed determined to progress the business, and as part of that, he wanted all the departments to work more collaboratively. As a result, I soon discovered that things were not quite as they seemed. Nearly every member of staff, aside from the upper echelons, was deeply unhappy and many hadn’t been paid in whole for months. They had been reminded that if they quit there would be no prospect of getting paid. It was all so strange – we had moved to lovely new offices, we appeared very busy, and Richard and Andrew gave the impression of success, with fine dining and luxury cars. The somewhat outlandish claims of imminent investment from a ruling family of the UAE and Nelson Mandela's right-hand man in the ANC didn’t exactly help clarify matters.
"This is what they do,'' I was told. "Big promises, dodgy clients and don't pay anyone". The staff enjoyed having found another unpaid victim to regale with tales, and I was now one of them. I was encouraged to begin my education by popping by the trade floor. On taking the advice, I was greeted by a sea of brash, young stockbrokers, ferociously commanded to "get on the f*cking phones" and unashamedly promised a gram of cocaine for whoever made the next sale. It was unconventional, but given the reaction, this man clearly knew his audience. Rumour had it that these brokers regularly took cocaine at their desks – something eminently more believable having witnessed the perpetual brushing of noses and synthetic alertness. The brokerage was apparently owned by a member of a significant mobster family, who allegedly attended the office with armed bodyguards. If cocaine wasn’t a sufficient incentive to sell seemingly worthless penny shares to vulnerable pensioners, I can only imagine that this gentleman's backstory certainly was.
The veneer of success that had been a feature of my time continued in the subsequent year. Much to my surprise, the law firm Richard promised to setup actually gained authorisation and I finally became a trainee solicitor. Richard and Andrew were now gleefully telling all and sundry how having direct access to a niche, independent law firm would speed deals up exponentially - quite obviously translated as, ‘this'll make us look less dodgy’. The bluster certainly worked, as we had managed to compile an exciting body of work, including advising on the purchase of a Premier League football club. What was quite remarkable was that this was all happening in the context of unpaid staff, cleaners, builders, suppliers and even disconnected telephone lines. Naturally, I wasn’t getting paid, but the prospect of securing my qualification outweighed being an unemployed litigant, led on a merry dance around The Isle of Man, Andorra and the Caribbean. We all knew of the duo’s suspicious proclivity but had no proof. We knew money must have been dissipated all over the world, but were ill-equipped to tackle the corporate matryoshka.
With so many outstanding debts owed to less than outstanding people, it was really only a matter of time before a more robust approach to recovering money was deployed. On passing by reception, I saw two unnaturally large and face-tattooed men approach our nervous looking receptionist - with Richard and Andrew conveniently absent. I couldn’t hear what was said, but the exchange between the men, the receptionist and office manager was very brief. One can only imagine the company being presented with a 'plata o plomo?' scenario, which was somewhat ironic given Andrew’s attempts to forge his own Medellín. The next day, the company took the only logical step a fearful company could do - employ an ex-professional Romanian rugby player, turned club bouncer, to man the gates. We were certainly niche now.
Over the next few months, Richard arranged satellite offices of the law firm in Manchester and Birmingham, which was extraordinary, given that the firm had no infrastructure, vast liabilities, accounts showing no revenue, and his finance company was being investigated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Nevertheless, Richard manfully continued, despite the noose tightening around his neck – although this time metaphorically at least. There was something comical about watching Posh Richard's continual get rich schemes, attempting to reconcile his greed and laziness, as if HRH Homer Simpson. "Son, if you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Now quiet! They're about to announce the lottery numbers".
Nevertheless, it was Richard's resoluteness which meant that when the end did come, despite the madness, it was still a surprise. One morning, five members of the Solicitors Regulation Authority entered the offices unannounced, armed with a warrant, and shut the law firm down. We had to cease all action and couldn’t touch any company property - and my training contract was terminated with one year to go. It transpired that Richard got terribly confused, mingling clients' money with the firm's money, and had accidentally appointed non-lawyers, with a history of serious and similar misdemeanours, to run the satellite offices. Just to punctuate the calamity, the firm's insurance broker had also apparently been imprisoned. As Richard sought resolution in the boardroom, I sat in the office, considering a bleak future - alongside a tearful Romanian bouncer, who was questioning why bad things happen to good people. It was quite the scene.
For the next month, I applied to all manner of firms, but without success. Unfortunately, that meant one thing, I had to speak to Frank - and you never wanted to have to speak to Frank. Frank owned a law firm in central London, and was a toxic companion. He was intelligent and funny, which meant you wanted to work with him, but unreliable and slippery, and so you instantly regretted it. However, if you needed a job, this Fagin-like figure would find you one, and you knew where to find him. With a heavy heart, I met Frank in his local and agreed to work for him. “Just sign there...my dear”.
The year I spent with Frank, gaining my qualification, was spectacular - not because of the eccentric cast of characters or the unbelievable antics, but because everything happened in the context of a successful law firm. The firm had high-calibre work and long-standing clients, yet the structure was bewildering, the staff, caricatures and the clients, scarcely believable. This firm was truly like no other. The fact it was co-owned by his ex-wife, managed by his current wife, all of whom worked together in a cramped office, gives you some indication of the absurdity of the place. No words can do justice to the manic and unpredictable environment, relentless dashing to court and hand-to-mouth existence. One day we’d receive an instruction from the Government of Kuwait, regarding Saddam-led Iraq, and the next day we’d be looking desperately for the file Frank had left in the pub.
However, for all Frank’s faults, he was the law firm. He established the firm, the clients were all his, and he oversaw every case. It was intriguing to see how this alcohol enthusiast had forged a system for handling work. Firstly, the meet and greet with the client, which meant two bottles of Rioja in the local pub. Secondly, and often the same day, the strategy meeting, which meant two bottles of Rioja in the less local pub, shared with his closest confidant, ‘Mr. C’. Mr. C was an accomplished barrister, with significant connections, yet had allegedly taken early retirement after certain financial misdemeanours. It was never clear exactly what his status was, but he and Frank were inseparable. This anachronism and his three-piece suit held court in Mayfair all day every day, providing verbose, undocumented legal advice to swathes of people in exchange for red wine and tales of Oxford University. It was extremely strange, like watching desperate villagers seek help from their local witchdoctor.
When a hazy strategy eventually emerged, Frank would normally task his most senior solicitor, Alan, with the actual work, and this was always a spectacle. Despite being an intelligent and personable man, Alan represented everything you don’t want in a solicitor - panicked and unmotivated - having been ground down over the years. These traits meant that attending a client meeting with him was captivating. He would often attempt to explain a legal principle with an unnecessarily complicated analogy - normally involving NASA - yet quickly realise it couldn’t be sustained. Nevertheless, he would grapple manfully with the dead analogy, before admitting defeat to now baffled clients. “Guys, I’ll be honest with you…. I’ve begun the analogy, but I’ve lost it”. That he briefly left a client meeting for no other reason than to tell me a joke he had remembered probably sums him up best.
Alan’s finest moment, however, was reserved for one our largest cases, on which he was the lead solicitor. I was asked by him to attend the Judgment to take notes and warned not to be late. I arrived fifteen minutes early, and whilst six immaculately dressed lawyers from the other side were in attendance, Alan wasn’t there. With the Judge now ready and the hearing set to begin, we had to request a delay of fifteen minutes, which is generally unwise with notoriously cantankerous judges. Alan eventually turned up, but in the most appalling state, as pearls of sweat dripped relentlessly onto what appeared to be a novelty tie. To this day, I will never know what went through his mind when getting dressed that morning or why he genuinely believed that given he was already going to be late, it would be better to turn up sweating, to indicate he appreciated the urgency of the matter. Nevertheless, we walked into a busy court, with Alan attempting to regain some dignity, only for him to hoist his briefcase onto the bench, and have all his loose papers fall out in no discernible order. It really was a landmark legal moment.
It was somewhat disturbing that the larger the case, the worse the firm acted. One prominent case concerned a lender pursuing a couple’s family home after non-repayment, despite living a lavish lifestyle of yachts, supercars and mansions. Whilst a relatively typical legal scenario, things become a little more interesting when a member of a now second mobster family is sitting at the other end of the table in the client meeting. It was never explained quite why he was there, besides some concern for the couple, but his presence elicited a rare period of focus from Frank. This was perhaps no surprise, given a few minutes before Frank’s inevitably late arrival, the man asked me to tell Frank that “If he’s not here in five minutes, I’m going to string him up by that lamp post outside” – delivered with a smile, of course. Beyond that, I never heard him speak again, but his family’s Wikipedia page was quite enough.
These slightly menacing comments had become a feature of this case. As I sat in conference with our clients, our barrister suggested two potential avenues the couple could pursue, and turned towards them for their thoughts. The husband paused, and without any reference to what he had heard, simply uttered, “Can’t we just kill them?” Whilst quite obviously a joke, the atmosphere became rather tense, with everyone acutely aware of the circles this couple kept. Indeed, throughout this matter, Frank took great pleasure in joking that people “sleep with the fishes”, like an untouchable consigliere.
Perhaps Frank’s most ‘charismatic’ moment was reserved for when the case went to trial. The couple were extremely nervous, as they conceded the money was owed, but couldn’t repay it. This meant it was almost inevitable that they would lose their family home. And we were nervous because the wife, whilst extremely likeable, was not exactly a shrinking violet – and if aggressively pressed under cross-examination, her sharp-tongued reaction could make an already difficult case an impossibility to win. It was perhaps for that reason, when she apprehensively looked to Frank for some final reassurance, Frank, in his own inimitable way, simply responded, “Whatever you do, just don’t call the judge a c**t”. Despite these words of wisdom, as Frank would say, we came second.
These shenanigans could only go on for so long, and it was ironic that what we thought could save the firm actually cost the firm. We were informed that a new senior lawyer was joining the firm, yet weeks after the announcement, we had only seen him in the office once. In fact, the only time his name was mentioned was by clients complaining that he hadn’t done any work. Rumours then began that this ‘lawyer’ wasn’t a lawyer at all and that he had absconded with a hundred thousand pounds of client money, having been given unfettered control of the client account within his first week of business. What possible law firm, with a certified fraud examiner at the helm, would make such an astronomical oversight? At that time, Frank was somewhat inevitably entangled as a defendant in an extremely time-consuming court case, which provided a rather useful excuse. Whatever the circumstances, the firm was in serious trouble.
When the staff were asked to attend a meeting - the only formal communication we had ever received - we knew it was over. The firm had gone into liquidation, owing hundreds of thousands of pounds to HMRC, chambers, staff and suppliers. For once there were no theatrics - merely a forlorn and sincere Frank, forced to admit that he had tried but failed. We all had time to prepare for this inevitability, and having already secured my qualification, I felt nothing but relief. I had been exposed to fascinating work, learned an awful lot, meeting Sheikhs, gangsters and a host of bizarre characters in an un-PC, murky underworld. It was a stressful, surreal and difficult time, but never boring. Now, when I meet others with tales of their torrid training contract experiences, I simply listen, nod, and with a wry smile agree that they can indeed be a little traumatic.
'Tanner' has also exorcised his training contract demons through the medium of poetry