Macfarlanes LLP - True Picture

A “quiet confidence” goes a long way at silver circler Macfarlanes, which offers an intriguing mix of high-end corporate deals and crème de la crème private client work.

Nothing fishy

Don't get too close to Macfarlanes' entrance unless you're absolutely certain you wish to go in: those revolving doors are automatic, after all. Before you know it, you're sucked in and whisked into a cool, charcoal grey reception area that seems to extend for miles. Chocolatey leather sofas and National Geographic photo books offer some Zen-time to waiting clients. These could include giant companies or uber-wealthy international individuals, as this 140-year-old firm excels at both corporate and private client work –Chambers UK places both practices in London's top brackets. Macfarlanes also racks up high rankings in areas such as private equity; investment funds; employee share schemes and incentives; and construction.

You may have noticed that, unlike its globe-trotting peers, Macfarlanes doesn't have any overseas offices. Don't be fooled though: much of its work is international, spanning multi-jurisdictional M&A deals to complex tax work for foreign clients relocating to the UK. Its solo office does mean, however, that trainees don't get to pack their suitcases for an overseas secondment. Client secondments used to be available, but are now off the table. Still, our interviewees approached the change with a 'glass half-full' mentality: “Two years isn't that long anyway, and it's better to spend that time getting to know the firm. You can always do one later.”

"It's like turning the lights on.”

Change is afoot elsewhere too. Macfarlanes recently conducted a survey to find out what trainees really thought about every aspect of its training contract. So far both the review system and mentor/training structure have been re-jigged as a result of this feedback. (Note to the catering committee: investigate the sandwiches. This year's respondents back-tracked on 2015's praise and revealed that “occasionally they slip something in like salt cod and you don't realise until you've bitten into it.”) The trainee recruitment process has been refined as well: Macfarlanes had already implemented a CV-blind recruitment policy, but graduate recruitment partner Seán Lavin tells us that it's started using 'contextual recruiting' too: “It’s an amazing tool that allows us to recruit more intelligently. It helps us to see a wider range of candidates and promotes social mobility in the process. When we review CVs with the benefit of this tool, it is like the lights have been turned on.”

LPsee you next year

The firm's smallish size was a biggie for trainees when it came to settling on Macfarlanes over others. “I liked the fact that it wasn't huge but had all the practice areas I wanted to try,” one recalled, while another added: “I did vac schemes at magic circle firms and just felt like a number.” Others cited “the firm's ability to draw big-name clients, its reputation and the opportunity to do a seat in private client.” In addition, interviewees relished studying the LPC with the rest of their intake: “You turn up on the first day and have at least 20 to 25 friends,” one particularly sociable trainee told us.

A seat in M&A is compulsory, as is one with a corporate specialist team such as commercial or banking and finance. Some departments, like employment and derivatives, only take a couple of trainees at a time, making them competitive destinations. If at first you don't succeed, you know the drill: “They prioritise fourth-seaters, so if you always put one of those seats as your first choice, you're most likely to get it as a last seat.” Generally trainees were pleased with the system, with most getting either their first or second choice every time. However, when things didn't go as desired, trainees weren't always sure why. “It can be hard to see what's going on behind the scenes, but on balance the results are pretty fair and people seem to get what they want.”

“The M&A team – the hub of Macfarlanes – covers a broad range of work,” one trainee commented. “You can do both public and private deals, and they're good at listening if you express an interest in a particular area.” The department's VIP client list includes Goldman Sachs, RBS, Heineken and asset manager Schroders. Both mid-market and high-end deals crop up here, and some run into the billions: the team recently advised financial services outfit Visa on its €21.2 billion acquisition of Visa Europe, creating a single global payments business. They also advised Altria – the largest shareholder in mega-brewer SABMiller – as it considered rival brewer's AB InBev's £71 billion takeover offer.

“Relating to a billionaire can be tricky!”

Overall, trainees were satisfied with the range of matters: “I worked on a big private equity deal, an AIM-related matter and some smaller shareholder reorganisations. It allowed me to grasp what people across other departments do too.” For trainees, there's some project management involved and “because it's a bigger department, you get a bit less responsibility compared to other groups.” Others were much more enthusiastic: “Yes, your work is checked, but you're still a crucial member of the team. You're emailing clients, working out completion mechanics and putting document lists together. Plus, two months in I was negotiating confidentiality agreements with lawyers at other firms who were a few years qualified.”

Private client was desperately sought after by some, while others opted to focus on Macfarlanes' more corporate offering. Those who did seek and win a stint on this long-standing team gave it somewhat mixed reviews. One slightly disillusioned trainee told us: “The nature of the work has given it an internal reputation for being a bit hierarchical: the clients are very wealthy and they often want advice from partners, not trainees. You can't send anything off without it being checked many times. That said, partners do make an effort to take you to client meetings.” Another explained: “A lot of the work is for wealthy foreign individuals who perhaps want to gain resident status here. I wanted to do this seat because I thought it'd give me a chance to relate to individuals, but relating to a billionaire can be tricky!”

Others, meanwhile, praised “the variety on offer – it's incredible. You get both UK-based work and international matters that involve tax analysis. Trainees are encouraged to try what they're most interested in.” Sources had been able to assist with will drafting, but mostly delved into the complexities of tax on many a research assignment. What's more, this trainee didn't detect a whiff of hierarchy: “It's a friendly team; people take tea breaks together and pop into each other's offices.” Many of the department's clients are confidential, but you might just recognise these publishable names: Barclays Wealth and Lloyds Private Banking.

“I was keen to try it and I wasn't disappointed.”

Only the lucky few could report back on employment: “It's a real mixed bag – having done purely transactional seats it was interesting to mix that with some contentious and advisory work too.” The group mainly focuses on financial services clients like Visa and is especially known for its employer-side work on boardroom and partnership issues. “The responsibility levels are brilliant,” sources raved, listing their drafting accomplishments on due diligence reports, indemnities and warranties. “There was also some day-to-day HR advisory work, so I got to draft handbooks and template contracts for clients.”

Litigation was another trainee fave. “I was keen to try it and I wasn't disappointed,” one explained. “You can work on a mix of commercial, construction and trusts and probate cases. There's a great atmosphere too – everyone gets on well and we see each other outside of work.” An eclectic list of clients includes DIY enabler B&Q, asset manager Liontrust and mining outfit ARMS. The team advised the latter during an arbitration tribunal in Singapore, which resulted in a former director being forced to pay back £110 million to the London-headquartered company. Another cross-border matter saw lawyers act for Thai Airways during a $181 million breach of contract dispute with a Japanese aircraft seat manufacturer. Alongside some inevitable “admin work,” trainees were able to interact with counsel: “I prepared instructions for them that were reasonably influential when it came to guiding their advice. I also attended a contentious hearing but not a full trial.”

Baby, it's gold outside

“Winter in the transactional seats is the worst,” a tired trainee told, “it's just the nature of that work combined with a lack of sunlight...” Hours in these seats can be pretty long for Macfarlanes' trainees. In banking and finance, “the average is 8.15am to 8.45pm,” but M&A can be particularly gruelling at times: “I went through frequent late finishes for a month. However, I was never alone and there was always plenty of recognition. There's no face time either, so during quieter times like after Christmas or in the summer you can leave at 5.30pm quite often. Partners come in and say, 'Go! Make the most of it!'” Other seats like employment, tax and private client were much more consistent – though still busy – with regular 7pm finishes.

Those later evenings in the office were made more bearable by the fact that “the firm's good at making you feel at home from an early stage.” A cynic might say this is simply a ruse to create a sense of attachment between trainees and their desks, but our sources' praise-laden words refuted this: “All future trainees are invited to the firm once a month to attend departmental talks and to socialise. You're warmed up for twelve months and get to know a lot of people – not just your intake. It makes you feel more comfortable when you officially start.”

“We took over a Cuban restaurant."

Once they'd settled in, interviewees enjoyed “an incredibly friendly environment where trainees are encouraged to interact.” A fairly new 'Culture Club' facilitates this social buzz: it offers film nights and book clubs, as well as talks from artists, historians and even nutritionists. Trainees can also sign up for pilates classes and join sports teams: “It's all aimed at making the firm more inclusive.” Oh, and those with angelic voices also have an avenue to express their talent, as “the choir is quite strong.” These efforts appear to have paid off, as insiders revealed that “the trainees hang out all the time – we go for drinks on Fridays and see each other at the weekend.” At Christmas, they also get together for their very own party: “We took over a Cuban restaurant in Camden last year.”

Macfarlanes celebrated its 140th birthday in 2015, and it decided to keep the occasion low-key by hiring out the Tower of London. Trainees had a whale of a time: “There was a treasure hunt around the tower and we got to see the Crown Jewels!” The subsequent firm-wide Christmas party at One Mayfair also elicited rave reviews. “The good thing is that everyone goes: partners, support staff, reception staff, trainees. You see people in a different way and realise they're just people. It makes a difference when you go back to work.”

Trainees agreed that “if the firm had or has a reputation for being stuffy then it should lose it. It's not all white-haired partners and Oxbridge grads in suits. There's nothing to be scared of here, though that's not to say that it isn't very professional. Attention to detail is crucial and errors are picked up on quickly.” Fear not though, because if someone notices you've made a mistake, you can always find an excuse to leg it across the road: “We're based around Chancery Lane across five buildings that are very close to each other. Some of them are a bit grotty, while others are modern and airy. There's a great cafeteria called Café 5 that we all congregate in for lunch.” However, everyone will soon be under the same roof, as works are currently underway to construct a central building that will connect with the others. Sources were excited about the plans, due for completion in summer 2017.

Most interviewees wanted to stick around after qualifying. We're told that taking a proactive approach works a charm: “Trainees often express their interests to partners quite clearly – that's not frowned upon.” The formal process kicks off in May, when candidates are invited to interview for NQ positions. “In some departments it'll be a quick 'hi, hello, see you in September', while others could give you a case study. It depends on the department and how popular it is.” This year's crop of qualifiers were especially pleased that the NQ salary had been raised to £70,000, “reducing that temptation to go to American firms that pay huge amounts!” In 2016, 26 of 27 qualifiers were retained.

Macfarlanes revenue jumped from £99 million in 2009 to £159.7 million in 2015. The secret? “There's no magic formula," says graduate recruitment partner Seán Lavin. “If every part of the firm is humming along at the right pace, you get very good results.”

How to get a Macfarlanes training contract


Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017

First-year insight day deadline: 28 February 2017

Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017

Vacation scheme 

Macfarlanes attends “as many law fairs as possible,” but also hosts in-house presentations and networking events. In addition, the firm organises skills sessions and workshops around the country, so we recommend keeping a close eye on the firm's website to find out when a Macfarlanes representative may be stopping by. “We want students to have the opportunity to meet everyone from the senior partner to future trainees studying Macfarlanes’ tailored LPC,” says interim graduate recruitment manager Karen Sherriff.

Around 40% of trainees in a given year will have completed a vac scheme with the firm. There are three of these – one at Easter and two over the summer – and each lasts two weeks. There are 55 places in total – 15 at Easter and 20 on each of the summer schemes – and the pay is £330 per week.

Typical vac scheme tasks include research, drafting and sitting in on meetings with clients or counsel. “We want students to feel what it's like to be a trainee,” says graduate recruitment. Students sit in two different practice areas, but also complete a mock transaction alongside other training sessions. Recent social highlights include a bowling and pizza evening and a lunch with the partners.

Vac scheme hopefuls can apply online. The firm typically receives around 1,000 applications each year. Macfarlanes looks for a predicted 2:1 degree result or above, and doesn’t have a minimum A level requirement. The firm advises applicants to “make sure you can talk about us and what we do – in order to stand out you need to show a detailed and specific interest in Macfarlanes.”

Vac schemers have the chance to apply for a training contract during their placement. Those who opt to do this attend a partner interview and undertake ‘CV blind’ assessments, which include a written exercise and an in-tray exercise.


Macfarlanes receives another 800 applications from candidates gunning directly for its training contract. The application form is the same one that's used for the vac scheme.

Around 15% of direct training contract applicants are invited in for an assessment day, which lasts from 8.30am until 2pm. The day involves a partner interview, plus three ‘CV blind’ assessments. “It's intensive, and we want your all,” says graduate recruitment. The interview takes place with a partner and centres on a CV-based discussion. One of the assessments requires applicants to talk through three different case studies (which have been designed to test their commercial awareness) with a partner who hasn't seen their CV.

The day also includes a written exercise and a group task. The former often takes the form of drafting a letter. “Just like their application form, we're looking at how a candidate analyses and communicates their findings, and how they're able to tailor their voice and style to the needs of the imagined audience. It's a great way to test their spelling and grammar too,” says Karen Sherriff. Candidates have a chance to speak with partners, trainees and graduate recruitment over lunch.

It's worth noting that Macfarlanes doesn't wait until the application deadline has passed to review applications, so we suggest getting your applications in as early as possible.

The silver circle explained

Read our feature on the silver circle

More on private client work

Macfarlanes' substantial private client team figured in many of our sources' decisions to apply to the firm. One confided: “I was interested in both corporate and private client work and couldn't decide between them, so a firm that offered both to a large extent was very appealing.” Having made its name in the private client arena, Macfarlanes is far from alone among prestigious City firms. Before the rise of London's fiendishly complex financial markets and huge corporations, work from wealthy individuals kept City firms thriving. These days, however, most of Macfarlanes' City slicker rivals opt to chase that more lucrative corporate and finance work.

By contrast, Macfarlanes' leading private client team is still central to the firm's strategy. It works closely with the corporate team for clients whose needs straddle both practice areas, such as entrepreneurs, owner-managed businesses and family offices.

Family office-wise, the team's been busy advising a number of Middle Eastern families on consolidated investment holding arrangements, worth $4 billion in total. This work also required lawyers to dish out corporate governance advice on the structures needed to manage these assets. Elsewhere, lawyers represented a Russian billionaire. This individual was keen to protect his businesses from potential nationalisation by the Russian government. The firm hit the books and developed a cutting-edge solution that guaranteed him market-rate compensation if the government chose to go ahead with its plans. On the tax front, one client required advice on the tax implications of moving $100 million worth of art in and out of the EU. During another matter, lawyers had to demonstrate to the Italian tax authorities that a multi-million pound tax structure was not a 'sham.'

The international scope of the work requires the team to remain aware of the intricacies of local law: the different rules affecting government behaviour in Russia and the precise definition of a 'sham' under Italian law would've been scrutinised closely in the examples above. It's a far cry from the stereotypical image of private client lawyers passing round biscuits to lords and ladies, taking down wills and drafting pre-nups. As one trainee put it, “we have clients from all over the world, including non-domiciles and international clients, so we have to be aware of various tax regimes where they were born or raised.”

Due to the complexity of matters, our sources found that “as a trainee, you're not given as much responsibility, but you are able to complete the first draft of a will for a client.” But even on this bread n' butter work rookie lawyers still have to watch their step. One trainee explained why: “We've had some of our clients for decades. They all have their individual quirks which keeps it interesting, but you have to be careful with your tone and adapt to all their different ways.” Our sources also underscored the team's traditional ethos. “You're wearing ties during all office hours, and you have to be more aware of your presentation.”

Yet the team's working culture means you'll have plenty of time to keep those shirts crisp and ironed: “The team has a reputation for not doing too many hours. You're not really going to do an all-nighter, as the nature of the work doesn't produce pressing deadlines.”

Click here for more about private client law

Macfarlanes LLP

20 Cursitor Street,

  • Partners 87
  • Solicitors 226
  • Total trainees 57
  • Contact Catherine Morgan-Guest
  • Method of application Online via website
  • Selection procedure Assessment day
  • Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
  • Training contracts pa Up to 30
  • Applications pa 1,000
  • % interviewed pa 15%
  • Required degree grade 2:1
  • Training salary  
  • First year: £42,000
  • Second year: £46,000
  • Holiday entitlement 25 days, rising to 26 on qualification
  • Post-qualification salary (2016) £71,000
  • % of trainees offered job on qualification (2016) 96%
  • % of partners who joined as trainees (as at 15 June 2016) 53%

Firm profile

Macfarlanes is a leading City law firm with a straightforward, independently-minded approach. The driving force behind the firm is an absolute commitment to delivering the right advice in the right way to our clients. The size of our firm is important. We’ve kept things simple. We’ve decided against growth at the expense of quality, against size at the expense of efficiency and agility. So whilst we’re large enough to advise on the most complex matters, we’re also small enough to ensure that our people and our work are exceptional, without fail. Finally, rather than opening offices around the world, we take a “client first” approach to international work. Our clients get the best advice from the right lawyer – wherever in the world they need it. Our combination of culture and expertise makes us a formidable force in the legal market. Sustaining our position depends on recruiting and training successive generations of truly exceptional lawyers.

Main areas of work

Banking and finance; commercial; competition; corporate and M&A; corporate and regulatory investigations; data privacy; derivatives and trading; employment; financial services regulation; hedge funds; investment management; IP and IT; litigation and dispute resolution; pensions; private client; private equity; projects; real estate; restructuring and insolvency; and tax.

Trainee profile

Macfarlanes believes the strongest firm is achieved by choosing a mix of people – reflecting different styles so as to meet the needs that it – and its varied range of clients – will have in the future. The firm looks for a rare combination of intellectual curiosity, character and drive. It is looking for ambitious trainees who will thrive on responsibility and challenge and who are ready to begin their careers on day one.

Training environment

Woven into every aspect of life at the firm is an enduring commitment to the development of trainees. Training begins with tailored electives on the LPC and a week-long induction course at the start of your training contract. During the two-year training contract you’ll be working on real cases, doing real work for real clients from day one. As a trainee you will complete four six-month seats in different areas of practice; typically it is one seat in corporate and M&A, two seats in either private client, litigation, commercial real estate or tax, and then a seat in one of the firm’s specialised practice areas within corporate. The precise allocation of seats is flexible so that it can offer you as broad a legal training as possible. Support and guidance are, of course, vital and you will find your supervisor a valuable source of information and inspiration.


Flexible benefits package including life assurance, pension scheme with company contributions, private healthcare and discretionary performance related bonus scheme.

Vacation placements

Vacation scheme places for 2017: 55

Duration: two weeks

Remuneration:£330 pw

Closing date: 31 January 2017

An insight day is available for first year undergraduate students providing an overview of a City law firm.

Closing date: 28 February 2017

Sponsorship and awards

CPE/GDL and LPC fees paid in full and a £7,000 maintenance allowance.