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21 May, 2010  
Magic allure of the Magic Circle

Leverhulme talks to Michael White, a lad from Brisbane who chanced his arm in London … Amid the fantastic challenges of his job he faced a crisis of his own … Despite the rewards, Queensland beckons

imageThe conventional opinion of inmates at London’s Magic Circle firms is that they are forced to work in gilded factories. They are driven like galley slaves by rapacious and stone-hearted partners, who trap them in a hamster’s wheel of billable hours and targets.

Michael White, a tall, cheerful Queenslander doesn’t agree.

He proffers the heretical view that working for a Magic Circle firm can be a rewarding experience and, in his case, an organisation like Linklaters can be very kind to its troops.

Michael was admitted in 2001 and completed his articles at Phillips Fox in Brisbane.

In 2004, at the age of 24, with one year of marriage under his belt, Michael and his wife Anne took a big risk.

They headed for Blighty, as so many Aussies do, not knowing what to expect.

He had interviews lined up at Masons and Linklaters and when both offered him positions he chose Masons (now Pinsent Masons).

After six months, thinking he had pulled the wrong rein, he decided he would approach Linklaters again.

Graciously, they took him on.

He soon learned that Linklaters, a massive international law firm, loves Australians.

imageWhen Michael (pic) got there, of the 30 associates in the litigation and arbitration department, there were eight antipodeans.

“The English lawyers say that Australians are well-trained and work hard. They also think we have a positive attitude.

“It is generally thought,” he says, “that Aussies in the office lift the mood.

“Best of all, they go home after a few years.”

Despite the fact that his countrymen are well-regarded, there is a compulsory period of settling in when the firm pays new arrivals slightly less money than those with comparable experience.

They do this by lopping a year off an employee’s post-qualification experience. This is so people can learn about the law firm and the City’s culture and customs.

Michael isn’t too concerned about this.

“If that bothers you, then don’t come.”

He became a managing associate in 2006.

“You have to have four years’ PQE but the responsibilities are considerable. You have day-to-day contact with the client and must often make strategic calls, although the big ones are made with a partner.

The work is fascinating: breach of trust and due diligence cases worth hundreds of millions of pounds, and you also see the world.”

Michael travelled to China three times and to the USA five times. There were frequent trips to European countries.

On one memorable occasion, when dealing with a regulatory dispute, he spent several days in Washington before flying straight to China for a fraud case, where he stayed for a week.

For Michael, a typical day would begin at 8:30am and he’d be on his way home before 7pm.

Once or twice a week he’d stay till 10 and, of course, if he was working on something big the hours would be longer. He says:

“You need to shoot for 40 chargeable hours a week and when you’re busy you’ll easily exceed that.

But when things are quiet, the firm don’t hound you with more work because they know you have worked hard.”

For Michael and Anne and their dog Angus, a border collie with a striking blue right eye, life was fun.

“We had many trips around the UK and Europe. Angus loved running in the Scottish Highlands and the Yorkshire Moors.”

Then in February 2006, Michael and Anne’s happy world shuddered into disbelief when he was diagnosed with stage three lymphatic cancer.

“The doctors talked about survival rates and my chances. I had been so healthy. I hadn’t had a day sick or been to hospital in my life.”

He had to tell Linklaters and was nervous about that, but the senior partner in his busy department made it plain.

“He said don’t worry about money or taking time off. You just get better.

“I was treated with chemotherapy every fortnight for six months at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. The firm’s attitude to us was incredible.”

He was very ill and lost his hair. He laughs that he saved a lot of money on razors.

He returned to work in November 2006 and is now in full remission.

For the past few years, he has continued working stimulating hours as a managing associate.

His wife Anne, who started as a laboratory assistant, has been enjoying herself enormously in a fascinating job at the Battersea Dogs Home.

Michael is a rare human being. What strikes you most is his decency, but he also makes shrewd assessments of people and his sense of humour is never far from the surface.

He says that leaving Australia at that stage of his life was the best thing he ever did. And his judgment is not just based on the law firm’s reaction to his illness. It is that his life has been enriched tremendously by his time in England.

After all he has been through it’s a surprise that what scares Michael White most is that he and Anne might never have left Queensland.

Apparently, the partners at Linklaters are always keen to keep in touch with their alumni.

Of those eight mood-lifting Aussies originally in his department, seven have gone on to successful careers in Australia and the last one is a partner at a big firm in England.

He and Anne are coming home too.

They are leaving England feeling wistful but immensely satisfied. Perhaps it is now time to think of raising a family.

And Michael White says to anyone, particularly young lawyers thinking of coming to England, “Don’t think about it. Just do it”.