The rise of the new media lawyers

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By Katie King on

Remote-working, low overhead model that allows for work-life balance is shaking up provision of defamation law

Alex Wade skateboarding

Sat by the Cornish seafront eating fish and chips with his newborn baby, solicitor Alex Wade received an email asking if he’d be interested in joining up-and-coming media law firm Reviewed & Cleared.

As he checked out Reviewed & Cleared on his phone, Wade realised it was “the firm I’ve been looking for all my life.”

Wade began his legal life at Carter-Ruck, before moving on to be the head of legal for Richard Desmond, now the owner of the Express Group. Back then, Desmond published OK! (and still does), but also had a raft of top-shelf magazines and a soft-porn TV channel, Television X. “I was the only lawyer in London who had to have a stack of porn mags on his desk,” says Wade.

After a spell off the rails in his early 30s, Wade took up boxing and a life of plate-spinning freelance work, writing for the nationals and magazines, working as a night lawyer for The Times, The Sun and The Independent, working as a copywriter and editor, and somehow finding the time to write books. His latest novel — Flack’s Last Shift — is about the mesh of law and journalism on Fleet Street, and comes out in paperback today.

In fact, writing was Wade’s first love; from the age of 12 being a writer had been the dream. But a young Wade “tried to get into journalism with zero forethought, and failed”, and found himself working at Waterstones.

So he punted for a career in law, taking what was then known as the Common Professional Examination, and set about trying to get a job in libel law. “Every area of the law involves language and words,” says Wade, “but they’re the essence of the libel lawyer’s trade. I have spent my life involved in words, libel and language. I feel very lucky.”

The newest chapter in Wade’s career will be spent with Reviewed & Cleared, an alternative-model firm which seeks to work with, rather than fight, the revolution in media. With the public becoming increasingly engaged with smaller, online-only news publications (like Legal Cheek), media lawyers are beginning to accept their future clients don’t have pockets as deep as the nationals.

Former Evening Standard solicitor David Burgess founded Reviewed & Cleared in 2013 and set to work creating a specialist law firm that offers clients (the likes of The Tab, Now, Good Housekeeping) lower fees than they’ve been paying traditional media law firms. Burgess explains:

For too long, pre-publication and pre-broadcast legal advice has been beyond the means of many smaller content creators. Meanwhile, the larger media companies were forced to pay large fees to large law firms or rely on the availability of a disparate group of barristers and solicitors for their advice.

“I wanted to change this,” he continues, “and make expert pre-publication advice readily accessible. Reviewed & Cleared has people at the top of their game, really experienced media lawyers, but they work remotely and so there are none of the overheads of the traditional law firm. We concentrate on what we do best — providing expert pre-publication and pre-broadcast legal advice, at market leading rates, to national newspaper publishers, magazine publishers, book publishers, website owners, broadcasters, independent production companies and social media content creators.”

Burgess and co keep costs down by enabling staff to work remotely, a treat for Wade whose family and home are in Cornwall. Small wonder he took up the offer and joined the firm in early June, joining Burgess, former head of legal for The Independent Louise Hayman, and well-regarded Fleet Street lawyer Felicity Price as part of the Reviewed & Cleared team.

In the media law world, barristers have also taken on board changes in the media industry. As 5RB’s Christina Michalos — a top media law specialist at the set which recently represented Jack Monroe in the Katie Hopkins libel law trial — explains:

Unfortunately, I think there is a tendency for individuals and SMEs to assume legal advice from a barrister means a top price QC on an astronomic hourly rate way beyond their budget. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Direct access rules mean that anyone can go directly to specialist media law chambers like 5RB where there are highly experienced junior barristers with years of experience providing pre-publication advice to national media publications. The clerks are always available to negotiate within a client’s budget, particular where there is likely to be repeat work, and cheaper, fixed fees for reviewing content are common.

Wade knows he’s “incredibly lucky” to be at the forefront of this new media movement; though maybe ‘luck’ isn’t the right word. He tells us:

My life is good at the moment but it’s not been by accident; a hell of a lot of hard work goes in to making it happen.

Likely racking up the same hours or more as his counterparts in London, Wade stresses that working remotely and as a freelancer isn’t all surfing in Cornish waters and walking his dogs on the beach. He says:

When my girlfriend was in labour recently, I was libel reading The Sunday Times Rich List in between her contractions at the hospital. It’s not because I’m a workaholic but because I made a work commitment and I had to follow through with it.

Put off by all that stress? Don’t be, says Wade: “I’d much rather be doing what I do now than be back in a 9-6 corporate environment.”

Alex Wade is appearing at the Penzance LitFest on Friday 7 July at 6.30pm at the Acorn Theatre to talk about writing, law and journalism. On Saturday 29 July, he will be appearing at the Port Eliot festival to discuss similar themes with Peter Fluck, the co-founder of Spitting Image.

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