Macfarlanes LLP - True Picture

The legal industry’s big Mac weds a pre-eminent private client practice to a leading corporate team.

Macfarlanes training contract review 2022

The Firm

If you’ve done any research into the legal market, you may have seen Macfarlanes referenced among a ‘silver circle’ of UK firms. The times they are a-changing, however, and hiring partner manager and head of restructuring Jat Bains suggests the label no longer makes much sense: “It feels like an outdated term as many of the firms that have historically been lumped into the group do very different things. I struggle to pigeonhole us in a way the silver circle label does.” Looking at Macfarlanes in particular, Bains points out that “there aren’t other firms that combine a leading corporate M&A practice with a top-ranked private client group.” Macfarlanes is indeed the only firm in our guide to receive a top ranking for (mid-market) M&A from Chambers UK, and another for private wealth from Chambers High Net Worth.

Many of our recent interviewees cited this twin specialism as a big draw. “There’s very much a rotating door between the two departments,” insiders explained. “We might be providing advice to a wealthy individual who wants to restructure their business, or equally to a shareholder who has questions over how to manage their personal assets.” Bains runs us through the relationship between the practices: “It’s at the core of what works for us as a firm. We seek to apply our private client sensibility to all of our client relationships.” He gives the example that the “M&A team does a lot of work with large corporations. Seeking to understand what’s important to them personally is key to our success.”

“There’s nearly always an international element to the work, whether you’re dealing with a trust, company or individual.”

We should clarify that Macfarlanes is no two-trick pony either – the firm picks up further top rankings for its private equity and banking teams in the City, rounding out a formidable transactional offering. Our trainee sources confirmed that “although the firm has traditionally been more corporate-focused, the litigation team has been expanding aggressively in recent years.” In one obvious example, “there is now a white-collar crime group which didn’t exist two years ago.”

Unlike some of its big City rivals, Macfarlanes has just one overseas base in the EU capital of Brussels. Don’t let that fool you: “Most of the work here is international,” a trainee was keen to stress. “There’s nearly always an international element to the work, whether you’re dealing with a trust, company or individual.” Aiming to bust another myth, Jat Bains adds that “some people have a perception of the private client practice as being ye olde worlde – in reality we are serving clients across the world from Singapore and Bahrain to Europe.” Instead of having multiple offices, Macfarlanes relies on a carefully curated network of close-working relationships with other leading independent law firms from across the world. “Partners have spent a lot of time cultivating those relationships and often it’s just a case of dropping an email to get in touch,” sources explained.

The Seats

There’s a well-structured approach to seat allocation: all trainees must complete a seat each from four different ‘buckets’, one of which is almost always corporate and M&A. In one bucket you’ll find investment management, litigation and dispute resolution, and financial services; another has employment, private client, private client property, and finance. Last but not least, commercial, competition, tax and rewards, real estate, and derivatives and trading are in a bucket together. The firm has also introduced a legal tech seat which takes on a single trainee and is in the same bucket as corporate.“Every six months, grad recruitment reaches out and collects our top three preferences for each seat,” sources explained.

Most interviewees had no issues securing preferences and all agreed that “the grad recruitment team are very transparent about the process.” There were however some who wished for more flexibility. As one put it: “By choosing to do a banking seat, I couldn’t then do one in private client, which I might have considered.” Macfarlanes doesn’t offer any international or client secondments during the training programme. “That’s a deliberate decision on our part,” Bains explains. “We think the time you have in those four seats is so precious in terms of the learning opportunities.” He confirms that “chances to work abroad are definitely available post-qualification.”

“Some people think that all you do in private client is write up mundane wills for rich old ladies… I’ve done a lot of wills and it’s never been boring.”

In a private client seat, “you have a supervisor who you often work with the most, but capacity requests go out to the whole department, so you end up working with a lot of people.” This is the place to be if Knives Out is your favourite Daniel Craig movie: “Some people think that all you do in private client is write up mundane wills for rich old ladies,” one trainee told us. “I’ve done a lot of wills and it’s never been boring – there was recently one that ran to 12 pages with a controversial ratchet provision!” Another said: “There’s a myth that you’re not even allowed to send an email to a client, but in my experience that hasn’t been the case.” Common trainee responsibilities include “the groundwork of cases,” meaning opportunities to draft wills, deeds and notes of advice as well as getting stuck into research. “Clients often have unusual questions which require a deep dive into the law and HMRC guidance,” a source mused. “Private client can be quite academic in that sense.” High net worth individuals form the client base here; their private wealth is often measured in the tens and hundreds of millions, if not billions.

Macfarlanes' tax and reward group acts on private equity, corporate, employment and fund formation work. “It’s a really lovely specialist team,” one trainee told us. “The work is very academic and interesting because it’s the basis of so many transactions.” It’s also been a growth area for the firm, and seven trainees have qualified here in recent years.A seat in tax involves extensive research into black letter law, but that’s not all; one trainee we spoke to even got to draft part of an IPO.There’s also a contentious side to the work – the firm recently represented Royal Mail in group litigation brought by over 300 claimants arguing the postal services supplied to them from the 1970s onwards were not exempt from VAT. Other Mac tax clients include Virgin, Visa and Legal & General.

“You spend a lot of time talking to the client and keeping things moving.”

More than 60 lawyers make up Macfarlanes’ prestigious corporate team, which handles a mix of high-end and mid-market transactions. Notable names on the books include Goldman Sachs, Superdry and Aberdeen Standard Life. “In my seat I’ve done private and public M&A, and private equity transactions too,” a trainee said. “The deals have been massively varied.” The firm recently advised Smith & Williamson on its complicated £1.8 billion merger with financial services giant Tilney. Even through the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitality has been a hot sector for Macfarlanes of late – recent projects include advising on the March 2020 acquisition of London’s legendary Ritz hotel by a mysterious Qatari investor. Sources suggested “you get a lot more responsibility here than in private client,” adding that “you spend a lot of time talking to the client and keeping things moving.” Trainees can also cut their teeth drafting board minutes, resolutions and agreements.

Litigation is one of the firm’s fastest-growing departments overall, having added over ten partners and numerous associates to its ranks over the past decade. Sources explained that “there is an element of crossover with the private client group, but where they focus on trusts disputes and tax issues, the litigation team handles commercial, corporate and financial litigation.” Macfarlanes recently acted to secure the legitimacy of Dr Ali Mahmoud Hassan Mohamed as chairman of the Libyan Investment Authority in court proceedings; and defended NatWest in three claims relating to alleged losses from anti-competitive foreign exchange market manipulation. As at many firms, trainees reported they got less client contact in litigation, but certainly weren’t twiddling thumbs. “I would be drafting witness statements and letters to the other side, liaising with clerks and barristers to arrange court dates, and drafting chronologies for trial,” one recalled.

Trainee Life

Remote working in the Covid era has made it difficult for firms to get their culture across to new hires, but Mac trainees found big positives. “Working from home and seeing partners in T-shirts, with their kids interrupting, you see the pretence of being posh and formal is gone,” according to one. “One thing that helps engender a good culture is that the firm retains a significant number of home-grown lawyers – we’re not overly reliant on lateral hires.” Firms find it easier to keep hold of talent if they can build a supportive environment, and that rings true here. “If you have a question, everyone from NQ associates to partners who have been at the firm for decades are happy to answer,” a trainee shared.

Our interviewees agreed that each of the firm’s departments offers a different working style. Corporate in particular had developed some infamy among trainees: “There is a sense that things need to have been completed yesterday,” said one. Others in the department were keen to dispel the bad press. As one put it: “There are some old-school partners, but there’s also a really good group of female junior and senior associates rising through the ranks.” They concluded that “everyone has been hugely friendly, making a conscious effort to be inclusive."

“We do work hard,” another source admitted when the conversation turned to hours. “I would say it’s reasonable to expect to clock off between 7pm and 7.30pm onmost nights, that’s been the norm since remote working began.” Across our trainee survey, 51 hours a week was the average stint – not the highest we’ve seen, but certainly not the lowest either. Many highlighted differences between seats: “Deadlines in private client tend to be much more flexible and as such you get a better work-life balance,” one source observed. We heard similar stories from tax, where trainees tended to consistently finish around the 7pm mark. That compares to corporate where “it’s true there have been some cases of trainees working until 4am,” an insider disclosed. Weekend work also cropped up; one told us: “It’s rare to work more than five hours a day on both Saturday and Sunday,” which still sounds gruelling to us. Our trainee interviewees stressed that “the firm offers a lot of support including seven paid counselling sessions and access to lots of wellbeing resources.”

“Serious efforts to recruit people from disadvantaged backgrounds."

With diversity on the forefront of the agenda across the legal industry, Macfarlanes has made “serious efforts to recruit people from disadvantaged backgrounds,” according to one of our interviewees. “I’m aware that some trainees can give off a posh vibe, but I do think the label of elitist is outdated,” one observed. Hiring partner manager Jat Bains adds: “Coming into 2021 we’ve been doing a lot of outreach beyond Oxbridge. For example, we recently launched a new skills development initiative in partnership with non-Russell Group universities, and in particular areas with the least amount of social mobility.” In our most recent survey of the Macfarlanes ranks, just over 30% of trainees hailed from Oxbridge – higher than the City market average, but not above the magic circle.

Macfarlanes’ qualification process kicks off one month into trainees’ last seat when they submit their preferred departments to HR. If multiple candidates apply for a role, there may be interviews. Our sources weren’t fazed by the process and pointed to historically high retention rates as evidence that “the firm wants people to stay.” The 2021 survey results indicated the feeling is mutual: only a small minority of participants intended to leave the firm within the next two years. Macfarlanes retained 28of 31 trainees in 2021.

The saints go marching in: All trainees are registered to help at the St Hilda’s East Community Centre legal advice centre in Tower Hamlets when they first start.

How to get a training contract at Macfarlanes


Vacation scheme deadline (2022): 3 January 2022

First-year insight scheme deadline (2022): 31 January 2022

Training programme deadline (2024/25): 25 July 2022

Vacation scheme

Macfarlanes hosts a number of networking events, in-house presentations and a practice area open day; allowing students to explore each of the various practice areas. In addition, the firm organises skills sessions and workshops at universities 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 our future trainees,” says graduate recruitment manager Catherine Morgan-Guest.

Around 50% of trainees in a given year will have completed a vacation scheme with the firm. There are three schemes – one in spring and two over the summer – and each lasts two weeks. There are 55 places in total: 15 in spring and 20 on each of the summer schemes. The pay matches the London living wage.

Typical vacation 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,” say graduate recruitment. Students sit in two different practice areas but also complete a mock transaction alongside other training sessions. Recent social highlights include darts, and a lunch and networking with the partners.

Vacation scheme hopefuls can apply online. The firm typically receives around2,000 applications each year. Macfarlanes looks for a predicted 2:1-degree result or above, and doesn’t have a minimum A level requirement. If you have extenuating circumstances which mean that you do not meet these requirements, you may still apply and detail these circumstances in your application form for us to consider.  You can also arrange a call with the graduate recruitment team to discuss further. 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.”

Vacation scheme students have the chance to apply for a training programme during their placement. Those who opt to do this attend a partner interview and undertake ‘application blind’ assessments, which include a written exercise and an business case study exercise.


Macfarlanes receives another 1,000 applications from candidates gunning directly for its training programme; the application form is the same one that is used for the vac scheme.

Around 15% of direct training programme applicants are invited in for an assessment day, which lasts from 8.45am until 2pm. The day involves a partner interview, plus two ‘application blind’ assessments. “It's intensive, and we want your all,” says graduate recruitment. The interview takes place with a partner and member of the HR team and covers the applicant’s motivation for a career in law at Macfarlanes and a discussion around their application. One of the assessments requires applicants to talk through three different business case studies (which have been designed to test their commercial awareness) with a partner and senior solicitor who hasn't seen their application.

The day also includes a written exercise which 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 Catherine Morgan-Guest. Candidates have a chance to speak with partners, trainees and graduate recruitment over lunch.

It's worth noting that Macfarlanes doesn't recruit on a rolling basis and waits until the application deadline has passed to review applications.

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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2021

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Mid-Market (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance: Lenders: Mid-Market (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Structured Finance (Band 4)
    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 3)
    • Competition Law (Band 3)
    • Construction: Contentious (Band 3)
    • Construction: Non-contentious (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 1)
    • Employment: Employer (Band 3)
    • Litigation (Band 3)
    • Real Estate Finance (Band 5)
    • Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 2)
    • Tax (Band 2)
    • Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 3)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 3)
    • Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 4)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
    • Investment Funds: Open-ended Funds (Band 2)
    • Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 3)
    • Partnership (Band 3)
    • Partnership: Large International Structures (Band 2)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 4)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: Mid-Market (Band 1)