Beware the Fat Cat Lawyer

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, 27 July 2003

There has been a lot of talk about fat cats lately. They tend to preside over publicly quoted companies, which they contentedly steer anywhere so long as their supply of cream is endless, their cushions always comfy, and their lives free of anything resembling fidelity and commitment. We have, though, grown tired of them. Just as real felines, particularly fat ones, have an extraordinary ability to irritate, simply by existing, it seems that the time is ripe to give their human counterparts a good kicking.

But if we’re having a go at fat cats, we should not forget their hidden ally.  This is a slippery, dangerous breed, Machiavellian to the core and less than furry to the touch. It is rarely seen in public, and never in the context of awkward public meetings with disgruntled shareholders. I am talking about the Fat Cat Lawyer, whose modus operandi I understand, having once aspired to be one.

My aspirations date to the days of the tech-stock boom, when thin young things were heedless of just how fat they could become. A bizarre metamorphosis occurred in my life, leading me from the singularly fat-free world of newspaper law to the whirl of haute cuisine that is sports law. Before I knew what had happened, I was a Vice-President of a large multinational company. In this, I was not alone, since everyone was a vice-president. And just like everyone else, I found a new temptation to keep me occupied. I became obsessed with just how fat I could get.

It was the share options wot done it, m’lord. There they were, dangling like a friendly, shiny sword of Damocles over my conscience. HQ, somewhere in Europe, had set up a London office, to work closely with the L.A office, which of course reported to Germany. Subsidiaries sprung up everywhere, all funded by the deal recently completed in Japan, or was it Mexico, which itself meant that vast swathes of new employees were needed. To get the best, they had to be incentivised. How could a mere salary be enough? The only way to sustain market pre-eminence was to introduce a share option scheme.

As a very important vice-president, I had a large hand in the drafting of the share option scheme. It did not for long remain an unprejudiced hand. Try as I might to retain my lawyer’s objectivity, I became more and more resentful as one 25-year-old graduate in the principles of Applied New Media and Negative Space was recruited after the next. All on absurd six figure salaries, and invariably for subsidiaries of the behemoth parent company which seemed to hand out funding for business plans carved onto the back of out-of-date PDAs. The ambitions were grandiose, the arrogance breathtaking. And the share option scheme meant that everyone would get rich, very, very quickly, for doing next-to-nothing, just so long as a VC fund put in a hefty wedge of capital, or, the holy grail, one of the subsidiaries floated.

Everyone, that is, except me. One of the CEOs had a peculiar hatred of lawyers, especially any as obviously grasping as him. Over beers at the end of a hard day wearing our respective new clothes, it was fine for him to tell me of his schemes for personal enrichment, a faster car, an overseas villa, more fat. But as a would-be Fat Cat Lawyer, any suggestion that I too wouldn’t mind the odd share option was taken apart in less time than it takes to down a bacardi.

No doubt he had my best interests at heart. Being a Fat Cat Lawyer was a temporary aberration, never my destiny, and this wise and fat man, a perfect example of corporate excellence, could see straight through me. There was also, of course, the problem of perception. Fat Cat Lawyers don’t get where they are by being skittish in the sun. They are subtle, sly creatures, whose work is best done under cover of darkness. They know all the tricks of the trade, how to string everyone along and purr at just the right moment. They are, in truth, far more pernicious than the fat cat CEOs and managing directors currently under public scrutiny, who are mere dogs by comparison.

If you ever see one dozing in the midday sun, best give him a good kicking while you can. Trust me: it’s the only language they understand.