You're not magic if you're mediocre
"Our strategy remains to be the market-leading City law firm," says Slaughter and May executive partner Richard Clark. "Everything we do is aimed at providing the best possible legal services and products to our clients. It all revolves around excellence, and it gives us great pride to go that extra mile for the benefit of our clients and thereby maintain our leading position in the marketplace."
This magic circle member seems loath to be run-of-the-mill or ordinary, operating with a stance that suggests it lives by the 'second place is first loser' mantra. This is a firm that's rightly considered one of the most prestigious in the world and picks up so many awards and recognitions we'd probably exceed our word count if we were to list them all. As an apéritif, though, here are some highlights: it has more London Stock Market, FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 clients than any other UK firm, and it picks up a multitude of rankings in Chambers UK, including top billings for its famed corporate and finance divisions.
Considering our opening panegyric, it probably comes as no great surprise that Slaughters is a place that doesn't suffer mediocrity. "The firm is governed by the template of having people who can do the very best work and have a natural obsession with getting things right," a trainee told us. "You have to be almost anally retentive in that regard. Not only will they look for very high standards in all your academic work, but they'll look for that perfectionist streak too." Another commented: "You can't aim to be sufficient here; you have to aim for the top."
May the force
Slaughter and May's training contract is geared toward the firm's traditional expertise in corporate and finance – a minimum of two rotations must be spent in these departments, and "it's reasonably common that people do a second corporate seat. While the firm likes its specialist areas, the bulk of the work is still corporate." Other seats on offer include dispute resolution, real estate, competition and financial regulation, alongside three-month vacancies in tax, IP, IT, pensions and employment. Trainees' seat rotations are mapped out in advance based on preference forms given in before they start. To help them make an informed decision, a "seat selection fair" is held while they're still undertaking the LPC. "You go into the firm, and the various groups give presentations about the work they undertake and what a trainee can expect," a source explained. "Then there's a freshers' fair type event where each group has a stand, and you can go and ask questions." There's no need to fret should you have a change of heart either, as "there is a bit of flexibility. The original preferences are quite provisional, and they're receptive to people altering them." The firm takes a "multi-specialist approach" to training its new recruits, meaning that although there are four corporate and three finance groups, "in terms of the work they're not that specific; wherever you end up you will do a whole range of things. If someone has requested to join a particular group, it's probably because it's a nice place to go."
Slaughters' corporate team advises 29 members of the FTSE 100, including the likes of Diageo, GlaxoSmithKline and savings and investment group Old Mutual. "As a trainee it's nice to work for companies and brands you know," an interviewee reflected. "When you work on something that makes the front page of the legal press, it's really cool." You can therefore expect to see a great number of high-value, multi-jurisdictional cases pop their head through the door. The firm recently advised PTTEP – Thailand's national petroleum exploration and production company – on its £1.2bn takeover of Cove Energy, Diageo on its £2.4bn acquisition of 53.4% of India's United Spirits, and Aegis on the £3.1bn takeover bid it received from Dentsu. Because of the peaks and troughs associated with corporate work, sources agreed "trainees can have very different experiences" in the department. "There's an element of mundane tasks but also a good amount of interesting work and client contact," was one of the young guns' catch-all assessment of the seat, and another source concurred: "I spent time doing due diligence and data room management and generally helping my partner in an admin-focused role, but I was also given the opportunity to do first drafts on warrants." Another remarked: "I would do normal trainee tasks such as liaising with data room providers, but I also got a good amount of drafting experience on some standard takeovers. On one case I was the client's first point of contact from the start right through to signing and completion." One trainee added: "There is a lot of scope for trainees to take the lead and take on a lot of responsibility; it's sometimes just hard to know when it's expected or appropriate."
At Slaughter and May it's common to see "quite a lot of cross-pollination in the work the firm does," helped in part by the multi-specialist approach that keeps different departments interacting. This is especially true of the corporate and finance teams, which both look after the likes of PTTEP and private equity firm Terra Firma. The finance group recently advised the latter on its acquisition of Four Seasons Health Care for £825m and also advised Global Infrastructure Partners on its financing arrangements for the acquisition of BAA's 100% interest in Edinburgh Airport Limited for £807m. "It was like the corporate department in terms of the work I did, though a bit more drafting-focused," concluded a source. "At a junior level the work doesn't differ that much; what you'll find in corporate and finance is very similar." General tasks include "being on the phone to credit rating agencies, checking loan documents and case transaction management," while there is also the opportunity for "a lot of client contact." Various sources had been involved in capital markets, equity financing, derivatives, bonds and loan agreements during their time here.
The dispute resolution (DR) team takes on international arbitrations – it recently advised SEB Trygg Liv on a £40m Stockholm Chamber of Commerce arbitration arising from the purchase of a life assurance company and the mis-selling of pensions – while also working closer to home for the likes of British Airways, Standard Chartered and the Telegraph Media group. The firm represented the latter throughout the recent Leveson Inquiry. Trainee experiences here run the gamut. One source told us: "I didn't actually do that much doc review or any other common trainee tasks, although there were a few bundles. I got to go to witness interviews and quite a few court hearings, which were all interesting and exciting." Another felt much further down the pecking order: "I was involved in typical trainee tasks like note-taking, conference calls and a lot of admin, like bundling and photocopying. There was some drafting but not very much, and I found it all a bit gruelling. I think DR works a bit differently in the sense you need a bit more experience before you can jump in."
In search of perfection
Perhaps unusually for a firm of Slaughters' size and renown, it has refrained from planting a flag in every nook and cranny the globe offers. Although it's launched offices in Brussels, Beijing and Hong Kong, the firm primarily works in conjunction with independent law firms around the world, collectively known as its 'best friends' network. "We don't have a policy of opening our own offices in various cities and countries," says executive partner Richard Clark. "We prefer to work with leading like-minded firms in other jurisdictions, as it allows us to keep brand consistency and maintain our focus on excellence." Trainees have the opportunity to join up with one of these 'friends' or spend time at one of the firm's overseas posts during their second year. We hear Brussels is especially popular. Client secondments are also available, but only on an ad hoc basis.
"We're the only magic circle firm that doesn't impose any formal billable hours targets," Clark told us, "and that is to help our culture. People work just as hard here and deliver a great product, but there isn't that constant targeted pressure, as it isn't conducive to the idea of excellence and team spirit that is at the centre of our ethos." Trainees are appreciative of the flexibility this affords. "As there are no billable hours, people are working to do the best job for the client and to get things done," explained a second-year. "Nobody's hoarding the hours or looking over their shoulder to see what other people are doing. We're treated as responsible enough to judge how many hours we need to do to get the job done." Although the hours may afford a little flexibility, Slaughter and May will not compromise on the final product. "The idea of excellence in everything the firm does is extremely visible, and standards are incredibly high," commented an interviewee. "It's an academic atmosphere and a perfectionist atmosphere. Honestly, there's so much focus on detail it sometimes comes across as a bit overcautious."
Invariably the desire for perfection is responsible for the "focused and driven" approach that infiltrates life at the firm. This especially resonates from the partnership and means some trainees feel disconnected from their most senior colleagues. "There's a fairly institutionalised hierarchy here," remarked one source. "There appears to be this fence where we're just referred to as trainees rather than individuals." Another commented: "There is a hierarchy, and certainly the partners are at the top of that. There is a difference in how people speak to them, but even within the partnership there are variants on the rule. Some get on very well with all the trainees and associates, and then there are some who are more reserved and take a bit of a step back." You probably won't go far wrong if you listen to this trainee's analysis: "Partners are approachable in a work context – I could talk to anyone about a deal; I just wouldn't expect to see them in the pub with me on a Friday night."
Despite the embedded elements of formality, interviewees were keen to stress this doesn't amount to the hot-house horror stories you may hear at other firms. "I haven't experienced working with someone who doesn't treat me with due respect," reflected one source. "You don't get a lot of dogsbody work, but even then they're generally apologetic about it. Trainees are seen as part of the team and people who will qualify here." Another said: "I think people – even the most senior partners – treat each other with a lot of respect. If they want me to work late, they'll ask if I have any plans first." Richard Clark offers a similar viewpoint on the firm's culture: "We are not of a size where we need to be run like a large corporation, and that brings with it a huge element of collegiality and professional interaction." One trainee concluded: "People will go out of their way to help each other. I was given a research task, and an associate I had no connection with offered me advice just because he was interested in the area."
Sources emphasised repeatedly that "academic excellence is the obvious criteria" when Slaughters considers potential new recruits. "This means the stereotype that sometimes gets raised against us is that we're a bit too Oxbridge and public school,” explained one trainee. We perceived a sense of inevitability that a large portion of our interviewees will naturally hail from these elite universities, but Richard Clark assured us there is no prejudice in the selection process. "We're fishing for the top talent, so obviously strong academic records are important," he concludes. "But there's no bias towards one institution, and we make a lot of effort to go beyond Oxbridge and attend a range of universities. A lot of applicants do come from Oxbridge, but we have a strong policy of trying to take as broad a group as possible, as we don't want a firm of clones; diversity is really important to us. Just because someone has a strong first doesn't mean they're automatically a great fit for us. We are looking at many different facets." A non-Oxbridge graduate commented: "If you're the person who wants to do what you're doing to the best of your ability, then you'll be fine here. I've certainly never been looked down on for not going to Oxbridge."
Overall our interviewees had very few grumbles about their experience at the firm. One small bone of contention was the lack of transparency over the firm's affairs. "I think it would be nice to get more frequent updates on how the firm is doing," remarked one interviewee. "You don't really get that overall sense of Slaughter and May as a business." Another source concurred: "Often you only find out about something the firm is doing because it's in Legal Week. It would be nice to hear about new strategies, et cetera, before they are announced in the legal press." Similar gripes were raised by some trainees in relation to the qualification process – "it's quite opaque and does seem slightly nudge nudge, wink wink" – but with the firm renowned for its strong retention rates, actual worries over securing a permanent position were minimal. This is no doubt aided by the fact that Slaughter and May has never actually made a lateral hire. As Richard Clark explains: "It's not a philosophical issue, and we never say never, but we haven't yet had a need to go down the lateral partner road." Another successful year in 2013 saw 81 out of 94 qualifiers retained.
While the social life might not be the envy of every other trainee across the UK, there is still plenty to get your teeth stuck into. The black-tie Christmas ball at the Grosvenor Hotel is the standout event each year, while a summer party, complete with a barbecue and live band, is another trainee favourite. There are a variety of sports teams, and the trainee solicitors committee organises events like bowling or casual drinks and canapés.
"Don't believe everything you read about the firm, as it often gets interesting comments from people who have no experience of working here. Speak to people with inside knowledge – they're very receptive to that. They'll even put you in touch with a trainee if you want."
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