Last month saw The Lawyer magazine gamely reviewing its 2005 decision to endow a small group of elite UK law firms with the title ‘Silver Circle’, a term which achieved immediate market recognition upon its unveiling.

You’d think The Lawyer’s joy at being feted as kingmaker would be unalloyed, but alas, the actual market stole its carefully-crafted ‘silver circle’ [sic]* at birth and ran away with it to beat it into a shape more pleasing to its eye. No point being kingmaker if just anyone is going to start creating more kings now, is there?

In advance of its attempt to regain taxonomic control, The Lawyer craftily surveyed 1,133 readers and found that the market ennobles at least 15 firms, in contrast to its own original four choices.

Such heresy! Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Soho

“As the term gained popularity recruiters would commonly ascribe silver circle status to any largish City firm outside the magic circle,” explains The Lawyer, before continuing, primly: “In fact, that was never the thinking behind the term. The silver circle was intended to define a category of firms with a similar approach.”

Its latest redrawing of the diminishing UK legal landscape sees a muddle of UK and hybrid UK-US firms in a series of five interlocking rings, with four apparent outliers The Lawyer just can’t seem to squeeze into any of the ‘pure’ circles or their four interstices.

Complexity, she is a demanding beast.

The Lawyer’s attempt to make sense of an increasingly complex and dynamic market is admirable on the one hand, but – to my mind – fails to acknowledge what is really going on here. The answer, I think, is to be found in the language, not the numbers, structures or strategies.

Why magic? Why silver?

Magic, you’d think, is pretty obvious, but nobody really knows definitively whence this comes.

The Magic Circle, according to the Law Society’s Gazette, evolved out of the rather more prosaic-sounding ‘Club of Nine’, an informal group of top law firms – Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Slaughter and May, Freshfields and Allen & Overy, plus four others deemed to be rivals for the best talent – who all agreed cosily, back in the 1980s, not to poach from one another. Alas the other four – Lovells, Herbert Smith, Norton Rose and Stephenson Harwood – fell away after SH hit a patch of black ice in the mid-1990s, and the deal ended in 2000 leaving just the original Famous Five with the ‘magic’ tag.

The choice of ‘Magic Circle’ lies, according to some theorists, in its allusion to the secret/not-secret society of magicians founded in 1905, into whose hallowed ranks, rather like the Masons, one has to be invited; the price of entry being purely and simply talent, after which one is inducted into the secrets of sawing a woman in half or pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Personally, I prefer a more lyrical explanation; that the term refers to a group of firms whose ability to attract and transact the best work, whose allure is – simply – magical. Entry to the circle, rather like a faerie ring, is forbidden to mere mortals. It is a signifier of being part of a singular class.

And so it is with silver also.

Silver – since ages-past humanity’s second-favoured trading metal – is laden with class resonance on this side of the Atlantic.

It is only the English** Middle Class which could afford ‘family silver’, a liquid asset useful in times of last-ditch economic desperation (“selling off the family silver”), whose offspring benefited from a jump-start in life (“born with a silver spoon in his mouth”) or unearned privilege (“handed to him on a silver platter”).

Silver, for the English, bespeaks wealth, but in a modest, prudent way. The more valuable gold is seen as being too flashy, too nouveau-venu. Silver is classy, gold is not.

The Lawyer coyly notes that ‘silver’ is meant to give a sense of “elite”, but fails to acknowledge that you cannot – just cannot – use the word ‘elite’ in England without talking about social class, and that has little to do with money or intelligence even, but everything to do with birth.

As the strategies of the five Magic Circle firms began to diverge after 2000, Slaughter and May fell behind in size, international spread and some other measures – but crucially not profits, or perceived capability – and the legal press felt it needed to redefine the market as it saw it.

The Lawyer’s own attempt involved ejecting Slaughter and May from the MC, while Legal Business thumbed its nose at such crude surgery and not only did not eject the country’s most profitable law firm as its rival had done, but added one firm: Herbert Smith.

The fact that the UK’s two most prestigious and thoughtful legal organs – both of which I love and respect, by the way – can’t decide on a single taxonomy neatly illustrates the problem. We are not talking about facts and figures, we are talking about look-and-feel. We are talking about class.

The Lawyer’s editor, Catrin Griffiths, says of Slaughters, that “an assessment of its true model is not served by misplaced deference, and we’re talking about business model here, not its M&A brand”.

That “misplaced deference” is the key phrase here. We Brits tug our forelocks to monarchy and the aristocracy, not Johnny-come-lately property tycoons or genius entrepreneurs, and this continues to irritate everyone – liberal media in particular – who believe in a more egalitarian, rational and meritocratic way of thinking.

The truth of the Magic (and Silver) Circle(s) is that try as you might, just as with the English class system, it doesn’t matter how much money you have or how much money you make, if you’re not of the right stock, have gone to the right schools, the right colleges or know the right people, you’re never going to be ‘in the club’, either figuratively or literally.

The reason recruiters – and the market – ran away with Silver Circle and made it their own is because of the immediate resonance they knew it would have with candidates for very particular reasons relating not to size, strategy or any other measure.

I love the chutzpah of The Lawyer including Mishcon de Reya – deserving no doubt – in its latest redrawing of the Silver Circle, but I fear the market will not easily accept its entry alongside the doyens of the argent hoop: Macfarlanes, Ashurst and Travers Smith.

All it would take is a couple of years where Mishcon’s PEP slumps to half where it is now, and the reclassification will look as daft as Legal Business’ choice to insert Herbert Smith into the Magic Circle, a choice the market thought questionable at the time and one which has not stuck…

As one recruiter said to me yesterday: “It’s ridiculous…Mishcon are just not.”

So beware, ye taxonomers. In this Britain of Brexit, the old power-lines run deep and are newly thrumming with class-prejudice.

If you want a term which, as Catrin Griffiths put it in 2005, is shorthand for firms “content to advise a premium UK client base rather than service global institutions”, I have another suggestion: ‘The English, Patient’.

Away from this Madding Crowd, London continues to be taken apart and reformed by the increasingly-dominant US firms. The Colonials Will Inherit Blighty, and neither Boudicca’s Magic nor the flash of good old-fashioned Sterling Silver will prevent that.

The Americans – a classless society, they like to claim, though that’s another story – could care less*** about such intangible piffle.

So why, in the 21st Century, should we?

 

*I’ve never quite understood The Lawyer’s steadfast refusal to award Silver Circle and Magic Circle the capital letters they deserve as proper nouns…

**Note: I use ‘England’ and ‘English’ here advisedly, and interchange between UK, England, English and British deliberately depending on the context. The Scots have their own social class system which has similarities, but which is distinct, from the English (and Welsh) one, as is its legal system. I am, proudly, of mainly Scottish heritage myself. This, by the way, stands in direct contrast to the American term ‘middle class’, which in English terms would cover a broad spread of society from working families through white collar and some professionals.

***I use here the US form “could care less”, whereas we Brits would of course say “couldn’t care less”. No prizes for guessing which one I prefer!

 

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