I am a lawyer working in a law firm in the City. Earlier this week I watched some BBC documentary – I don’t remember its name – decrying the gentrification of some Greater London suburbs, Clapham in particular. I was informed that, whereas Clapham used to be a pretty affordable, working-class suburb, now it was the exclusive playground of the wealthy middle classes, particularly, according to a local estate agent, lawyers and bankers. I must say I felt pretty bad about this, increasingly so as a nostalgic montage of black and white images of a more innocent, by-gone Clapham flashed before my eyes to the tune of “our house” or some similarly emotive song.
Then I was presented with the testimony of an observably middleclass couple – a software designer and an HR manager, if I remember rightly – who had been forced to move from their small London flat to Buckinghamshire in order to afford a place big enough to house their growing family. “Only lawyers and bankers can afford to live in London now,” said the wife, in her trousers. The husband said nothing but I took his silence as collaboration with his wife’s view.
Now not only did I feel bad, I felt guilty. I’m a lawyer and my ilk, it appeared, had not only brought about the working class exodus from Clapham but our malevolent, insidious influence had forced this poor middle class family into exile in Buckinghamshire, and god knows how many more like them had suffered the same fate (or should that be fete?). Lawyers and bankers, it seemed, were worthy objects of society’s hatred after all. Cue an apocalyptic vision of my charred, pinstriped corpse hanging from a city centre lamppost as the result of some looming societal backlash.
But something about this rising guilt didn’t sit right with me. I have many friends who are lawyers, and a couple who are bankers, but I know of none of them who have been able to buy flats in areas such as Clapham. On the contrary, of my lawyer friends, the majority are living in (though they’ll probably hit me for saying so) down at heel one and two bed flats in the greater London area. I myself, a lawyer with over 6 years’ experience, am living with my wife in a one bed ground floor flat in Middlesex. Above us are housing association tenants. My banker friends rent flats in or around London but certainly couldn’t afford to buy there.
After a time, it is true, lawyers and bankers will earn more than the national average salary but, for the most part, nowhere near what appears to be the figures in the minds of the general public. For the first few years, lawyers, who very often will have debts of £25,000 plus, will receive salaries of around £16,000 to £20,000. That’s if they are lucky enough to get a trainee position. Many with the same debts are not so lucky and will languish in paralegal positions, earning pittance for years. Eventually the majority of decent middle management equivalent lawyers and bankers working in London might earn somewhere between £45,000 to £75,000. Certainly not enough to buy a property in or around central London.
Now compare those figures with the earnings disclosed by Pimlico Plumbers’ employees in Wednesday night’s Channel 4 programme “Show me your Money.” The show was based on a 50 year old experiment in which the workforce was asked to reveal to each other their earnings. The idea was that the higher paid employees would help out the lower paid ones once they knew how little they were earning by donating to them a portion of their salaries. And what did the experiment teach us? Well, apart from teaching us that no one really wants to give up a penny of their salary, and that the boss of Pimlico Plumbers has all the credentials of an Essexian deity, it taught us that the plumbers of Pimlico Plumbers were each earning £100k and more. £100k and more! I don’t know of one lawyer earning £100k. I myself do not expect to earn anything like it.
So I got to reflecting. Why is it that society is still stigmatising lawyers and bankers as a class? Yes, there are some earning bucket loads of cash but they are too few and far between to tar us all with the same brush. And business men and sales people earn comparable salaries, if not a great deal more; heck, I know a recruitment consultant with more flats than Utah! So, before there is a big backlash against lawyers and bankers, before their charred remains are observed hanging from our street furniture – and in this I make no apologies for the Bob Diamonds of this world - let us please get some perspective. And consider: if not your average lawyer or banker, what may have been the true cause of the working class’ exodus from Clapham? Well, on salaries of £100k and more, they probably moved to Notting Hill.
NB: Originally published on Friday