The odd one out among the magic circle separates the wheat from the chaff with a multi-specialist, top-ticket training contract.
Telling the magic circle firms apart – that exclusive fivesome of law firm nobility – is something of an art. So let's get some help from Slaughter and May's trainees: “I don't think there's a better firm in Britain when it comes to corporate work,” they ventured. And to learn that no law firm serves more FTSE clients than Slaughters, we felt they might just have a point. The Chambers UK rankings go further, with top scores in banking and finance, competition, corporate/M&A, financial crime, tax and non-contentious insurance. Massive matters for institutional clients like Rolls-Royce, Royal Dutch Shell and GlaxoSmithKline are par for the course. Looking beyond the bright lights and big names, many interviewees pegged Slaughters' multi-specialist approach (trainees can tackle anything within the broad departments they sit in) as a big reason to hop on board.
The firm comfortably nets the highest profits-per-partner in the City – estimated at over £2 million – and this is achieved without presiding over the sprawling global empires that its competitors boast of. Instead, coalitions with 'best friend' firms at the pinnacle of their respective jurisdictions abroad help Slaughters attract 40% of its work from overseas clients (the firms are also its rivals in a global football tournament). “We do sometimes have to explain why this model isn't a downside,” said trainees, “but the firm knows what it's good at and the best-friend network is becoming more integrated,” both on and off the pitch.
Strong and stable Slaughter and May has a conservative reputation, but it would be unfair to say the firm isn't evolving. The legal press got all aflutter when pensions law specialist Daniel Schaffer became the London office's first ever lateral hire in 2017. Meanwhile, following “a fair bit of dissatisfaction” over what many saw as an inadequate NQ salary, everyone in the firm was consulted on how Slaughters could reform. A subsequent compensation overhaul bumped new-starters to £78,000 and brought in benefits including 30 days' holiday and the option to work one day a week from home. There remains “some worry that we're out of touch with US giants,” but sources reflected “the extra benefits are great and we probably work better hours than juniors at those firms. Slaughters is confident it can retain people regardless of pay differences, which is probably true.”
80 or so trainees join the London office every year. Interviewees shrugged off the firm's public school/Oxbridge reputation, declaring themselves an “incredibly varied bunch” wherein “the common factor is everyone works hard while doing something interesting outside work,” be that speak three languages or win tennis championships. New arrivals attend a “freshers fair-style” exhibition of departments prior to joining “to get a good sense of where you want to go” before chatting to HR, who assign starting seats. After another meeting a few months in, they map out the rest of the training contract. “One of the pros of having the multi-specialist approach with fewer seats is it's easier to go where you want,” insiders reported. Corporate and finance are compulsory, as is at least a three-month stint in dispute resolution, competition or IP; more specialist seats are harder to get.
Giving an ARM and a leg
Corporate trainees are assigned to one of four groups, though the firm's multi-specialist approach means they aren't defined by practice area or sector and “there's a lot of cross-group working” anyway. It “may be intimidating,” but corporate represents “a nice place to start as it's relatively easy to get stuck in, there's always lots to help out with” be that private M&A, public takeovers, regulatory or advisory work for household names including Royal Dutch Shell and Vodafone. The team recently assisted Cable & Wireless Communications on its £3.6 billion takeover by telecommunications giant Liberty Global, and worked for tech firm ARM during the acquisition of £24.3 billion of its share capital by Japanese multinational SoftBank. Sampling as much of the menu as possible, trainees tucked into contract review, due diligence, AGM notices and ad hoc research tasks. “It was the seat I learned most in,” one suggested, “my supervisor pushed me a lot.” Lambs to the slaughter may be a pun too far, but busy is the norm in corporate and days often run longer than elsewhere, while the level of client contact on offer for trainees is deal-dependent. However, the majority got “fantastic exposure to quality clients” and juicy high-responsibility challenges from the off.
“My supervisor pushed me a lot.”
Three similarly non-specific groups make up the finance department: project finance, securitisation, debt capital markets and insolvency are all here. UK Asset Resolution called on the firm during its sale of a £13 billion portfolio of residential mortgages and unsecured loans, as did Ladbrokes when it entered a three-tranche £1.35 billion facilities agreement. “It would be overwhelming if they asked you to do full contract reviews from the start,” so trainees “researched discrete points, co-ordinated processes and did any proofreading. Sometimes things get difficult as it's a very jargon-heavy area and there's a lot of fairly dense regulation,” so newbies receive “an awful lot of training.” When working for mega clients like Whitbread and Bank of America (Slaughters mostly handles borrower-side finance, where it's market-leading), “everything's very fast-moving, you're never stuck doing the same thing for six months.” The scale of the practice means “trainees often handle smaller tasks on bigger matters,” but few took exception to being cogs in the wheel. “It's always exciting to see what you're working on appear in the Financial Times,” after all.
Dispute resolution encompasses arbitration, investigations and traditional litigation, often in the banking sphere. “Things tend to be a lot more slow-burn,” sources said, “you can end up on long document reviews or sorting out trial bundles but the nice thing about Slaughters is they make sure you get a decent mix.” The firm had a lead role advising Rolls-Royce during the Serious Fraud Office and US Department of Justice's criminal investigations into allegations of bribery and corruption; on the litigation side, it recently acted for a Santander subsidiary in the first case tried in the newly-founded Financial List court, to the tune of €1.3 billion. Trainees saw “a lot of the tedious admin side” of certain matters but “really enjoyed dispute resolution” overall, “there's more variety in the diet here than once upon a time.”
Flex your Brussels
Some were nervous that intellectual property and information technology “would turn out to be corporate work with an IP/IT veil,” so were pleasantly surprised to “advise on trademarks, registrations and patent disputes.” The IT team largely works for technology companies who've developed new apps and products, and helped Ericsson put together a 12 jurisdiction-spanning contract for a $1 billion digital stack solution. “I've done summaries of positions for patent litigation clients, liaised with document providers and ran mini document reviews,” said an IP trainee of their experience. Work there is similarly international, like advising Marks & Spencer on enforcing new intellectual property agreements in Russia, the Middle and Far East. The content is “definitely more complicated than in other departments,” though things are “a bit more relaxed than in corporate or finance” thanks to longer-term deadlines.
In competition, a state-aid focus runs alongside involvement in antitrust, mergers and investigations. Trainees immersed in the latter slotted into “very high-level projects that can last beyond the full six months of a seat;” inone such case, the firm represented Google during investigations by the European Commission into whether the site favoured its own shopping tool in broader searches. A relative lack of client contact and greater number of admin tasks left some “slightly frustrated in terms of responsibility levels, but that's not necessarily reflective of the group as a whole.” On the merger side, rookies took on “all the preparatory work, dealing with information coming in from the client. There's not that much direct exposure but you get a fair amount of responsibility.” The London team works closely with Slaughters' Brussels office, where trainees have the option (if there's space – only four get to go at a time) to spend half their seat.
“There's a much better range than previously.”
Secondments also take the form of “fairly ad-hoc” three or six month arrangements with clients in the UK, as well as trips to one of Slaughters' overseas 'best friends', another relationship firm or the Hong Kong office. Wannabe secondees apply before regular seat rotations, and must have already done a transactional and contentious seat (or have one lined up) before going. “Spots are very competitive, they're allocated by merit and used as rewards” according to trainees. Some felt “we should be made more aware we're not guaranteed to get one,” though others countered “there's a much better range than previously” – recent examples include Stockholm, Tokyo and Toronto. The lucky jetsetters we spoke to got “a lot more responsibility” while abroad; “a lot of jurisdictions don't have the concept of trainees so from day one you're acting as an associate on smaller deals and running your own matters. It's a really good stepping stone to being a proper junior.”
Nerd is the word
The firm doesn't set hours targets “so there's no competition between trainees” says training partner Cathy Connolly. “Nobody's trying to impress partners for a bigger pay packet.” It's probably for the best as interviewees told us hours “sometimes get very Jekyll and Hyde,” and corporate in particular can be “very varied – I left at 5.30pm every night for a month, then had a run of midnight finishes.” We heard a couple of three-hours-sleep horror stories, and some had “worked one or two weekends, but otherwise it's fairly humane,” agreed most.
Trainees acknowledged “Slaughters has lost a lot of its old-boys reputation” and felt “studious is a fairer description” of the culture. “It's definitely a firm of personalities and people here are often quite nerdy. This definitely isn't just a corporate sausage factory.” While “there are still a lot of posh male partners, with every new class more fresh ideas are introduced into the firm,” including moves towards artificial intelligence and broadening diversity initiatives. What hasn't changed is the thoroughness of Slaughters' tip-top formal training programme, “something the firm does best.” After a two-week induction covering the basics, trainees get stuck into the legal nitty-gritty through weekly sessions.“The majority are very good, we can suggest what we want training in and the programmes tend to be quite helpful.” Supervisors co-ordinate trainees' mid and end of seat appraisals, available even during three-month seats.
As befits its modest global footprint, the firm's One Bunhill Row HQ is “fairly minimalist in terms of extra perks on-site” – there is a popular cafeteria, plus a subsidised Virgin Active gym down the road. Trainees share an office with their partner or senior associate supervisors, though “it's very rare to see a closed door, they get the privacy balance right,” and laptops have replaced fixed monitors to promote flexible working and socialising between departments. The latter is further encouraged by firm-wide drinks, summer parties (last year's Greek-themed bash involved “lots of plate smashing”) and a notorious annual party at the swanky Grosvenor Hotel. “It's nice that trainees feel part of the team” said one, “there's always someone to go down to the pub with after work on Friday.”
“It's all a bit wink-wink nudge-nudge, but the system's run well.”
During their final seat, trainees liaise with departments they're interested in qualifying into before meeting HR to rank them. “You draw a line on the list you've created, and any department above that you'd be happy to join” they explained.Departments then provide a list of who they'd be willing to take on, and it's up to HR to connect the dots – “it's all a bit wink-wink nudge-nudge, but the system's run well and it's pretty flexible. By and large everyone gets where they want to go.” Most years, Slaughters' retention rates are near the top of the market, and all the trainees we interviewed wanted to stay at the firm; 54 of 57qualifiers landed a place.
Slaughters' “really good pro bono initiatives” could do with more publicity, proposed trainees – these include volunteering at Islington Law Centre, dropping into local primary schools andadvising charities like Shelter and Cancer Research.
How to get a Slaughter and May training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2018): 4 January 2018 (opens 16 October 2017)
Training contract deadline (2020): 31 July 2018 (opens 16 October 2017)
Applications for both the training contract and work experience schemes at Slaughter and May begin with a straightforward online form, plus a CV and one-page covering letter. “I just wrote why I wanted to join the firm and why I wanted to be a lawyer,” one of the firm's trainees recalled. “Keep it short and sweet, though it does need to be formal of course.”
“We don’t have set criteria demanding you have three As at A level,” a source in recruitment says (the firm, rather vaguely, asks for 'good' A levels), “but we do look for a strong 2:1 degree.” Our trainee sources agreed that “the Oxbridge influence is undeniable, but no one looks down on someone who hasn't gone to a top-ten uni.”
Slaughter and May starts receiving applications for its work experience schemes in October, and it's worth getting in there early as the firm schedules interviews on a rolling basis. The scheme is aimed at penultimate-year law and non-law students.
Unusually, approximately half of the 250 summer work experience interviews usually take place on campus. The interview takes place with a partner and an associate, and includes a discussion about a topical article.
The firm runs a week-long scheme at Easter, two three-week schemes over June and July for law undergrads, plus another three-week scheme in September for non-law students. There are usually around 25 students on each of the schemes. All students sit in a single department for the duration of their visit, and take part in various workshops and case studies. One major highlight is a day trip to the Brussels office
Work experience students have the option of interviewing for a training contract during the last week of their placement. The firm informs us they aren't given special treatment over direct applicants, however, and are also required to do the written examination direct applicants do as part of their interview process (see below).
Training contract applications
The firm typically receives around 1,700 applications each year for its 80 training contracts. In 2016 around 450 students were invited to an interview day, which includes a written exercise, an interview with two partners, a tour of the office with a trainee and a short interview with HR.
According to the firm's trainees, succeeding at interview involves “showing you can think laterally. They don't want you to repeat verbatim what you learnt at law school; they want new solutions and fresh ideas.” Our grad recruitment sources tell us the firm is particularly interested in those who demonstrate “the ability to show grit under pressure” and have “a range of interests outside the law.”
Magic circle law firms
Interview with trainee recruitment partner Cathy Connolly
Chambers Student: What have been the highlights of 2016/17 at the firm?
Cathy Connolly: Work-wise, we've once again been at the forefront of some very large deals, such as the transaction between Actelion and Johnson & Johnson, and our work for Vodafone on its £16 billion merger with Idea Cellular.
One highlight for our employees was the overhaul of our rewards package. We carried out a survey to find out what our associates and trainees really wanted. We took all that feedback on board, and came up with a good package that included increases in salary and also 30 days holiday and a month-long paid sabbatical after three years. It's gone down pretty well.
CS: What should our readers know about what the firm wants to achieve going forward?
CC: Put simply, we want to preserve the reputation I hope we have as a pre-eminent firm doing innovative, challenging work. That's why clients come to us – to do complex, difficult jobs that haven't been done before.
CS: How has Brexit affected the firm, and how do you think it will going forward?
CC: Companies have been a bit more cautious about mergers, acquisitions and the like, but we're still seeing deal flow, particularly public takeovers. Uncertainty means our clients will often need to stop and think more about big changes, but it also normally prompts litigation, and indeed our dispute resolution group has been very busy. Nobody knows what the next year or two will bring: we might see an up-tick in M&A or it might flatten. Our best friends network makes us more protected from currency fluctuations than our competitors who may have more trouble managing their own offices overseas through changing circumstances.
CS: How does Slaughter and May ensure diversity when it's recruiting?
CC: Recruiting from a large number of universities is crucial, though we're smaller than many firms operating at our level so don't have a huge HR network to maintain a presence on different campuses. Nonetheless, our building is home to people from 83 different universities, 38 nationalities and 87 different degree courses. Diversity's very important and there's no recognisable Slaughters type. About 60 of our partners are involved in recruitment, which is very important as if only one or two people are involved the risk is that they recruit in their own image, and the more people involved the less likely that is to happen.
CS: How can a candidate really impress when applying and interviewing?
CC: There's a common myth that you need a first-class degree to work here. That’s not true – a lot of people – myself included – didn't get one. We're looking for a minimum of a good 2:1, an average of 65 or above, but, of course, we do take mitigating circumstances into account. There are a lot of other skills we look for. A good trainee has common sense, is enthusiastic, ambitious, driven, has the ability to get on well with a variety of types of people both within the firm and externally, and a sense of humour. We're not just looking for brains on sticks! Commercial awareness is also important – you don't need to have read the Financial Times from cover to cover every day for four years, but having a real interest in business and knowing what's going on in the world is important. We're looking for someone who can express their views on an issue and stand their ground when challenged.
CS: What sets the trainee experience at Slaughter and May apart from other firms?
CC: Two major aspects make it distinctive. The first is our multi-specialist approach – when you're sitting in any of our groups you'll work on a full range of transactions on which the group advises, compared to at other firms where their work type is more siloed. It also makes a big difference that we have no billable hours targets, so there's no competition between trainees.
CS: Do you have any advice for our readers who are about to enter the legal profession?
CC: Do your homework and research the differences between firms. Work experience is a great way to find out what being a lawyer is like, but you shouldn't be downhearted if you don't get a work experience place as they are highly competitive and we hire many people who've never done any. This is a fantastic and rewarding career but can be tough, and newcomers need to come in with their eyes open. Evaluating the differences between areas of law and firms can be difficult to understand from just websites, so work things out for yourself by attending presentations and open days – getting under the skin of a firm – and of course reading Chambers Student!
Slaughter and May
One Bunhill Row,
- Partners 115*
- Associates 400*
- Total trainees 150*
- *Worldwide figures
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices Beijing, Brussels, Hong Kong plus relationship firms in all the major jurisdictions
- Contacts The trainee recruitment team, [email protected] com, 020 7090 4454
- Application criteria
- Training contract pa: 80-85
- Minimum required degree grade: High 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A Levels: Good A levels
- Vacation scheme places pa: 160
- Dates and deadlines: Please visit firm website for all deadlines.
- Salary and benefits
- First year salary: £43,000
- Second year salary: £48,000
- Post qualification salary: £78,000
- Holiday entitlement: 30 days
- LPC and GDL: Fees plus maintenance grant
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
- Overseas seats: Our overseas offices and close working relationships with marketleading law firms in other jurisdictions mean there are opportunities for trainees to apply for a secondment in their second year.
- Recent trainee secondment destinations include Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Dubai, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Madrid, Milan, Munich, New York, Oslo, Paris, Singapore, Stockholm, Tokyo and Toronto.
Main areas of work
Vacation scheme, Open days and first-year opportunities