The dark side of media law

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By Alex Aldridge on

Legal Cheek reviews the must-read legal novel of the summer


Flack’s Last Shift by Alex Wade is a book about two law graduates who follow unconventional career paths at a heavy personal cost.

One of them, the Oxford-educated Harry Flack, is obsessed by newspapers but opts for a career in a law firm before being lured elsewhere by his passion for the written media. The other, dashing Eddie Conrad, does a GDL but then rejects the law as he dreams of becoming a great novelist. Instead he finds success as a news reporter. Eventually, both men end up working for the same national newspaper — Harry as one of its libel lawyers, Eddie as its editor.

The pair first encountered each other as young professionals in the 1990s, when Eddie caught the eye of Harry’s flighty fiancĂ©e, Helen. The fall-out from the affair changes all their lives forever, but it is only — many years later — when Harry does his final shift at The Record, on the same day that Eddie is installed as the paper’s controversial new editor, that the old love rivals get to confront each other.

The account of that crazy shift is beautifully told by Wade, himself a freelance newspaper lawyer at titles including The Times, on which The Record seems to be loosely based. It’s a world of eccentric sub-editors pouring over reams of copy in badly lit rooms, caffeine-addled ‘night lawyers’ trying to square freedom of speech with threats of libel, and stressed-out editors barking often unreasonable demands. It all seems pretty chaotic and fun.

Such charms were what drew Harry away from his smart Holborn law firm as a junior associate into a career path that bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the book’s author. But in real life Wade has forged a portfolio career as a lawyer (he trained at Carter-Ruck before moving into newspaper work), journalist (he regularly writes for publications including The Times and Legal Cheek) and writer (Flack’s Last Shift is his fourth book, following surfing odyssey Surf Nation, surfing short story collection Amazing Surfing Stories, and white collar boxing-themed memoir Wrecking Machine). His fictional creation Harry, in contrast, is defined almost entirely by his job behind the scenes at The Record and withdraws into a solitary life. Permanently scarred by the break-up of his engagement, it’s an existence of someone who never quite had the courage to fully commit to anything.

Eddie, too, in his own way gets life wrong. Although he is successful in his ascent of the newspaper career ladder, the climb leaves him jaded and cold — as he becomes the classic cynical tabloid hack. With his literary dreams having faded, his youthful good looks give way to an expanding waistline and a penchant for dyeing his greying hair. He has basically become a poor man’s Piers Morgan.

Accordingly, Flack’s Last Shift is a useful blueprint for how not to live your life. Even though a career in the dying industry of newspapers would not appeal to most of today’s law graduates, it’s not hard to imagine Harry and Eddie’s modern equivalents working away at BuzzFeed or some other trendy media company. And the long term prognosis for such individuals may, despite the seeming sexiness of the job, not be so great, it seems. Think twice before you leave the comfortable confines of private practice is certainly one message that lawyer readers could take from the book.

If there is any hope offered in this often dark novel, it’s through the character of Maya Berlin, a newly qualified barrister at a leading London media law chambers who shadows Harry during his final shift as part of her plan to build a defamation practice. Unlike her boss for the evening, Berlin has no plans to devote herself entirely to newspaper lawyering. Nor, despite her various shows of Eddie-style initiative and get-up-and-go, does she seem sufficiently ungrounded to lose her soul to ambition.

Instead, operating from the slightly removed perspective of the bar, Berlin looks set to lead a much more balanced and happier life than the two older men. Still, she will never get to experience Fleet Street in its magnificent pre-internet and social media heyday — and for that all Harry and Eddie’s problems seem almost worthwhile.

Flack’s Last Shift by Alex Wade is published by Blue Mark Books and is available on Amazon.