Objections overruled. American lawyers love London

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The Independent Online

The much-hyped American visit wasn't quite the biggest invasion of Britain since the Second World War in the end, but it was pretty impressive nonetheless.

The much-hyped American visit wasn't quite the biggest invasion of Britain since the Second World War in the end, but it was pretty impressive nonetheless.

More than 3,500 US lawyers arrived in London with their families this week for the American Bar Association's (ABA) annual convention, and block-booked everything from theDome to the Tower of London.

Nine thousand in all stayed in 80 hotels, attended 225 law sessions and were invited to more than 100 dinners and receptions hosted by the British legal profession. And they attended the Queen Mother's 100th birthday pageant.

The numbers were big, but not nearly as big as in 1985, the last time the conference was held here, when 25,000 visited. The British tourist industry had estimated the Americans would spend about £3m.

Since the visit was tax deductible in the US and some were being funding by their firms, they are likely to have spent far more.

Famous British brands were falling over each other to cash in on the visit. The Royal jewellers Cartier, Liberty, and Harrods promised to give every delegate who visited one of their stores a "special gift". Burberrys, Austin Reed and Moss Bros offered them generous discounts.

Tony and Cherie Blair, Robin Cook, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, all took time out of their schedules to speak to the lawyers. Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, even presented the the ABA with a copy of the Doomsday Book. Their gratitude was over the top - some thought it was the original.

The lawyers put Henry VIII on mock trial for marital misconduct and found George III guilty of terrorism against the American people. Madame Tussaud's and London Zoo were out, with the lawyers visited instead the London Eye, the Tate Modern and the Dome. They liked the Dome so much they booked it for a night at £130 a head.

The River Restaurant at the Savoy was a popular choice for lunch. The "Exotic Food Platter" of salmon with spring vegetables, brioche cobbler au gratin and petit fours went down particularly well.

Leith's, the caterer for ABA's conference headquarters, estimated it had sold 1,500 cups of coffee in one café alone and many more soft drinks. "Most of it was decaffeinated coffee [£1.25 a cup] and sodas [£1]. But we sold a lot of iced teas and iced coffees," a spokesman said. "Our busiest day was Wednesday when the bomb threats stopped the city and [the lawyers] couldn't get any taxis." The conference ended on Thursday.

The visitors also came in search of history. On Thursday, 2,000 hired out the Tower of London and 40 of its beefeaters for £75,000. Legal London was predictably a very popular draw. Here the Lord Chancellor got in on the act, opening a courts gift shop the week before their round-the-clock tours of the Royal Courts of Justice.

The ABA took on an army of British staff to help their members negotiate their way around London. Their questions were said to have included: "What's the different between a Chelsea Pensioner and a Wimbledon Womble?"

Edward Blumberg, a medical malpractice trial lawyer from Miami, Florida, brought his wife and children over for the week. His 11-year-old son Beau was impressed by the medieval Inns of Court. The Blumbergs also went to Salisbury to see the Magna Carta and "witness the stirrings of democracy".

For the Blumbergs, the highlight of the visit was an invitation to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. "I saw the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Ann," Mr Blumberg said. "Everywhere you looked there was someone important."

Judge Fred Rodgers, from Gilpin, Colorado, spent his spare time at the House of Lords. "They were only debating the future of manhole covers but I found it fascinating. And like a lot of parliaments they talk a lot without getting very much done."

The Robins family, from Los Angeles, put the Dome at the top of their sightseeing list. Brian Robins, aged 8, said: "The room where your body became 3-D" was the best thing he had ever seen. His father, Richard, a partner in a commercial law firm, was impressed by the London Eye.

Most of the participants seemed to know as much about the latest British attractions as the British. An attorney from New York said: "Only the British could design a bridge over a river which wobbles - and open something as fantastic as the Dome and criticise it for not making enough money."

The conference itself has a rocky history. In March, Hillary Clinton, who was to lead the lawyers, pulled out to concentrate on her election battle for the Mayor of New York. Many other attorneys followed suit and stayed at home. By April, fewer than 3,000 lawyers had registered to attend.

It was left to William Paul, the ABA president, to grasp the nettle. Last week he said that the drop in numbers would mean the £30m event would make a loss of up to £660,000. He blamed his colleagues' absence on London prices, Britain no longer being a novelty draw, and work commitments in the United States.

That, of course, proved to be only half the story.