Former News of the World legal chief can make in-house lawyers proud in this week’s face-off with James Murdoch, says Alex Aldridge
When getting going as a journalist, it doesn’t matter what you write about, as long as you’re writing. For this reason, I was happy to take the in-house lawyer interviewer slot when I worked at Legal Week a few years ago – one of the least glamorous gigs in a not exactly glamorous area of journalism, but an opportunity to try different things.
Sometimes I tested how far I could push the asking of awkward questions, with in-house lawyers in banks tending to be the most easily riled. On other occasions, I explored unexpected tangents, like the indirect influence of Franco on British Airways (the airline’s general counsel, Maria da Cunha, spent part of her childhood in 1970s Spain). Often my interviews didn’t contain much about the job of an in-house lawyer. But I don’t think that was seen as such a bad thing.
It’s rarely admitted publicly, but moving in-house to join a company’s legal team is widely perceived in law as a kind of career death. Speaking off-the-record, private practice lawyers frequently liken the role of their in-house counterparts to that of office post-room staff, snarkily suggesting that they’re responsible for little more than coordinating correspondence with external law firms. That’s a bit harsh. In-house lawyers also provide legal advice in their own right, and they can end up managing large teams. Coordinating external law firms often isn’t easy, either, particularly with many companies strapped for cash. Still, the job is lower status than being in private practice.
The exception to the rule is the in-house media lawyer. In a fast-evolving area like the media, lawyers working at the coal face are afforded more respect than your typical in-houser. Plus they get to be involved in some of the exciting stuff their companies do. In-house lawyers at newspapers, for example, sometimes manage to carve out dual careers as journalists.
Tom Crone, the News of the World’s (NOTW) former legal counsel, did this, penning the odd piece for the NOTW and The Sun. With his unruly mop of blonde-ish hair, and penchant for rhyming voicemail messages (“This is Crone, not on the phone, please leave a message, after the tone”), Crone is the closest a lawyer comes to being cool. He once remarked that doing legal work on the NOTW could feel like being on “a forward patrol in Helmand province” with “plenty of incoming, occasional hand-to-hand combat and a high risk of casualties.”
Crone will certainly need to show his fighting spirit if he’s to successfully face down his old boss, James Murdoch, later this week. On Thursday, Murdoch goes back before the parliamentary select committee where he will be asked to counter Crone’s claim that he knew about an email which showed that phone-hacking was widespread at the NOTW and not just the work of a single rogue reporter. As the Observer explained yesterday, “Put simply, it is Murdoch’s word against [former NOTW editor] Myler and Crone’s. The stage is set for a dramatic confrontation.”
As a veteran of the in-house lawyer interview beat, I’ve got my fingers crossed for Crone.
Alex Aldridge is the editor of Legal Cheek