Brexit will “test the mettle” of lawyers

There’s a lurid fascination that comes with watching the UK’s Brexit debate from the US. At one level, it seems not unlike a marriage in its death throes. You know both ­husband and wife and feel terribly about it all, but cannot avert your eyes. The only winner? Neil Sedaka. Breaking up, as we’re told, is hard to do.

But the UK and Europe are not married. It’s more like co-habitation with separate bank accounts and with the dilemma at the heart of every marriage left unresolved. Toilet seats up or down? Brussels is working feverishly on a solution.

Yet, quite naggingly, the whole scene seems familiar, especially to a 21st-century law partner.  The EU is a Swiss verein, and the UK partners are debating whether to stay or go.

Now I understand. A shared brand but separate profit pools. Attempts at integration thwarted at internal profit borders. Fractured governance. No unity of vision. Ask a verein its favourite colour and it will respond “plaid”.

Beyond taking a gratuitous shot at Swiss vereins, there is another aspect to this referendum that fascinates me: your Prime Minister. This is a man who knows how to roll the dice. After a close call on Scottish secession, where many believe that his side was improbably saved by Gordon Brown’s passionate appeal to the electorate, I thought he would never again put issues of sovereignty out to popular vote. I was so wrong. The man has the nerve of a riverboat gambler.

I take the point that riverboat gamblers are not everyone’s cup of tea. One person’s steely resolve is another person’s reckless abandon. Yet in a world that seems to have lost its way, your Prime Minister has shown that he’s willing to trust the British people. Not bad at all, with history at once his guide and judge.

Separated by a generation, Mr Cameron and I attended the same Oxford college and had the same politics tutor until I switched into a graduate law curriculum. Sandwiched between us at Brasenose College was current Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull. Although I was just another annoying American, I’d say that Brasenose in that era held up its end by supplying those two guys to a world in need of leaders.

The tutor, Vernon Bogdanor, has said that David Cameron was one of the ablest students he has ever encountered. He has never levelled that charge at me. Malcolm Turnbull did a graduate degree in law and likely took no tutorials from Vernon or he might well have earned the same encomium. I wonder what was in the water at Brasenose that saw it within a few years produce future prime ministers of two great countries.     

Words of wisdom

So, you are left with your 23 June referendum –  and so are we. In today’s world, the ripples of a Brexit will be felt not only in Europe but also around the globe. I sense this will not be a good thing, as modern life is rife with centrifugal forces and seemingly barren of centripetal equilibriants.

If Brexit prevails, our profession will again prove its true mettle. It will be lawyers who illuminate the new pathways of opportunity and the roadblocks ahead – imaginative, tough-minded, client-focused lawyers using language, judgement, ideas and persuasion as their weapons.

The intellectual capital in the City of London is breathtaking in its diversity, depth and power. A Brexit will test it as it has rarely before been tested. Recall an earlier European test captured memorably by Auden in 1939:

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate.

Intellectual disgrace stares
From every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Aren’t we in a better place now ballots have supplanted bullets as the weapons of choice and that the rule of law – with its missionaries, the legal profession on both sides of the Channel – will prevail in the end no matter the geopolitical form?

Every time I worry that Richard Susskind might be right that automation will wreak “havoc” on law firms, my fears fade into the mist of yet another 21st-century challenge that our profession is uniquely positioned to handle for our very human clients and the enterprises within which they are housed.

Peter Kalis is chairman and global managing partner of K&L Gates