Macfarlanes LLP - True Picture

Private wealth mastery, litigious expertise, corporate clout… though it has just two offices, this firm is still a big Mac.

Macfarlanes training contract review 2021

The Firm

Clan Macfarlane had a long and exciting history. Tales of heroism, battlefield opposition to Mary Queen of Scots and claiming the Scottish earldom of Lennox… these probably weren’t on the mind of John Embleton Macfarlane when he joined George Watson Neish as a partner at a City law firm in 1894, but the firm now known as Macfarlanes does have a drive for victory and success that would make the knights of old proud.

Today the firm has conquered the realms of mid-market banking and finance and corporate/M&A in London, and mid-market private equity buyouts UK-wide, according to Chambers UK. Macfarlanes also scores rankings in various other litigious and transactional practice areas. Perhaps most intriguingly, the firm also stands out from the big corporate City crowd thanks to a top-tier private client practice, and Chambers High Net Worth puts the firm top in London for private client and nationally for high-value residential real estate. “The great mix of clients Macfarlanes has was a real draw for me,” one trainee declared. “It feels like they treat everyone they deal with like a private client.”

“…looking for a training contract with a fair bit of responsibility and a personal touch.”

With a varied high-power practice, and an annual intake of over 30 trainees, you might expect the firm to have several UK and international offices, but in fact Macfarlanes has just one home base in London and one more overseas in Brussels. “The size of the firm was definitely appealing,” sources reported. “It’s smaller than comparable firms but punches above its weight.”

On top of “great exposure to good-quality work and client experience,” trainees said they were “looking for a training contract with a fair bit of responsibility and a personal touch. Macfarlanes has both.” This personal touch starts before the training contract itself: trainees all do their LPC at BPP and it’s likely that similar arrangements will be made under the SQE. “We were invited into the firm every month to chat about where we wanted to sit, but also for Christmas dinner and drinks events,”a trainee reminisced. “Nowadays I consider most of my intake to be friends first and work colleagues second.”

The Seats

Before trainees get going, “graduate recruitment gives everyone the seat list and explains how it all works. You then email in your preferences" (this year it was done on a Zoom call). Trainees must complete one seat each from four different ‘buckets’ – interviewees clarified “there’s no specific order and you can list up to three preferences in each bucket, but you must do a seat in each one.”One bucket includes litigation, investment management and financial services; another has employment, private client, private client property and banking and finance. Commercial, competition, tax, real estate and derivatives and trading fall under a third bucket. In the third bucket, most trainees will sit in corporate M&A, but the firm has also introduced a legal tech seat in this category.

Corporate M&A at Macfarlanes means mostly mid-market public and private mergers and acquisitions, plus private equity and joint ventures. The team recently advised Lycamobile on the €372 million sale of its Spanish business to MasMovil. Insiders told us the seat has “a bit of an email-heavy reputation. As a trainee you do a lot of transaction management,” which means “making sure the right documents are coming in, that the client has seen the documents they need to see when they need to see them and so on.” Sources noted that “because senior associates and partners have so much going on, you have to be the most organised person. My inbox was flooded with 100+ emails a day, that was a shock to the system.”As Macfarlanes’ biggest department, corporate takes around 14 trainees at a time.Despite email overload, interviewees “really enjoyed the seat. There’s quite a lot of responsibility early on and I was the contact person for clients.”Other trainee jobs include drafting board minutes, resolutions and agreements, as well as omnipresent big deal due diligence for clients like Hovis, Verizon and Visa.

“You have to be the most organised person. My inbox was flooded with 100+ emails a day.”

There’s no escaping full inboxes in litigation, as “in the run up to a filing deadline you could get up to 500 emails a day.”This “varied seat”can include a mix of large banking disputes, smaller investigations and shareholder disputes for executives and oligarchs. Clients including the State of Qatar, RBS and Liverpool FC are all on Macfarlanes’ books; the football club called on the firm in a dispute with New Balance over switching to Nike as a kit manufacturer, a £350 million five-year deal. Macfarlanes also acted for Dr Ali Mahmoud Hassan Mohamed in a dispute over the chairmanship of the Libyan Investment Authority (holding around $67 billion in assets). Interviewees recalled that “the department was consistently busy,”and for trainees this meant general case assistance and reviewing “various documents. We’ve been putting together summaries, conducting research, keeping on top of disclosure exercises and drafting witness statements.”Bundling and document review are also part of any litigation seat, but we heard that “as a trainee, you’re able to push yourself. You can ask to do things and supervisors will let you have a go.” For one source, this meant taking “substantive expert evidence and witness statements”for a case.

Interviewees described competitionas “one of the most popular departments at Macfarlanes,” and (appropriately enough) there’s stiff competition to get a seat here as “it only takes two trainees at a time.” The practice sits between transactional and litigious work, the latter including some “realBillions-style excitement.”The most obvious example was a recent dawn raid: “We got a call from a client telling us that the regulator was arriving.Their message: ‘Get here, stat!’” Trainees in this seat have “responsibilities that are fundamentally similar to those of senior counsel: protecting the client’s rights in terms of access to documents and assisting with interviews.” Competition clients range from the BBC and Associated British Ports to global packaging company Amcor, whom the firm advised during its $6.8 billion acquisition of rival Bemis. Macfarlanes was charged with securing Phase I conditional European Commission merger control clearance for the transaction. Trainees took roles on long-running investigations, “prepping evidence. With these investigations there are hundreds of thousands of documents, which we have to summarise and make sure everything is organised.”Once the key documents are located, trainees need to “piece everything together to create a cogent narrative.” Better brush up on your storytelling.

Investment managementhas transactional and advisory elements. “There’s two aspects to it – we represent managers establishing funds, and the investors themselves,”trainees clarified. The firm advises major players like Goldman Sachs and Legal & General, and recently worked on a review of the investment objectives and policies for FTSE 250 wealth management firm Quilter’s 73 funds in the UK. Our sources worked on “several fund reviews, which offer quite a lot of autonomy. We get lots of interaction with investors during the seat – often we’ll have 30 or 50 coming in at once.”Much of the trainee’s role is “process management, liaising with fund managers and getting documents ready. The level of responsibility we get over them is breathtakingly impressive.”Once they’d caught their breath, interviewees also helped draft private placement memoranda and ancillary documents. “It’s a fast-paced team and the seat was a very enjoyable experience,”one concluded.

“It all felt complicated, high-level and difficult… in a good way.”

Compared to other seats, insiders said private clientis “less admin-heavy, with no due diligence or bundling to do.”The trade-off is that supervisors are more likely to “check your emails before you send them out to the clients.”A seat here encompasses estate, tax, wills and probate planning for high net worth individuals. “I initially didn’t want to do the seat, but I’m so glad I did,”a trainee reflected on their time in the department. “I’ve had a lot of client exposure with entrepreneurs and old money.”Some matters can resemble M&A or restructuring, but “you’re working on it from a different angle as the client type is different.” Trainees here got to do “quite a lot of drafting for wills, loan agreements, lasting powers of attorney and trust restructurings.”Research is also common: “We might need to research a really complicated tax law or regulation. It all felt complicated, high-level and difficult… in a good way. It’s like being back in uni because it’s so academic.”

Trainee Life

Much like a university, Macfarlanes seems to prioritise education for its trainee cohort. There are several layers of partner support available: firstly, each trainee gets a partner principal who “acts as a kind of mentor but is mostly there to help you in the journey of the training contract.”Part two is the introduction of trainee-solicitor-committee (TSC) groups to break each intake into smaller groups; these meet for “quarterly meetings that are chaired by the same partner across the two years. The agenda can include anything you can’t discuss with your supervisor.”Then you’ve got the seat supervisors “that you share a room with,”and sources suggested you can “always have a conversation with graduate recruitment if you’re unhappy.” During lockdown, the firm also introduced a junior buddy scheme while people were working from home, pairing trainees with an NQ or junior associate for informal catch-ups.

With all this attention available, it was no surprise to hear trainees tell us “it feels like everyone is there to help you. As much as there is a hierarchy in our work, the firm cares about their trainees.” They agreed that a culture of collaboration”was made possible by the firm’s smaller footprint and “all being in one building, we’re always working with different departments so there’s a sense that we’re all in this together.” The firm also runs an anonymous annual survey, so trainees can voice concerns they may have and provide feedback on the training contract. 

“If you’ve got capacity, but you’ve been working really long hours, supervisors will take notice and ask someone else to cover it.”

As for our own research, one of the most contentious topics was hours. Ten-to-12-hour days were far from rare, and some trainees were keen to tell tales of trying times. One frequently worked 9am to 9pm in their litigation seat when it wasn’t busy, and until “midnight, 2, 4 or 5am”when it was; another spent “a month doing 16-hour days” in corporate. Others suggested that “the days reach 12 to 14 hours once you’ve qualified and that’s fairly representative of most departments.”You won’t go hungry at least, as the firm funds dinner for anyone still in the office after 7.30pm. There were also sources keen to paint a happier picture: “They’re conscious of our workload. If you’ve got capacity to take something on, but you’ve been working really long hours, supervisors will take notice and ask someone else to cover it.”

Each seat comes with intensive training sessions, which are “front-loaded so that you’re doing most of the learning at the beginning of your seat.”Sources warned that private client likes to do its training in the morning from 8.30am, which some (presumably coffee-driven) folks thought was a rather early start. As for the evenings, the firm runs netball and football teams as well as regular social events including celebration for Pride month and three different Christmas parties. During lockdown, a virtual book club was established.

Qualification kicks off soon into the fourth seat and offers are made based on the capacity for NQs in each department. Trainees submit their preferences to HR, and if multiple candidates apply for a role there may be interviews. All of Macfarlanes’ qualifiers stuck with the firm in 2019, and it retained 26 of 30in 2020. Looking longer-term, there were concerns that Macfarlanes still has a way to go with retaining its female talent as women make up just 14.4% of partners at the firm. Sources told us there are “lots of initiatives in place to work on the issue. It was however a bit of a shock when the last partner class included nine men and just one female partner.” After these internal promotions, the firm brought in two women partners laterally. Trainees did appreciate that the firm was addressing concerns head on: “I remember seeing press releases specifically addressing the fact that they haven’t done enough, which is quite admirable.” Part of taking responsibility, trainees noted, is “trying to build internal BAME, female and LGBTQ communities and making us feel like there’s a place for everyone in the firm.”

Helping out Macnear and Macfar 

All trainees are registered to help at East London charity St Hilda’s legal clinic when they first start. It isn't compulsory for trainees to do pro bono, but "we discuss it in our performance reviews.” 

How to get a Macfarlanes training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2021): 31 January 2021

First-year insight scheme deadline (2021): 28 February 2021

Training programme deadline (2023/24): 31 July 2021

Vacation scheme

Macfarlanes attends a number of law fairs,while also hosting networking events, in-house presentations and a practice area open day; allowing students to explore each of the various practice areas at their offices. 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 future trainees studying Macfarlanes’ tailored LPC,” 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 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. 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, a trip to the Royal Courts of Justice and a lunch with the partners.

Vacation 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.”

Vacation scheme students have the chance to apply for a training contract 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 in-tray exercise.


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

Around 15% of direct training contract applicants are invited in for an assessment day, which lasts from 8.45am until 2pm. The day involves a partner interview, plus three ‘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 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 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 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 wait until the application deadline has passed to review applications, so we suggest getting your applications in as early as possible.

Macfarlanes LLP

20 Cursitor Street,

  • Partners 89
  • Associates 301
  • Total trainees 62
  • UK offices London
  • Overseas offices 1
  • Contacts 
  • Graduate recruiter: Catherine Morgan-Guest,, 020 7831 9222
  • Training partner: Seán Lavin,
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contracts pa: 33
  • Applications pa: 2,000
  • Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
  • Minimum UCAS points or A levels: None
  • Vacation scheme places pa: 55
  • Dates and deadlines 
  • Training programme applications open: 1 October 2020
  • Training programme deadline 2023 start: 31 July 2021
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2020
  • Vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 31 January 2021
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £44,000
  • Second-year salary: £49,000
  • Post-qualification salary: £85,000
  • Holiday entitlement: 26 days
  • Sponsorship 
  • LPC fees: Yes
  • GDL fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £10,000
  • International and regional 
  • Offices with training contracts: London
  • Overseas seats: None
  • Client secondments: None

Firm profile

Macfarlanes is a distinctive London-based law firm, focused on its clients and on delivering excellence in the international legal market. The firm is known for the quality of its work; not just in dealing with the full range of corporate and commercial matters, but in advising clients on their private affairs as well.

Macfarlanes has made a deliberate choice to remain smaller than many of its peers. The cohesive nature of the firm means that clients benefit from collective experience and close-knit teams. The firm has decided against growth at the expense of quality, against size at the expense of efficiency and agility. So whilst large enough to advise on the most complex matters, the firm is also small enough to ensure that its people and work are exceptional, without fail. 

Main areas of work

Our main practice areas are: commercial; competition; corporate and M&A; derivatives and trading; employment; finance; financial services regulation; investment management; litigation and dispute resolution; pensions; private client; private equity; real estate; restructuring and insolvency and tax. 

Trainee opportunities

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 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 including a compulsory corporate and M&A seat. Our seat rotation is designed with trainees in mind — we want to give you enough flexibility to shape your training contract and do seats that interest you. Support and guidance are, of course, vital and you will find your supervisor a valuable source of information and inspiration. 

Vacation scheme

The vacation scheme is designed to give you a two-week snapshot of life as a trainee. You will be given as much hands-on experience as possible, enabling you to develop a real understanding of the firms’ culture and work.

Macfarlanes offers an Easter and two summer vacation schemes. Each scheme runs for two weeks and remuneration is £400pw. The firm welcomes applications from students who are in at least the penultimate year of their degree from any degree discipline, with a predicted 2.1 or above. Applications are online via the website.

Other benefits

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

First-year opportunities

For first-year students the firm offers an insight scheme to provide an overview of a City law firm. Macfarlanes welcomes applications from candidates with either a law or non-law background with outstanding academics. Candidates need to be in either the first year of an undergraduate degree or second year of a four year undergraduate degree.

Applications are online via the website and close on 28th February 2021.

University law careers fairs 2020

BPP, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Exeter, Nottingham, Oxford, UCL and York, plus others to be confirmed. Macfarlanes will also be hosting events at their London office. Further information can be found on the firm’s website.

Social media

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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020

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)