What's in a title?

Times Online, July 21, 2006

In the halcyon days of my conventional legal practice, I used to worry a lot about my title. First of all, I was an articled clerk. Before I knew it, the Law Society had issued an edict to the effect that articled clerks were a thing of the past. This occurred midway through my clerkship. One evening I went home to my wife as an articled clerk, the next morning I arrived at work to find myself reincarnated as a trainee solicitor. This was most disconcerting. Fortunately my tutors at law school had prepared me for anything. "Always keep an open mind," they would say, "especially the nuances of nomenclature."

Armed with such impeccable training, I was ready for the transition from trainee solicitor to fully-fledged solicitor. One evening I went home to my wife as a trainee, the next morning I was a member of the elite. I was sure that people on the tube were aware of my new-found superiority. Or was it the hangover from having slightly overdone the well-deserved celebrations? Either way, they eyed me as a man apart. If only life could have been frozen on that one, innocent day.

Instead, I found myself on what some refer to as the corporate ladder. I could never accept that this term was apposite, because a corporation is a legal entity of a different kind to that under whose aegis we solicitors practise, the partnership. Granted, a semantic point, perhaps even an indication of the tendency to interpret the world literally exemplified by the criminally insane, but whenever people mentioned the dread corporate ladder I would say "Excuse me, I think you mean the partnership ladder?" Conversation would stop and they would say that no, they meant the corporate ladder, for this was merely a metaphor, a device to describe the ennui of professional existence deployed freely and heedless of varying kinds of legal entity.

Fair enough, I would say, only to find that a friend or, worse, a colleague, had been promoted. They had become an associate. What did this mean? Why, nothing, I would say to my wife, arriving home with no more grandeur to my name than that of solicitor; my time will come, I would say, I too will become an associate, and then look out!

But it never did. Try as I might to curb a natural disinclination to climb the partnership ladder, my true colours always shone through. For this reason I embarked upon a peripatetic legal career, which at one point saw me forsake the partnership ladder in favour of the corporate one. A semantic point but an accurate one, for I joined a company, that in law known as a corporation and far, far removed from the beast that is the partnership. At the corporation I scurried and schemed and survived several episodes of less-than-corporate behaviour to arrive home one night as Head of Legal Affairs. What joy as my wife beheld this extra evidence of supremacy, but sadly, no secretary could work with me for very long, and so I was reduced to typing my own letters, often concluding them with a typo that, for quite some time, recipients did not deign to point out: "Yours etc, AW, Head of Legal Affiars."

Even being a head of legal affairs began to pall after a while, and so I moved again, back onto the partnership ladder. Its rungs were more slippery than ever and it was not long before I left home one morning as an associate, only to arrive home without a job. Such traumas are sent to try us, or, in my case, are wholly self-inflicted, but before long I had recovered, once again inhabiting the corporate space, this time with the immense and all-encompassing appellation of "Vice President, Legal Affairs." This time I had a secretary, and so my title was correctly spelt for as long as I lasted, which was, relatively speaking, quite long, but it was only a matter of time before, yet again, I found myself on neither the corporate nor the partnership ladder.

The best title I ever had, acquired at around this time, was night lawyer. We night lawyers are a reclusive species, working in the evenings on national newspapers to help put them to bed, denuded of all but the most reasonable of legal risks and forsaking the trips to the pub enjoyed by our more conventional brethren. We are not paid a fortune, and we work alone, sometimes to the early hours. But, when I arrive home, having started my shift as a night lawyer and ended it as such, my wife breathes a sigh of relief. For the only ladder in our house is the one I use to open the attic, and, believe me, it’s the best kind.