The big cheese makes a big difference.
0ver 8,000 people in private practice told RollOnFriday how satisfied they were with their management as part of the RollOnFriday Best Law Firms to Work At 2022. In a uniquely tough period for business leaders, Travers Smith came top, while Knights PLC came bottom.
The top 10
Travers Smith’s lawyers said Senior Partner Kathleen Russ’s “empathetic management style” was “really refreshing” and that “every big decision, senior management gets spot on. They just seem to do everything the right way”. Travers got points for transparency, too. “The messages during the pandemic regarding self-care and office attendance have been very clear”, with a “Fair but clear approach to flexible working”.
There was very little between Travers and second-placed Burgess Salmon (the RollOnFriday Best Law Firm to Work At 2022), Osborne Clarke, and Mills & Reeve. At Burges Salmon, “Leadership were very impressive managing us throughout Covid, taking the shock as a partnership, repaying furlough £ as quickly as they could and looking to increase pay across the firm. Well done”, said a junior solicitor. BS management didn’t lose the personal touch, either. “I was in the office a few months ago for one of the first times when the managing partner popped his head into my office and knew my name and welcomed me”, said a lawyer who joined during the pandemic.
The same goes for Mills & Reeve, where “Justin and Claire do an excellent job and are always very approachable. Even with around 1,000 people in the firm you get the impression that they know most of us by name”. That’s true of management at Osborne Clarke, too, according to respondents. “Ray Berg for PM”, said OC lawyers. “Ray (despite being a Spurs fan) is a great figurehead, but every level of management are genuinely decent people”, said one. They “seem to be very good at running the ship in these difficult times,” observed a junior solicitor.
In 5th place, Sidley Austin's big cheeses in London have read the Art of War and “navigated some difficult situations” in an “incredibly smart way”, said a partner, which included “retaining the key talent in the PE business” while “shifting” partners “who were doing very little".
Despite taking the reigns just before the first lockdown, TLT's new Managing Partner "quickly stepped up and made difficult decisions in respect of furlough and redundancies. As a result, the firm has had its most profitable year (ever)", said a TLT lawyer. John Wood “is to law firm management what Thierry Henry was to football (minus the Renault Clio). Suave, superb vision, erudite and yet still a man of the people. A joy to watch him play, and a future hall of famer”, said a devoted fan and TLT solicitor.
The consensus among staff who voted DAC Beachcroft into 7th place was that the top two "are a strong double act, calm and impressive, the sort of thing you want from your knee surgeon (yes it's a mess but it's not a problem etc)", said a solicitor. “I’d like David and Virginia to adopt me”, disclosed another DACB lawyer.
Latham & Watkins’ London management was praised for its treatment of crushing workloads. A Lathams lawyer said that her team's managers have “done all they can to limit the impact of the massive volume of work over the last 18 months, including twice imposing month-long moratoriums on new matters to allow the team to rest".
Rounding out the top 10, White & Case’s management “is super-transparent”, said staff. Melissa Butler, the London Executive Partner, “is an amazing leader. She navigated the firm through the pandemic with class and humanity”, said a senior solicitor. “On an unrelated note, there's an amusingly direct correlation between partners desperate for management roles and partners who ostentatiously reply-all to firm wide emails, to regurgitate or re-emphasise the sentiment of the original message”, said a White & Caser.
The praise for leaders didn’t end after ten firms, however, and a whole swathe received excellent scores from their people. At RPC, Managing Partner James Miller “is excellent”. "I've historically been pretty anti-management, but actually they really owned the pandemic”, conceded an RPC solicitor.
At Mishcon de Reya, Managing Partner James Libson “is proving to be an excellent managing partner”, and while there was a “serious lack of information provided about the IPO”, communication “has improved”. Although a senior solicitor queried whether management had started to “believe their own marketing propaganda” with emails “saying that the firm has the most IQ per square foot of any law firm”.
“New York's continual references to the ‘Weil Family’ are somewhat cloying but the team in London does a pretty good job”, said a Weil lawyer, while peers at fellow US firm Debevoise & Plimpton said its partners “who featured heavily in the negative anecdotes from the 2020 survey have been moved out of the firm”. Glad to be of service.
At Reed Smith, management “will have a long long slog to undo the bad will created by last year's horrifically-timed, unnecessary and ultimately counter-productive redundancy round”, which was announced “4 weeks after we'd all taken a pay cut that was introduced in order to avoid the need for redundancies”.
"I get the impression that the firm is a strong well performing, law MACHINE", said a lawyer at Eversheds Sutherland. "However, more and more it feels like we're in a FTSE 100 company rather than a law firm and the increasing level of non-law related initiatives/learning/work is tiring". Another said the firm's message that “we care about your mental health, but don't let your hours drop and make sure you do all that admin and meet the client demands and no sorry you can't have extra junior support because their non-negotiable is leaving at 6pm and we care about their mental health” was "frustrating".
Landing in the mid-table sweet spot, Irwin Mitchell “is so large that every single micro task has a different person in charge", and “has also gone risk assessment crazy”: staff “cannot so much as go to the toilet without first completing a 33 page risk assessment”, claimed an IM solicitor.
Ashurst's outgoing London MP had been a “fantastic”, although the firm “recently swallowed the BS dictionary” and kept “harping on about our ‘purpose’ and the ‘Ashurst experience’”, said a partner. “No one outside of management has a frickin’ clue what they’re on about but it seems to keep them happy”. A similar addiction was afflicting Pinsent Masons, whose management "are alright, although their obsession with 'purpose' and responsible business is galling - particularly when it is used as a hook for client pitches rather than something that is actually put into practice".
Voted into 40th place, Squire Patton Boggs was “out of touch with the associate workforce, which is why so many associates have left in droves during the last 12 months". It was also “Suffering from delusions of grandeur”, according to a senior SPB solicitor, who “Heard one partner pitch the firm as ‘a premium best-in-class corporate firm, up with the White Shoe outfits’. He’s a clueless Yank, and we all had a good laugh behind his back”.
“It's great having an openly gay CEO who wants to shake things up”, said a lawyer at Herbert Smith Freehills. “Justin and Bec seem very open and truly willing to engage every employee in their vision for the firm”, agreed a colleague. However, a “relentless push on productivity (i.e. utilisation) and profit, at the cost of people's mental health” was an issue. “Doesn't matter how many Mental Health Champions you have or free helplines you make available, if associates are under immense pressure all the time (130% utilisation against a 7.7 hours target considered the benchmark to aim for) then they will be miserable”, said an HSF lawyer.
If Baker McKenzie “can stop shitting the bed protecting baddies in management it would actually be a very competently-run firm”, said one BM lawyer. “Johannesburg!” commented another. A Womble Bond Dickinson lawyer also bemoaned their firm's appearances in the news, asking, “what on earth were management thinking, suing a client then immediately retracting when it became an embarrassing joke”?
Some Allen & Overy staff were of the opinion that their managers were "Living in ivory towers but reasonably sensible", while others claimed that “Most of them seemed to disappear during the pandemic, except to pop up occasionally and complain how difficult it was to actually spend time with their wives and families”.
Opacity was an issue for Clyde & Co people, too. “I find out more about the firm from the legal press and ROF than I do internally”, complained a Clyde & Co partner. “After three senior partners in short order, the firm feels like it's in freefall”, said a junior solicitor, and another said she hoped “things will settle down now”.
The bottom 10
At Norton Rose Fulbright “the corporate jargon gets worse by the week and nothing can be explained without seven slides, a new committee and a weird new scheme”, said a solicitor. A trainee said there was “too much focus on performative achievements (diversity and inclusion)” and “not enough focus on what is substantively wrong with the firm", like directors who “do not respond” when associates tell them “they are burned out”, added a colleague.
In joint-53rd place, BLM's “more able partners” regard management positions “as a poison chalice, so management is left to the second raters”, claimed a partner. The firm “will either merge with someone or fade away” predicted one of its lawyers.
“No vision or strategy has been shared” by the top of HFW’s management in three years, said a lawyer at the firm, which was “haemorrhaging talented lawyers”, said a colleague.
In 55th place, Dentons’ new CEO “seems engaged and keen to improve”, said staff, but "it will take a long time for management to recover from the appalling way that they handled covid ". Staff "were pressured into taking 20% pay cuts followed by redundancies (that the pay cut was promised to avoid)", and management "has sought to pass this off with ‘we made mistakes’ generalities and partial pay refunds”. Dentons “lost the trust of its staff by the way it behaved", said others.
Plexus’s extraordinary accounting fiasco won’t improve its solicitors’ views of their management, which is now headed up by a non-lawyer from the private equity company which invested in the firm. “They have no knowledge of the legal world”, one grumbled.
There was annoyance within Slaughter and May around the perception that lawyers can’t be leaders. Slaughters “keeps adding more and more business services staff, including the newfangled COO role which will come with a clique of ‘process’ people who will do nothing all day and earn comfortable salaries for this nothingness at the expense of fee earning staff”, complained a solicitor. There was also “Very poor management during the pandemic - with partners cutting costs by not providing any kind of provision for working from home (e.g. to buy a desk, monitor, etc.) until 1.5 years into the lockdown, and freezing the pay of associate fee earners”.
At BCLP, “they have now given up all pretence” that BLP joining US firm Bryan Cave “was a merger rather than a US takeover”, according to a senior BCLP solicitor. “Every week there seems to be a new US-style process or system being forced on the UK offices. Some of which are admittedly are an improvement”, he conceded. “No one in London has a say on anything important”, agreed a colleague, while “the lack of transparency went beyond parody some time ago”.
The CEO of Slater and Gordon “has made constant change since he arrived and it turns out none of that change has actually improved the business”, said a partner at the loss-making PI firm. “He’s also lost some really quality execs & is now forced to promote the dross”. “Just look at the end of year accounts!”, said a lawyer. They “love pointless bureaucracy” and “endless urgent reports”, but have “messed up all the systems in the business - you can barely get a payment out”, said Slaters lawyers.
Watson Farley & Williams management “spout that open plan is the future…yet the one refurb during the pandemic was to build one of them their own private office”, said a junior lawyer, which gave the impression that it was “One rule for the plebs, another for them". "Talk to any non-partner that's been around for 10+ years and they'll describe the firm as being ‘like a family’”, said a junior solicitor, but “now they've outsourced anything that they can”.
In last place, there “is only one person” managing Knights, and staff had a lot to say about that, most of which was strongly-expressed. “A constant stream of acquisitions but no real thought as to how they fit with what is already within the firm, or how to integrate people rather than having them leave”, said a lawyer whose firm was snaffled up by the Golden Turd 2020. “So many people from my previous firm handed in their notice within 18 months of the acquisition that there's now barely anyone left”, they added. "Buying up increasingly crappier law firms and putting the people acquired into snazzy new offices whilst increasing their hourly rates by 50% is never going to work long term”, predicted a partner.