The Legal Cheek and Shearman & Sterling EU referendum debate
Three partners from the London office of Shearman & Sterling considered the pros and cons of Brexit last week as an audience of 80 law student Legal Cheek readers peppered them with questions.
The discussion — which saw the lawyers express their personal views, not those of the firm — kicked off with a consideration of the sovereignty arguments surrounding Britain’s membership of the European Union. Attention was drawn by Legal Cheek publisher Alex Aldridge — chairing the debate — to the fact that the legal profession as a group is overwhelmingly in favour of remaining within the EU, despite being more aware than most of the loss of sovereignty that membership entails.
Shearman & Sterling antitrust partner James Webber put this down to lawyers being “taught to understand nuance” and therefore grasping “that we live in a complex world requiring interaction between many different legal systems.” He added:
Sovereignty has never been an absolute concept, existing instead in a political environment with an enormous number of constraints … and so [lawyers] are comfortable with a complex idea of sovereignty and a complex system of overlapping legal norms.
Therefore, Webber continued, “lawyers are comfortable with the role the EU has. We understand it, and you tend to be less afraid of things that you understand.”
On what a possible Brexit would mean for solicitors and those hoping to enter the legal profession, there was agreement that the world would keep turning, with international law firms well placed to weather any storm that might ensue. M&A partner Matthew Powell summed up the wider sentiment as he explained:
English law as an export for this country has been fantastic, and the central pillars that make it so strong — the long history of precedent, the common law system, experienced judges and excellent legal advice in the City of London — none of that is going to change as a result of Brexit.
Continuing, Powell added:
We here at Shearman & Sterling do a lot of cross border work, and I would not expect the choice of law to change. It would be macroeconomics and deal flow that would be most affected.
Later in the discussion investment funds partner John Adams drew attention to the possible upside to lawyers of a vote to leave in the short to medium term.
Were there to be an exit,” he reflected, “it would be one of those situations where people would say that ‘only the lawyers are happy’ because there would be an awful lot of work for lawyers to do to help clients navigate through all the uncertainty.
That period could extend for quite some time, predicted Adams:
When new laws have been passed, lawyers would be required to advise on how they differ from existing regimes. There would be an enormous amount of opportunity there.
However, the prevailing sentiment among the audience of legal hopefuls was that Brexit would be a bad thing — both in the sense that it may open the door to greater illiberalism, and in the economic disruption that it could create at a critical time for those beginning their careers.
As City University law student Christianah Babajide put it:
I am personally optimistic that we will vote to remain, but the Brexit vote has created a lot of uncertainty and has even made some students question their potential practice of the law.
A show of hands at the end of the session showed almost all of the 80 audience members to favour a vote to remain.
Watch the discussion in full in the video above.
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