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Ex-magic circle lawyer lifts lid on City law’s psychological impact in candid debut novel

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Book may seem extreme but covers very real problems in the profession, author tells Legal Cheek’s Katie King

City law, despite its marketing, grad recruitment and social media pushes, is an opaque profession. Being Simon Haines, the debut novel of Tom Vaughan MacAulay, gives readers perhaps the most candid, albeit fictitious, account of solicitordom on the market.

Tom’s certainly well-placed to write it. Having studied languages at Cambridge, the now 37-year-old then converted to law and completed his Legal Practice Course (LPC) at BPP Law School. A decade as an associate and then senior associate at magic circle giant Slaughter and May, plus a stint at Linklaters (in its Milan office), followed.

Like its author, the novel’s namesake too studied languages at Cambridge. After completing a year abroad in Naples and graduating with a first, Simon moved from Lincoln to the capital to study law at City Law School. Being Simon Haines begins and ends with the driven associate vying for partnership at boutique, but top, top paying firm Fiennes & Plunkett, at which he both trained and qualified.

Katie King and Tom Vaughan MacAulay

And thus we follow Simon through the ordeal of “Campaign”. Ordeal is the right word: striving for the million-pound-a-year light at the end of the gruellingly dark associate tunnel costs Simon his relationship with childhood sweetheart Sophie Williams (“she could no longer bear my presence”), his sleep (“twenty-four-hour days were not rare”) and his lungs (“I was getting through a packet of cigarettes a day in the Fiennes & Plunkett smoking pit”).

It’s undeniable Tom’s education and career path aligns pretty closely with character Simon’s, and on the way to meet him for drinks at a Browns restaurant just by Bank station, I was expecting to be told the novel was autobiographical. I even warned Tom I’d probably call him Simon at least once during the conversation.

But I was wrong. “The book is not autobiographical but rather it’s based on anecdotes I’ve heard about, that have been reshuffled and fictionalised,” Tom explains. “My personality is not very much like Simon’s, I’ve never had a girlfriend like Sophie, and I didn’t spend a year abroad in Naples.”

The themes the novel, published by Red Door, covers are very familiar and very true to City professionals, though. On readers tracing Simon’s Campaign-induced descent into lonely, drunken exhaustion, Tom tells me:

Because the book is fiction some of it is quite extreme, but then you ask yourself: is it? There are lots of firms in the City where staff work all night and are incredibly tired and stressed. The psychological elements of the book do draw attention to issues that are very real in the City, such as the reliance on alcohol as an escape. I walk through the City even at lunchtime, and it’s packed out with people boozing. It’s a real concern.

The characters feel real too. The jarring, slightly bumbling but ultimately loyal trainee; the well-meaning partner who has become lost in his work — I’m sure they exist at every London firm.

The most interesting character, though, is Simon.

Not your typical Oxbridge student, his time at Cambridge is a blur of reluctant involvement in seedy drinking societies, on-off girlfriends, cigarettes and booze, academic achievements and a few Starter for Ten-esque awkward social interactions. Late into his degree, Simon is lured into City law by BNOC, lothario and soon-to-be Fiennes & Plunkett trainee Dan Serfontein, much to the shock of his professor. Once there, he’s hooked; in his words:

I was a man who had become addicted, a man who had submitted. A man whose primary emotion was now terror of getting it wrong.

I found Simon both incredibly easy and incredibly difficult to warm to depending on page number. My experience seems shared by others, Tom telling me he has received a lot of different feedback about whether Simon is a liked character.

Anyone else read this? It’s by a former magic circle solicitor 😱

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Tom is split too. “To me, Simon is meant to be a character with good values but one who is lost in his own City dreams,” he says. “His big problem is that he has no self-reflection or self-awareness and is inherently incapable of understanding the impact his plight for partnership is having on his life.”

You can’t fault Simon’s tenacity, though. With much of his life crumbling around him Simon stays hypnotised by his City law dream, at the total disregard of sneer-worthy in-house roles. Yet, part-way through the novel long-time friend Dan ends up making this exact move (“‘I just can’t do it any more,’ he gasped. ‘They’ve broken me.’”).

It’s a move Tom, now legal counsel at financial services company Legal & General, in 2015 made too. Did City law break him?

No, nor did Fiennes & Plunkett break Dan. “It’s self-dramatising”, Tom thinks. “Is it really that big a tragedy to not make partner?”

Now working more manageable hours, Tom is able to dedicate more time to his writing and is working on two new novels, one in Italian and one in English. As for his debut, The Times has said Being Simon Haines may become “the defining novel… about what it means to be a driven corporate lawyer”. I’d be hard pushed to disagree.

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