Freshfields triumphed after its lawyers rated themselves more satisfied with pay, management, and career development than their peers, although there wasn't much daylight between Freshfields' 62% overall score and Clifford Chance's 60%.
'Pay has risen astronomically'
Satisfaction with pay gave Freshfields its highest score, largely because it moved early and high in the salary war.
"Beats the other Magic Circle firms by a mile", said a senior Freshfields solicitor. And not just at NQ level, where rises across the sector made headlines. Junior Freshfields solicitors "received a significant pay hike this year" as well, with 1PQEs bumped up to £130,000.
At Clifford Chance, "pay has risen astronomically over the last few years", said a senior associate, but "it can be galling to see junior colleagues run off to US firms and suddenly be earning c.50% more than you when they have little idea of what they are doing".
The Magic Circle-wide pay hikes were well received at Linklaters, too. "It was good to see they increased pay rates across the board quite a lot rather than just myopically focussing on NQ salaries", said a Links lawyer. Several said the rises helped "to stem some of the allure of US firms and certainly in-house roles".
"Can’t really gripe about the decent payrises we all just received", said a senior Allen & Overy solicitor, "although not sure they are going to do much to stem the tide of people leaving to seek proper fortunes at US outfits".
Pay wasn't the only factor keeping lawyers from US firms. "I have been at both types, and there are fewer psychos wandering the corridors here, and a culturally different attitude to weekends/holidays brought about, in part, by not working exclusively for US funds/PE houses", said a senior Linklaters solicitor.
The salary war was a a horrible mistake according to a junior Links solicitor, since more money translated into higher expectations: "I wish it would stop going up as we're expected to be available more unreasonably to justify the pay", they said.
Slaughter and May's tardiness on raises was a major source of resentment and landed it bottom of the Magic Circle for pay. "It’s demoralising how Slaughters always seems to be the last of the MC firms to raise salaries and only matches the bare minimum", said one lawyer at the firm. "Always below market. Always the last to raise. Always given begrudgingly", said a junior solicitor.
'The culture suffers a lot while everyone is WFH'
Clifford Chance's people were the most satisfied of the Magic Circle with culture, although the pandemic has taken a toll. "Naturally we've lost the 'work hard, play hard' spirit with the Budgie (the office bar) being shut and everyone working remotely for long periods", said a Clifford Chance senior solicitor.
"We've also lost a large number of seniors (rethinking their life choices due to COVID) who actually did all the pastoral/team building work", he added, and "no one wants to go for drinks/dinner/cake with a stale old partner who can only talk shop".
The culture at Freshfields has "come on leaps and bounds" in the last few years, said one of its solicitors. "It's not uncommon for the partners to send you a box of cookies at the end of a busy week. Not a huge deal, but we are getting better at the small gestures that make people feel valued". Baby steps.
Slaughters' people were harsh in their scores for culture, but the comments acknowledged the role of the pandemic. "Despite best efforts to reintroduce team socials, WFH has largely made our culture a dead duck", said a lawyer.
When the Slaughters culture is there, "the stereotype is relatively fair - words like academic, hierarchical, perfectionist, dignified etc. all spring to mind. Some people will hate that, other people love it", said a junior solicitor. "Culture seems very academic and not the most 'fun'", said another trainee, who clearly hadn't read the brochure.
'Descending into a swamp of bland management speak'
Freshfields came top for management, too. Its new team headed by Claire Wills "rocks", said a senior solicitor. Wills "has been an excellent leader of the firm and under her management, communication and firm engagement has notably improved", said another solicitor.
The consensus was that an "Open, honest, cohesive and female-led management team" has "brought a breath of fresh air to Freshfields' London office", although a junior lawyer warned that the firm "is slowly descending into a swamp of bland management speak, vision and mission statements", whereas "a lot of lawyers became lawyers specifically because they disliked the consultancy rubbish".
Clifford Chance "is run really well", said a senior solicitor, "and they have handled the pandemic, especially remote working and employee wellbeing during this time, excellently". "Go on Batesy lad", said a junior solicitor.
"Communication has actually been very good over the last two years", said a Linklater lawyer. Charlie Jacobs and Gideon Moore "introduced the weekly, slightly cringey, management videos", and successors Aedamar Comiskey and Paul Lewis "have carried them on. Despite being a bit like watching your dad dance at a wedding, the effort to be visible across the firm is definitely appreciated".
There was less satisfaction at Allen & Overy, where some respondents didn't buy A&O's line that it wanted to save the planet. "Being told we are moving offices for environmental/climate reasons is insulting. We all know about the open plan/hotdesking trials, and dressing this up as climate action is a joke", said one cynic.
At Slaughter and May, the introduction of new leadership roles at Slaughter and May left several lawyers reeling. "The firm is getting more and more bureaucratic and business services heavy", said a senior solicitor. "We now have hundreds of business services people, and the firm has gone whole hog and hired a non-lawyer COO to manage them".
'They'll tease you with the carrot of partnership'
Freshfields came top for career development in the Magic Circle. Its "previous refusal to admit there's anything after senior associate" has been replaced with "actual discussions" on progression into partnership or counsel roles, said a solicitor. "Still a massive black box, but now there's a small light at the end of the tunnel".
As a junior at Linklaters, "your career development is very structured and clear", but after that, "figuring out if you have real partnership prospects or if you're being strung along (whilst the existing partners suck as much blood from you as possible) seems to require a mixture of clairvoyance, the political skills of Machiavelli, and as much luck as Tsutomu Yamaguchi", said a Links lawyer.
At Slaughter and May it was a case of "Up, up, up and... out. They'll milk you for as long as possible and tease you with the carrot of partnership until they quietly second you out at 7 PQE", said a lawyer at the firm.
The accelerated responsibility was an eye-opener for juniors. "The NQ learning curve isn’t just steep, it’s essentially vertical", said a Slaughters solicitor, "but in a very short space of time, sub-2PQE associates are operating at a level comparable to other firms’ senior associates".
'There's too much work and too few associates'
The work/life balance isn't keeping many Magic Circle lawyers at their firms, but "It is the deal with the devil I struck when I joined", said a Clifford Chance lawyer, which came top for work/life balance in the Magic Circle.
The pandemic hasn't helped, and work/life balance earned the lowest scores across the board within the Magic Circle. "Working from home has destroyed the concept of balance. Partners are very willing to put calls in diaries at 7am despite knowing you're churning through documents at 3am the previous night, because there's 'no commute'", said a CC lawyer. "Billed 300+ hours in October and have been told 'that’s why we’re paid so much'," said a senior solicitor.
At Freshfields, there were concerns that policies on offer were not really on offer. "Request for flex working met with hostility", said a senior solicitor. "Attitude at top seemed to be - 'flex working was not there for us so why should it be for those coming after us? Toughen up'".
"The workload is frankly crushing - partly to due with how busy we got during the pandemic, but also partly because we haven't been able to recruit laterals in the same way to replace the usual attrition", said a junior solicitor. "There's too much work and too few associates", agreed another. "My team averages over 2,200 hours a year", said a colleague.
At Linklaters, "It's pretty hardcore, and my friends in more chilled firms/in house laugh at me... but there are worse places to be. At least people say sorry and thank you when they've shafted you", said a junior solicitor.
An explosion of work and a lack of bodies drove down the score at Slaughter and May as well. "There’s not enough lawyers after a mass exodus and too much work to go around with skeleton teams", said a junior associate. Some Slaughters lawyers felt less squeezed. "The lack of hours targets or face-time culture mean that my time is generally my own", said a senior lawyer. "True", conceded a colleague, "But the workload they pile on associates is more than anyone could keep up with".