Eminent magic circle member Slaughter and May has its own particular way of going about business.
Stroll past One Bunhill Row and you might detect a certain something in the air. No, not the odour of piquant City armpit or fresh £50 notes. We're talking about the rich scent of lawyerly excellence that emanates invariably from the office of Slaughter and May. This is a name replete with prestige and pedigree, and deservedly so. It's a firm that takes on some of the biggest deals in the City – and the world – and can boast of having more stock market-listed clients than any of its glittering rivals. For instance, Slaughters solicitors have recently been advising Royal Dutch Shell on its £47 billion takeover of natural gas company BG Group. Plus, the firm's been acting for Virgin Group and CVC Capital Partners on the sale of an 80% stake in Virgin Active to South African private equity house Brait for £682 million. Also on the client roster are Google, Unilever, Rolls-Royce, Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs, to name just a few.
While you'll inevitably find all of the magic circle cohort at work on mega deals and massive litigations, Slaughter and May has various qualities that set it apart from its elite peers. A certain mystique, shall we say? First of all, its international approach is decidedly different. While others have set up camp on every continent, Slaughter and May only has a modest collection of additional offices in Brussels, Beijing and Hong Kong. Instead it favours its network of 'best friend' firms across Europe and beyond, thus avoiding the financial costs and risks inherent in opening up scores of outposts abroad. Approximately 40% of the firm's work comes from overseas clients, so it's a formula that certainly works wonders. Given its conservative approach to expansion, Slaughters doesn't generate the whopping levels of revenue you'd expect from the more itinerant magic circle members or the brawny American behemoths. Instead, it coolly delivers mammoth profits per partner. Ever discreet, the firm never discloses the precise figures, but rest assured – they're the weightiest in the City.
Other factors contribute to the unique Slaughters aura. An overwhelming majority of senior solicitors trained at the firm – the first lateral hire of a partner only happened in 2014 (in Hong Kong), which was big news indeed. This close-knit partnership “has a huge say in how this place works; they run the show,” commented a trainee. “There's a sense of individuality you can see throughout the firm. There are lots of characters and some brilliant people. You can be who you want to be, within reason.” This extends to emails. “You can design the style,” an insider told us delightedly. “People have purple and green font, and Chris Saul, the managing partner, has electric blue Comic Sans in size 14.” Still not sold? Well, beyond “the prestige, the client list and high profile work,” sources were drawn to Slaughters' 'multi-specialist approach' whereby each of the groups in, for example, the corporate or finance department takes on “a whole range of different types of work. It's great to get such breadth.” In addition, insiders appreciated the simplicity of the application process: “You just send a covering letter and CV and attend an interview. There are no silly verbal reasoning tests and assessment centres.”
Around 80 or so trainees are taken on every year. Corporate and finance are both compulsory seats, while the contentious requirement can be fulfilled by either a six-month or a three-month stint in dispute resolution. The more specialist teams like real estate, tax and pensions and employment also offer three-month seats. Our interviewees were all satisfied with the seat allocation process. Before they join, trainees are invited in for a seats introduction day. Then “you send in preferences to HR before you join and you're given a first seat. A couple of months in you meet with HR and get the rest of the training contract mapped out.” Overall, “most people get what they want.” There's also the chance for a select few to jet off overseas to spend time in one of the firm's 'best friend' offices, like Bredin Prat in Paris. Nabbing one of these spots is quite a competitive process. Prospective sojourners “chat with HR about what you're looking to get out of the secondment and how you would represent the firm overseas.” Two referees from previous seats must vouch for the trainee.
The corporate department is divided into four groups, but as a trainee explained, “the whole idea is that they're not specialised. A certain group might do a bit more insurance-related work or equity capital markets, but in general they all do any sort of work. It's great as a trainee, because you get a broad experience rather than focusing on a niche area.” So, a trainee could sample both public and private M&A, IPOs, joint ventures, and privatisations. Of late the corporate department has acted for GlaxoSmithKline on a three-part deal with fellow pharma company Novartis, and advised General Electric on the €12.35 billion acquisition of French multinational Alstom's thermal, renewables and grid businesses. “I was involved in one of the biggest deals the firm's ever done for a listed client,” revealed a source. “It was all top secret and very exciting when it was on the front page of the FT.” Trainees typically get involved with “proof-reading documents, listening in on conference calls and lots of due diligence.” Drafting ancillary documents and research are also common tasks.
Similarly, the finance department is made up of three “non-specific” groups. Our sources had sampled a range of work: corporate restructuring, debt capital markets, refinancings, government project financing and securitisation. “There's a lot of admin support for senior associates like proof-reading,” commented a trainee. “I got involved in a major co-ordination exercise that involved gathering advice from foreign lawyers in 26 jurisdictions.” Then there are other “bog-standard tasks” like managing the conditions precedent list, liaising with trainees and associates on the other side and drafting ancillary documents like pro forma guarantees and board minutes. Recently Slaughters have advised Virgin Financial Investments on the £1.25 billion flotation of Virgin Money. Solicitors have also helped Swedish appliances company Electrolux with the financing of its $3.3 billion acquisition of General Electric's appliances business.
Meanwhile, the competition department tackles work across all areas of the practice – antitrust, competition litigation, market investigations, merger control, regulatory and state aid. Clients here include British Airways, Ericsson, Google, ASDA-Walmart and booking.com. Lawyers have been helping the latter with the multi-jurisdictional investigation into dodgy anti-competitive conduct in the online hotel booking sector. Elsewhere, the firm's been busy advising Motorola Mobility on the European Commission’s investigation into the mobile device company's enforcement of standard-essential patents. An interviewee explained that “you rotate supervisor halfway through the seat so that you're able to experience the different strands of work.” Insiders appreciated the chance to “work in a team of trainees, so there are people to interact with and share the workload with when you're doing doc review. You do end up ploughing through a lot of documents on a global investigation or enormous M&A deal.” Other duties might include “taking notes at interviews with witnesses and research into cases that had gone through the UK competition courts.” There's also the option of spending three months at the Brussels office, during which trainees stay in “spangly and new” apartments provided by the firm.
The arbitration game
Over in dispute resolution, trainees could handle “four or five diverse matters” or become involved with one “all-consuming” arbitration. As a trainee “you're unlikely to see a matter from beginning to end and the fact that a case is such a huge beast means that the trainee input is usually admin-based. There's lots of doc review and bundling.” A source recalled trundling through “250 bundles... there was a lot of paper flying about.” As such, “trainees tend to have a love or hate reaction to the department.” An eager insider remembered “working on a seriously large commercial arbitration that's been rumbling on for three or four years. The values involved are eye-watering, in the tens of billions. It's a really interesting subject matter and really high stakes. I did a lot of reading to get up to speed – it's pretty cool to be on the inside of confidential stuff!” Other duties include “research, processing comments for associates, drafting letters to the other side and attending hearings.” Litigators act for the likes of Rolls-Royce, the Serious Fraud Office, Royal Mail and Dyson.
Trainees in the real estate department can encounter “a mixture of corporate support work – looking at the real estate part of a deal – as well as standalone, real estate-based work like the sale of a property.” According to a source, “I had 16 different matters going on in one month, so it's very varied work. On smaller transactions, like a lease renewal, I was able to take charge and got lots of client contact as a result. On bigger corporate transactions, it was quite administrative – I reviewed mortgage-related documents and liaised with foreign counsel.” Lately, property lawyers have helped Legal & General to sell off a portfolio of properties, including the Coutts headquarters on the Strand for £175 million and 97 New Bond Street for £18.8 million. Elsewhere, the department has taken instructions from ITV, Marks & Spencer and Ocado.
“People are always busy but they will make time for you, especially if it's regarding the work,” noted a trainee when asked about the level of support on offer. “You don't need to be shy or apologetic if you need to ask a question.” Another added that “you learn a lot by osmosis.” Our interviewees had sat with both associates and partners. Both experiences have their benefits. “When you sit with a partner you might be on calls that you otherwise wouldn't know were happening, where the client CEO is deciding what's going to happen. Partners operate at a strategic level, with a bird's-eye view of the matter – they can see how the jigsaw fits together. With an associate you're looking at the individual pieces.”
Tales of toil
When it comes to the hours, the notion that “every trainee's experience is completely unique” was validated by the different stories interviewees had to tell. Some spoke of “exhausting” periods during which “my average finish was 1am or 2am, with quite a few 4am or 5am finishes as well, for three months.” Others, meanwhile, had “only worked past midnight a handful of times” or were “rarely in the office past 7pm – although I tend to arrive at 8am.” One commented that “when you've been working manically for three months, you don't feel guilty about leaving at 5.30pm if there's a quiet patch. You're encouraged to take time to recuperate.” Time off in lieu for “crazy hours” is given at the discretion of partners.
Onto the matter of firm culture. Sources were “very aware of the stereotypes” that surround Slaughters and keen to dispel the image of the firm as an intense, bookish place governed by the “pressure to be perfect” and dominated by posh white blokes with Oxbridge educations. While there's no denying the fact that every Slaughters solicitor “is seriously clever and often a very impressive person” (there's a chess Grandmaster in the ranks), trainees told us that “the whole elbow-patches-and-talking-down-to-people image just isn't true.” Admittedly, “people are exacting in their attention to detail. If you give someone a 100-page document they'll point out the one hanging comma – but that's aspirational rather than cruel.”
On the social side, there are periodic firmwide drinks, a summer party and a big November bash at the fancy Grosvenor Hotel during which “people definitely let their hair down.” Departments tend to organise their own get-togethers, including ski trips. There are also various sports clubs and a green-fingered group that tends to the roof garden. Merry-making aside, what about the serious business of qualification? “There's definitely a positive feeling that there will be a place for you if you want to stay,” concurred sources. Incidentally, Slaughters is historically of the City's strongest performers in trainee retention, according to our survey. Fourth-seaters submit a list of preferences to HR while each department identifies the trainees they'd like to take on. HR then do the matching up. In 2015, 67 out of 79 were kept on.
One source insisted that engaging in “conversations about esoteric points of law over lunch” is absolutely not de rigueur at Slaughters. “I talk about football every day,” piped up one.
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How to get a Slaughters training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 18 December 2015 (Easter); 7 January 2016 (summer)
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2016
Applications to 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 3 As at A level,” a source in recruitment says, “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.
Summer work experience interviews usually take place on campus – the firm assesses around 200 students this way. 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 20 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 75 to 80 training contracts. For the 2016 intake, around 450 students were invited to an interview day - this includes a written exercise, an interview with two partners, a tour of the office with a trainee solicitor 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 “a range of interests outside the law.”
Unlike the other magic circle firms, Slaughter and May maintains a minimal overseas presence. Its offices in Brussels, Beijing and Hong Kong are the only formal extension of the S&M brand. Instead of planting a flag in every nook and cranny the globe offers, Slaughters' international practice largely relies on a network of 'best friends' – that is, reputable local law firms in other countries that the firm's managed to establish links with. This network includes the likes of Bonelli Erede Pappalardo in Italy, Bredin Prat in France, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek in the Netherlands, Hengeler Mueller in Germany and Uría Menéndez in Spain and Portugal – not to mention a raft of other affiliated firms throughout Asia, Australasia and the Middle East.
Slaughters' website states that each firm in the group is: a market leader in its respective jurisdiction; has a formidable reputation in its own right; and is an authority in cross-jurisdictional best practice. Thus, according to executive partner Richard Clark, Slaughters "prefers 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 go on secondment to one of the firm's own offices or to one of its best friends during the second year of their training contract. The nature of the best friends network means that “secondments are always shifting year to year as new ones are added and others deleted.” Trainees in recent years have spent time in Amsterdam, Auckland, Barcelona, Helsinki, Madrid, Milan, Munich, New York, Oslo, Paris, Stockholm and Sydney. Secondments typically last six months, though trainees doing a seat in the competition group have the opportunity to spend three months in Brussels.
To apply for a stint abroad, “you fill out a preference form listing the countries you'd like to go to along with a supporting statement explaining why. The firm then interviews you and speaks with the people you've worked with.” A source told us: “You're allocated based on availability, the reviews and work you've done previously: they regulate it to make sure everyone has broad range of skills. If you wanted to go away in your fourth seat, for example, you'd need to have already done a contentious seat.”
Judging by our research over the last few years, it appears that around a quarter of fourth-seaters try their hand overseas. Although insiders insisted “those who want to go away are usually able to,” there is no denying the trend of “people increasingly declining the opportunity to spend time abroad. Although it does vary year on year, application numbers may not be as high as at other firms.” Why so? One source had this theory: “I think people are worried about jeopardising their chances when it comes to qualification. If you go to a 'best friend' firm, you're not working at a Slaughter and May office; you're working at a completely different firm, so it might be better to have in-house experience. People don't apply speculatively.”
Those who venture abroad are well looked after. The firm takes care of all the practical arrangements for trainees, including flights, accommodation and work permits. While away, you're not cast adrift from the London office; secondees receive support and guidance, and benefit from an allocated supervisor back in London with whom they can discuss their progress.One of Slaughter's own offices is in Hong Kong, where it's had a presence since 1974. “It's a much smaller office than London,” a trainee who spent six months there told us. “I sat with a partner who did a mix of finance and corporate work, and it's only about three-quarters of the size of the corporate department here. It was a fantastic experience, though. I got to draft some contracts – such as sponsorship contracts – and did compliance work for FTSE 100 companies that have a dual listing in Hong Kong and are concerned about not contravening the country's listing rules. So I did a lot of work on that side to make sure everything was fine compliance-wise.”
Those who spent time at one of Slaughter and May's best friends found the experience equally rewarding. “I was one of three trainees who was seconded to a firm in Auckland,” a source informed us. “When they've lined up a firm interested in having a trainee from Slaughters, you send over a short CV, and they allocate you into groups based on your previous experience. I had a really awesome six months. I was working in a small team with just a senior associate, a partner and me, so I was really in the thick of it. I worked on two public takeovers, which is a high percentage of the takeovers in New Zealand.”
One trainee who joined up with an affiliate firm in Italy explained that although the stint was “challenging,” the legal education they benefited from was “second to none. It was great – absolutely fantastic. Working for another law firm which is one of the top two or three in that jurisdiction is an invaluable learning experience. Essentially you're out there on your own – even though there is a support network – and doing your own thing. Most of their secondees are associates, so as an English trainee coming over you're treated as more senior than you are. I got good levels of responsibility and client contact. Sometimes I'd be the only English person in the office, and they'd make a point to involve me in the deals with English elements to them.”
Our source offered this sage advice to anyone who might follow in their footsteps: “You have to make an effort to learn the language, otherwise it’s a bit of a waste of time. Also, you have to be proactive in meeting people and letting them know you're there. As long as you're willing to work hard you will have a good time.”
Slaughter and May
One Bunhill Row,
- Partners 117*
- Associates 450+*
- Total trainees 151
- *worldwide figures
- Contact The trainee recruitment team
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org (enquiries only)
- Method of application Online (via website)
- Selection procedure Interview
- Training contracts p.a. Approx 80
- Required degree grade Strong 2:1
- Training salary (May 2015)
- 1st year £41,000
- 2nd year £46,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days p.a.
- % of trainees with a non-law degree Approx 50%
- No of seats available abroad p.a. Approx 30
- Post-qualification salary (May 2015) £70,000
- %of trainees offered job on qualification 93%
- Overseas offices Brussels, Beijing and Hong Kong, plus ‘Best Friend’ firms in all the major jurisdictions
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