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Firm of the Year 2016 Stories

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Firm of the Year 2016 Magic Circle Special: Slaughter and May the happiest
26 February 2016
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The most satisfied lawyers in the Magic Circle this year can be found at Slaughter and May, which has been rated number one for work/life balance, career development, management and culture.



Clifford Chance and Linklaters both scored 65%, just two points ahead of Allen & Overy, whose lawyers voted it top for pay by a significant margin. Freshfields took the bottom spot and is the only firm to dip below 60%.

Pay

Following several years lagging behind the rest of the Magic Circle, Allen & Overy silenced its internal critics when it increased salaries by more than 25% last summer. As a direct result, it scored a conclusive eight point lead over its rivals. "After years of fannying about feeding us lines like 'well the overall package is still better here than elsewhere'", said one lawyer, the firm "is finally paying us decent salaries and for that, it must be applauded". Plenty of others agreed that the "hefty" rises were "excellent", and one suggested that now "salary-related complaints can surely come only from the greediest of associates".



Envious glances abound across the rest of the Magic Circle. At Slaughters, partners "need to wake up and realise that the best firm in the City needs to be rewarding its lawyers properly for the hours they put in". The pay increases and bonus announcement last year were "welcome" and "very generous", but, says one lawyer, "you still look at the (increasing) number of junior lawyers who take the Yankee dollar and wonder why you are still here". At "the very least", the "gap with A&O needs to be closed".

At Clifford Chance a few staff say that pay is "good" and bonuses "seem fair", but others gripe that it's "crap money compared to the US firms", especially because "we work far longer hours than them!"

A handful of lawyers at Freshfields say that the "opaque" Career Milestone System © is "widely regarded as a stick up". It feels, says another, like pay "is frozen every second year", and that "we're now languishing at the bottom of the Magic Circle with no improvement in sight". Meanwhile, US associates "working literally in the next office" get "a Christmas bonus equivalent to 1/3 to a 1/2 of a UK associate's annual salary", which "doesn't do much to inspire the rank and file".

At Links, management needs to "get real", said one lawyer, and pay "competitive salaries that are actually top of the market, cf. A&O, all US firms". Another says it needs to "see the light and realise that when the partnership track is extended (and the chances so slim), the rationale for not paying decent salaries (e.g. A&O / US firms) falls away". The salary is "absolutely disgraceful" for the hours worked and the "calibre of work product expected" says another, asking, "why on earth are we bottom of the MC?" Well, someone has to be. In any event, the cash "doesn't cut it anymore with US players shelling out £100k plus and even A&O paying £80k for NQs". Another says there is a "clear unwillingness" to "adequately compensate associates", which "I can only put down to greed on the part of partners given that their remuneration remains at the top of the market".

Career Development

Lawyers across all five Magic Circle firms gave decent marks for their career development. All were praised for offering excellent training, albeit miniscule chances of making partner.

Slaughter and May and Linklaters score particularly well. At Slaughters, there are "sometimes frightening expectations of you", which, says another lawyer, can be "intimidating for some". The standards expected of "even new trainees" are "extremely high, and your colleagues will all have a litany of stellar achievements on their CVs before starting". Dozens echoed the lawyers who said the work was "exceptional", and the precedents and training "excellent". Others say there is a "blackbox partnership track" and, notwithstanding recent improvements, a "general 'spiff on' approach" to appraisals. The chances of getting made up, meanwhile, "can seem akin to winning the new 59 ball Lotto", but "everyone knows this and still plays the game anyway".



The quality of work at Linklaters is "first rate". It is a "market leader in terms of deals", and provides "fantastic admin support and resources". As a trainee "it is rare not to be put in the departments you want" over the course of the training contract (although apparently it recently "slashed" the number of international secondments, including all of them in mainland China, which left some trainees "gutted"). It is "still one of the best names to have on your CV" and "you certainly don't have to go looking for a recruiter if you want to jump ship", because "you will have one call you or connect with you on LinkedIn almost every other day". The partnership prospects are, however, "abysmal" and "sub-zero", and coupled with partners "who refuse to acknowledge that that might present an issue".

Clifford Chance provides work quality which is "second to none". The partners also "make the partnership track very transparent", explains one lawyer. "They make it very transparent why you won't get to partnership".

A pessimistic Freshfields lawyer says there is "zero chance" of getting made up at her firm, either. Another says it is nonetheless "amazing" to work with colleagues who are "genuinely brilliantly clever" and to experience working "on top level mandates".

Allen & Overy boasts "some truly excellent partners" who "genuinely care about their associates and encourage development", plus "outstanding (if hard)" work. Like the other MC firms, however, the chances of progressing past senior associate "seem slim to none". In addition, "the word is that promotions at every level are getting tougher with the passing year". Plus, being "emotionally and nearly physically dead" seems to be "the only way to survive the 10+ year slog" onto the letterhead.  But spare a thought for the lawyer seconded abroad, who says his "right of return to London" was "denied" after being "verbally assured return would be facilitated".

    "Sure, we can't wait to have you back. When? Sorry, you're crrrrr breaking up crrrr"

Work/Life Balance

Work/life balance is always the Magic Circle's worst category and 2016 is no different. As usual, Slaughter and May's unique (to the MC) approach means it scores appreciably higher than the other four firms, which all land in a fairly dire 40-47% bracket.

Because Slaughters does not charge on the basis of time and there are no billable hours or target hours, life can be more "civilised". The work-from-home pilot was also "well-received, especially by those associates who are parents" and will "hopefully be rolled out across the firm". But it is still a Magic Circle firm. Even though "we might not have target hours", when a deal approaches its critical points, "the hours can be relentless". It is "as if Santa is sitting on the 'work' scale, while Kate Moss is on the 'life 'scale".



At Linklaters, it can "feel like your ass is getting opened up by a partner wielding a heavy-duty car jack". The partners "will take literally everything you have" and then "complain when you don't give more". Colleagues "note that finishing at 8pm everyday constitutes 'very good hours' without a hint of irony". The arse-clenchingly named "Jam" is dismissed by one lawyer as a gimmick, however others say that it resulted in the introduction of an additional day of holiday on birthdays and shows that Linklaters is finally serious about tackling work/life balance.

Hours "could be better" at Clifford Chance, but "they are no worse than those at any other Magic Circle firm" and, says another lawyer, "definitely better than US firms". Although another highlights "constant acquiescence to nonsensical work plans and deadlines" as an issue.

A&O staff are also resigned to their nocturnal situation. Their work/life balance is "still better" than at US firms and the "same as the rest of the MC". And while it "isn't great", at least A&O is "trying to do something" by testing new technologies and launching "iFlex", a flexible working scheme.

There is less resignation and more knackered shock from Freshfields staff. The work life balance is "awful". They "just don't let us sleep", says one, and "no one bats an eyelid if you pull out a 100 hour week". Although, says another associate, "generally it's cool to take work home". And while the hours "can be terrible", that's "the nature of the beast and you accept it when you sign on the dotted line".

    "Them? Don't mind them. Here, come and have a look at our foosball table" 

Management

Slaughter and May came first for management, although the respondents who commented tended to be negative. There is, said one, "a lack of willingness to tell clients that their unrealistic timing demands are ultimately counterproductive", which results in transactions "contorting themselves into a painful danse macabre for associates". Partners "tend to be excellent lawyers but hopeless managers", says another, while "the decision-making structure is still somewhat opaque and hierarchical". The decision to move free taxis from 9pm to 10pm also proved unpopular, especially in the same week that the firm warned staff that there were bag-snatchers in the local area.



Senior management at A&O is "fantastic", says an A&O senior associate, although "when it comes to associates the implementation of their vision and initiatives can be lacking". At Clifford Chance, the new strategy implemented by Matthew Layton has "really focussed the energies of the firm", says a junior, although another complains of "too much bureaucracy".
 
The same applies at Linklaters. "At times it feels like there are too many decision layers", says one associate. And there is a "tendency to waste an extraordinary amount of cash" on "pointless internal management-speak vanity projects like the jam".

Freshfields partners also get it in the nuts for their leadership skills, with one lawyer complaining that they "make really shit managers". Another says that long fee-earner hours are spent "poring over bills" because the firm "can't be bothered to invest in decent software or employ more billing staff". Alas, "they seem oblivious to morale, and even when they do get the annual survey of staff, where it doesn't give the result they want, they blame the associates for having unrealistic expectations".

Culture

All five firms scored well for their culture and have been praised for fostering a largely friendly environment, full of bright and (mostly) decent colleagues.

Slaughters' business model "is brutally capitalistic", but the culture is one of "keen collaboration and information-sharing". Although there is also a "meticulously maintained distance which the partners keep between themselves and the 'below stairs' staff (i.e. everyone else)", which "can be a bit grating". But, "after years earning that much money, sacrificing so much else for their careers, and with everyone being so deferential to their legal genius, anyone would find it difficult to remain a normal, humble human being". Others call it "Oxbridgedom", and "posh and nerdy, yet surprisingly sexy". There is "no pressure to conform" with "any corporate culture" says one associate dressed as a mango, although the firm is "quite old fashioned", so "things like qualification loans and dress down Fridays are alien to the partners".




Clifford Chance is "living proof that the geeks shall inherit the earth", while at Linklaters, the people are "generally nice," although, says one non-partner, "partners are largely nutcases". An associate says that "the place is so warped that people actually moan about being quiet and seniors think they are doing us a favour by giving us more work". It is "Stockholm syndrome at its finest". Happily, though, "they really look after you if you are facing a bereavement".

Some teams at A&O are "hopelessly home counties posh", but in others there is "a sizeable contingent of state-educated associates with a normal outlook on life, and a healthy range of regional accents". The firm is also "99% full of talented and supportive" partners. "Birds have been known to stop singing" in the vicinity of the other 1%.

    "Oh great, Tim's back from his meeting"

Freshfields "can be a bit snobbish", but "it's getting better". Another agrees that there are "very few twats" amongst the trainees and associates. Which makes it "all the more disappointing when you consider the people they make up to partner". Now, now.