Oh, Sugar

October 17, 2014

The Apprentice is back, with two lawyers. What’s it going to teach us?

Lauren Riley, a contestant on The Apprentice this year. Photo: BBC


Oh, the British autumn! Season of mists, mellow fruitfulness, and a return to proper water-cooler telly!

And nothing, of course, beats The Apprentice for water-cooler moments. Just as the Great British Bake Off unites the nation in a cosy fug of good-hearted competition lightly spiced with gentle scandal (#BakedAlaska), so The Apprentice brings us all together in mutual mockery and loathing.

As Baron Sugar of Clapton oversees another roomful of orange-tinted business hopefuls with all the self-awareness of a toddler high on Skittles, what can the apprentices learn from the legal profession? And what (bear with me on this) can the legal profession learn from them?

What the Apprentices can learn from lawyers

1.     Liar, liar, pants on fire

If there’s one thing that almost all candidates for The Apprentice share, it is a state of constant conflagration on the underwear front, on account of being the most appalling liars.

As any fule kno, the lawyer must be a scrupulously truthful beast, no matter what provocation to fudge the truth. To practice deceit risks being caught out swiftly and publicly, to the wrath of the regulator, the humiliation of the firm, and the loss of the client. Apprentices, take note.

2.     Your colleagues are not actually out to kill you

Look, there’s no denying there’s a certain element of cut-throatery in some sections of the legal profession. But those apprentices tend to behave as if they’re in a gladiatorial arena and at risk of an actual knife between the shoulder blades.

The lawyer soon learns that co-operation can win cases, and that the person coming up the ladder behind you might one day be above you, pulling you up.

3.     Know the value of everything

For those with business ambitions the apprentices tend to have a staggering lack of understanding of value – whether monetary, or any other kind. Remember the girls’ team trying to sell two plastic buckets and bottle of chemicals to London Zoo for £250?

Now more than ever lawyers are canny beasts, adept at cutting costs on the one hand while offering the best value for money on the other. One afternoon in your average family law firm and the apprentices would come out with the budgeting skills of Mr Micawber on a state pension.

4.     Have some dignity, for goodness’ sake

The art of being a good lawyer involves developing the ability to present a professional, competent persona, by turns steely, empathic and aggressive. What it absolutely does not involve is tears, tantrums, more or less constantly having both hands pressed to a gaping mouth in disgust/surprise/incomprehension, or storming out of the room.

The apprentices (bless ‘em though, eh?) often appear to have ceased emotional development at roughly Year 2. They tend to spot a very faint slight or injustice at 100 yards and go off like twenty pounds of Semtex on a barbeque. A little of the lawyer’s hard-earned savoir faire would go a long way indeed.

5.     An equal touch

A distressing degree of snobbery is often apparent among the apprentices, combining on the one hand a hoover-like approach to Lord Sugar’s posterior and a slight contempt for those further down the ladder.

As the lawyer knows, such behaviour will get you precisely nowhere in the legal profession. Not only can senior members of the profession often sniff out sycophancy before you can say ‘Katie Hopkins’*, solicitors have to be able to deal with every conceivable strata of society with equal professionalism and calm. Including people called Chardonnay.

What lawyers can learn from the Apprentice

1.     What’s in a name? LOTS

As the opening episode of the current season amply demonstrated, success or failure can ride on a name. Only think of poor Nick’s beautifully Scottish response to the women proposing to name their team ‘Decadence’. With all the distaste of a man for whom too much sugar on a piece of shortbread represents the sort of thing that would make Nero blush, he tersely suggested a rethink.

When it comes to naming law firms, erring on the side of caution is key. Strings of partner names (looking at you, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer) might be faintly reminiscent of Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, but it does at least sound like a law firm. Tempted to go with a high-concept single-word name? Generally avoided, unless you want to sound like a nightclub in Nottingham.

2.     Dress for the job you want, not the job you have

Firstly, do indulge me by taking a look at one of the greatest ever pictures on the internet. Secondly, there is much the lawyer can learn, sartorially speaking, from Sugar’s apprentices.

Let’s face it, they’re generally a bunch of chancers with a little too much funding from an indulgent parent, and self-esteem so thick you could use it to line a nuclear bunker. But, very often, they’re dressed like the senior partner in a New York law firm, all tailoring sharp as your mother-in-law’s tongue and handbags roughly the value of a small car.

I blush to say it, but a well-cut jacket conveys professionalism and ambition far more than a cardigan from M&S. Just steer clear of blue shirts with white collars: these are the hallmark of the confirmed bounder.

3.     The gift of the gab

If there’s one thing the lawyer needs, it’s communication skills par excellence, including not using foreign phrases when perfectly good English words will do. Sometimes, communication skills include a certain amount of bull excrement. Only a light layer of manure, to be sure, but just enough to convey confidence in the facts, which can if necessary be fully ascertained a few moments later when you’ve got better wi-fi.

No-one should emulate the apprentice tendency to verbal diarrhoea, but there is something admirable in their refusal to remain silent (even when it really would be the better option).

4.     Self-belief

Impostor syndrome is a real and troubling thing. Even the most senior advocate is sometimes heard to say that after years in the courts, there is always a terrifying moment when they expect the judge to give them an appalled stare, and bellow “And what do you think you are doing in here?!”

It is impossible to imagine any apprentice suffering a moment’s self-doubt. Indeed, one would not be surprised to hear them lay claim to having invented the internet, the spice rack, and the Fibonacci sequence. Something to ponder when grappling with poor self-esteem.

5.     Work that CV! WORK IT!

To the apprentice, nothing is too small or inconsequential to go on the CV. What to you and I would look very like grabbing a coffee from Costa would, in their hands, become “Supported fair-trade artisanal consumer goods enterprises by seed funding on a cross-platform basis.”

Caution is advised, but it is worth considering how to make your CV truly reflect your skills and experience. Especially if you actually drink your coffee at an independent outlet where they play Tom Waits. What? I’m literally just saying…

*Sorry. I’ll put a tenner in the swear jar. SP

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