Interview with Karen Bremner, Scottish solicitor who was "fired" by Sir Alan Sugar from "The Apprentice" TV show

It was a moment of baffling summary justice that would not have been out of place in the district court. In front of Sir Alan Sugar in the “boardroom” sat three candidates seeking to become his £100,000 per annum “Apprentice”, at one of whom, in the best traditions of reality television, Sugar was about to hiss “You’re fired”.

Faced with HR manager Jo, who was either belligerent or bubbling, with little in between, insipid Alexa, whose bleating about how she was a great project manager served only to convince you otherwise, and measured, articulate Scots lawyer Karen Bremner, Sugar, in an irrational moment which reminded viewers that as well as building Amstrad, he was also the man who, when chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, appointed Ossie Ardiles and Christian Gross as manager, “fired” the infinitely most credible Bremner, proclaiming: “I don’t need more corporate lawyers [she isn’t], you haven’t stood up for yourself.” As an aside for the benefit of viewers he told Margaret (his corporate lawyer): “I don’t need another lawyer… You couldn’t sell a box of matches if you tried.”

One-trick ponies?

Bearing in mind that The Apprentice is more closely related to the Big Brother-inspired genre of reality TV than the real business world, and that by his own admission Sugar is “a nutter”, his comments may nevertheless be indicative of a widely held feeling in the business community that lawyers should stick to law because they have no flair or intuition for anything else.

For 34-year-old Bremner, who lives in Newbigging near Dundee, her motive for appearing in the BBC 2 series The Apprentice was not to become the next Ben Fogle, but a pursuit of the opportunity to work for, and learn from, Sugar.

“With the skills I had developed as a lawyer I felt I should have as much business acumen as people coming from other backgrounds. People are under the impression, and Sugar certainly was when he in effect told me you’re a lawyer and that’s all you can do, that lawyers are one-dimensional. Yet there’s no question in my mind that as a lawyer you need to do and know about an awful lot more than just understand law. You are a sales person, a marketing person and a negotiator, all the things that he seems to want.”

Nothing daunted

Despite the setback of being eliminated in the early weeks of The Apprentice, Bremner was at the time of writing “keeping her options open”, and still of the belief that being a lawyer need not be a hindrance to pursuing a career in business. She remains positive that lawyers can overcome the inherent prejudice that seems to prevail.

“The only way to do it is to keep proving our worth. As far as I’m concerned, although I was fired early on, the public perception of me was good and there were nothing but positive things said about how I performed. I was quite proud of the way I accomplished the tasks.”

As “girls” team leader in the opening programme of the series she courted controversy and criticism from Sugar when she astutely realised that attractive young women could succeed in persuading pot-bellied male fruit vendors to part with virtually rotting stock for close to no cost by means of none-too-subtle flirting and flattery.

Despite these wantonly provocative tactics, Bremner is confident she projected well on behalf of the legal profession at large.

“My legal training has allowed me to develop into the person everybody saw, and as a result I would hope it has been a positive thing for the legal profession as a whole to show we do not just sit behind desks and apply dry legal concepts.”

A case for promotion

Strangely, the careers of the other candidates were scarcely mentioned whereas Bremner’s status as a lawyer was a consistent focus. She is at pains to point out: “I am not and never have been a corporate lawyer.”

“Sugar kept re-emphasising you’re a lawyer and really that’s all you can do, you have no other strings to your bow. I think he perpetuated the stereotype that lawyers are conniving, on the make, in it for the money. What he didn’t seem to like about me was a feeling that as a lawyer I projected a slight superiority. He seemed to imply I thought I was an intellectual. That was never the case, but as a professional I maintain you have to stay composed and cool and retain your dignity.”

Ironically, Bremner’s demise was sealed in effect by her failure to offer a plea in mitigation on her own behalf. Thirty seconds of self-promotion would almost certainly have seen her survive. Yet she makes no apology for failing to use her legal training when she needed it most.

“The criticism was that I didn’t show any passion. There is a difference between being passionate and screaming, shouting and crying which a lot of the contestants were doing. As a lawyer you are often playing the legal equivalent of poker. You have to try and be that bit cleverer, you cannot wear your emotions on your sleeve because then you’ve lost. Similarly in any court situation if the judge hasn’t raised an issue which might be detrimental to your client, the last thing in the world you are going to do is bring up that issue and put the spotlight on your client. I did not feel under threat for my place, so was not going to make a plea on my own behalf. At no time did I think ‘I’m going here’. The spotlight was on the shortcomings of the other two.”

She does concede that it might have been easier to make that desperate plea had she been acting for a client, acknowledging that it would have been easier to “take that step back”.

A reflection on ourselves?

As well as remaining aggrieved at the manner of her firing, Bremner admits she would be sheepish about claiming too many hours of CPD from her time on the show.

“I went into the programme as a challenge and an opportunity to work for someone who had been hugely successful in an environment I had little exposure to. I knew that with my background as an RAF lawyer my CV was unlikely to go far if placed on the desk of the HR person at a big corporate organisation. I felt The Apprentice was a chance to show what I could do and possibly get a fantastic job working for Sugar.”

Given Sugar’s reputation, was it not naïve to think he would employ a collected, self-possessed Scottish solicitor?

“He is quite eccentric and has made it clear he wants someone in his mould. I thought I would like to show that someone who is completely different to him could do as good a job. But it is now absolutely apparent to me that he is just looking for a carbon copy of himself, and with my background and training I don’t think I ever stood a chance of becoming his Apprentice. I’m really sad to say I’m not sure I learned much at all. I expected to learn about business from Sugar, but in fact you see him on television as much as we ever saw him in the whole process. While I didn’t learn anything from a business perspective I did learn that I wouldn’t change the way I was in any way, shape or form to conform with what he wanted.”

Introspectively, it reflects poorly on the profession in Scotland that we cannot retain talented people such as Bremner. Concerned that her time in the RAF would see her relegated to starting from the bottom in private practice, and unable to secure an in-house post near Dundee, she felt her options to continue in practice were limited.

With communications consultant Mandy Haeburn-Little talking up the need for the profession to project a confident, modern image in last month’s Journal, we could surely do worse than use Bremner as some sort of ambassador or face of the profession? From Bremner’s new perspective she shares concerns about the image of the Scottish profession.

“We just aren’t getting the message out that this is a vibrant, interesting career that can take you to loads of interesting places. There is still a perception that we are a staid, dry profession. We need to raise our profile, stop apologising and show we are normal people who do a lot of good work. I hope in some small way I have helped do that for the legal profession in Scotland.”

The Apprentice: Series Two started on  Wednesday 22 February 2006 on BBC Two.

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