Macfarlanes LLP - True Picture

Businesses and private clients alike flock to this City firm – as do wannabe lawyers looking for “a real focus on career development.”

Not so Big Mac

If you grew up watching the Disney Channel, you’ll most likely remember Miley Cyrus’ alter-ego Hannah Montana singing about getting ‘the best of both worlds’. Trainees kept this catchy tune in mind when applying to Macfarlanes, describing the firm’s training contract as a “win-win scenario. Not many firms have both a first-class private client team and a heavy-hitting corporate department.” Both sides of Macfarlanes’ practice earn impressive plaudits from our sister publications: Chambers UK awards the firm tip-top rankings for mid-market M&A and private equity, while Chambers High Net Worth heaps kudos on the firm’s private wealth and high-value residential real estate expertise.

Macfarlanes may be considered part of London’s ‘silver circle’ of elite firms, but only recruits around 30 trainees each year. Our sources reckoned this hit the sweet spot of “not being so big an intake that you’re one of 100 trainees, but big enough that you’re still doing the same work as you would at a larger firm.” Big names like Goldman Sachs, Hovis and Royal Mail turn to the firm for advice and it recently worked on the proposed $6.1 billion merger between Dana Incorporated and GKN's Driveline business. We asked training principal Seán Lavin about the firm’s plans for the future: “Potential trainees will be reassured to hear there won’t be any seismic changes at the firm. We have no plans for exponential growth and no plans for a merger. We’ll continue to push towards quality instructions from the best clients.”

“The firm prides itself on providing a top-quality training regimen.”

Unlike many firms of a similar reputation, Macfarlanes only has two offices: its London HQ and a smaller Brussels outpost. This model means almost all the firm’s lawyers are under one roof; Lavin stresses that “law firmsare people businesses; we are very focused on hiring the best people now who will in turn become the partners of the future in years to come.” It makes sense then that our trainee interviewees were also drawn to “the emphasis on training” at Macfarlanes: “The firm prides itself on providing a top-quality training regimen. There’s a real focus on development and the teams are smaller so you get more chances to be directly involved on matters.”

Three for three

Trainees must complete a compulsory seat in M&A and pick their three other seats from three ‘buckets’ of options: investment management, litigation or financial services; private client, employment or banking; and tax, real estate, commercial, competition and derivatives. Halfway through each seat, trainees submit three preferences for where they’d like to go next. That’s a more rigid system than at some firms, but our interviewees found that in practice “it doesn’t feel too restrictive. The idea is to try and ensure you have a rounded experience as a trainee.”

Corporate M&A remains Macfarlanes’ biggest department – “it covers a whole floor” – and spans public and private mergers and acquisitions as well as private equity and joint ventures. The team most commonly operates in the mid-market but does its fair share of high-end work too, recently advising private investment firm Searchlight Capital Partners on the acquisition of Mitel Networks for around $2 billion. Macfarlanes also acted for the Wimbledon Park Golf Club during its £65 million scheme of arrangement acquisition by the All England Lawn Tennis Ground. Sources admitted that “the trainee tasks tend to be admin which feeds into the bigger deal. We keep on top of logistics and signing checklist and document lists, as well as preparing for filings and competitions.” Grunt work aside, corporate is a good seat for client contact: “Sometimes you’re the first port of call for clients and the requests that come in can sometimes be quite strange.” Diving headfirst into the opportunities on offer, one source spent their second day on the job “taking a call with a client at a large bank in New York to take them through a verification.” Trainees also typically run data rooms, draft ancillary documents and attend board meetings; if that’s not enough, some of our insiders “did quite a bit of corporate governance for other department’s clients.”

"The level of responsibility really made me feel like I'd got a sense of what it would be like to qualify here."

Over in investment management, trainees were able to get “a good mix of advisory and transactional work.” There’s a split here between working for the investors who are “looking at where and how to invest,” and the funds which are actually coughing up the money. Some trainees spent most of their time here “fundraising for private equity houses or hedge funds”; others “conducted fund reviews for investors – effectively risk-checking and ensuring the client is happy with the terms.” The team recently advised private equity firm Mayfair Equity Partners on raising its second fund, which closed at £650 million; and Quilter Investors on Brexit, GDPR and the separation of Old Mutual Global Investors from Old Mutual Wealth. Trainees in the seat sunk their teeth into “drafting private placement memorandum, limited partnership agreements and subscription agreements,” as well as “little bits of research” and general project management. “It was really cool to have my name on documents that investors would see and invest on the basis of!” Trainees noted that the department “can be quite full-speed but you can always seek the guidance of someone above you.” They also suggested that “the level of responsibility really made me feel like I’d got a sense of what it would be like to qualify here.”

By royal appointment

There’s a change of pace heading into Macfarlanes’ private client practice. The firm acts for high net worth individuals ranging from “entrepreneurs to royal families” and a seat here generally involves “helping with trusts and estate planning, tax issues and wills and probate work.” It’s a different kettle of fish from the corporate-style seats as “you go from working on maybe one or two matters in one go, to handling ten to 15 different ones for different families and individuals. It gives you more variety.” As you may have guessed from the department’s name, we can’t tell you much about the firm’s clients, but can confirm the work often has an international element which sometimes involves “offshore trusts with numerous jurisdictions.” Sources found the work to be research-heavy, especially on “tax points or cross-jurisdictional issues.” Trainees also enjoyed taking the first crack at drafting wills and letters of wishes as well as trust documents like deeds of appointment or termination.

The real estate team is similar to private client in that trainees might be “working on up to 20 different matters at any one time.” These can range from development cases to landlord/tenant disputes and classic sale and purchase work; the team advised Legal & General UK Build to Rent Fund on acquisition, development and funding for its national build to rent portfolio including the forward purchase of 350 residential departments and amenity space in West Tower Deansgate. Other clients on the books include Canary Wharf Group and shopping centre investment trust Intu Properties. “Supervisors often let you run some matters yourself,” interviewees told us. “I was recently asked to negotiate a wayleave agreement with the other side with very little input from my supervisor. They trust that you will ask for help if you need it.” Others had drafted an array of documents including licences for alteration, simple leases and sale and purchase agreements – “you get to work directly with partners on larger matters.” Trainees also deal with the completion and post-completion processes.

"They're good about making sure you have court experience."

Litigation houses subgroups with different specialities including construction, contentious trusts, white-collar crime and commercial disputes.  One of the latter involved defending a private equity house in a £150 million+ High Court suit prompted by the takeover of a clothing business. Trainees were often involved in timetabling and bundling but also got the chance to draft witness statements; sources reckoned “you have less direct responsibility in litigation because it’s so important that whatever goes out is 100% right and accurate. Everything needs to be partner-approved.” More positively for trainees, the firm is “good about making sure you get court experience. It’s quite normal for trainees to go to hearings if not a full trial.” There’s also offshore-related work in this seat: Macfarlanes recently acted for the Investec Trust (Guernsey) on numerous disputes linked to the Tchenguiz Family Trusts, one of which has been rumbling on for nine years.

Mac-near, Macfar

One source admitted that “a welcoming culture wasn’t what I’d expected joining a corporate City firm. I think it’s something about having just one office that makes us unique.” Trainees felt that Macfarlanes stands apart from larger rivals because “we’re not part of some big global entity. Everyone you work with is here in the building.” The firm runs several clubs to encourage bonding including football, netball, table tennis and a presumably less sweaty ‘culture club’. “We do fun activities for charity too: we’ve got a Macfarlanes triathlon coming up which we do in departmental teams with treadmills and rowing machines.” If that all sounds like too much exercise, socialising is still possible as “you often can’t leave without bumping into people you know and getting a drink at the pub just outside.”

Like at most City firms, trainees’ hours varied hugely by department. Interviewees found the investment management seat “consistently busy,” some reporting that “a ten to 12-hour day was pretty normal.” That said, trainees would “be told to leave at 3pm” once deals had closed. Unsurprisingly, M&A was “the most up-and-down” seat: “When I was on a deal there were more midnight finishes but those periods don’t last long.” Trainees were comforted by the knowledge that “if one person is busy, the whole team is busy. Everyone is together and it’s a nice team environment.” Not knowing when the craziness will start means evening plans aren’t always easy to stick to, but sources noted: “The firm makes the effort to try and make sure you don’t work on weekends.” Some departments like private client and tax offered more consistent 6.30pm to 7.30pm finishes.

“It’s good to get the right training before jumping in head-first.”

Macfarlanes may once have carried an “old-school reputation” but today’s trainees reckoned “that has largely fallen by-the-by. Some departments are slightly more traditional but I haven’t experienced any sense of stuffiness.” One tradition Macfarlanes has stuck to is its provision of “fantastic training” throughout trainees’ two years: “Every department has a training programme for trainees. In the first four weeks there’s vigorous morning or lunchtime training sessions for all aspects of the department.” Sources admitted: “It seems long-winded at the time, but it’s really helpful. It’s good to get the right training before jumping headfirst into a seat.” Following that there are whole-department trainings as well as skills sessions on things like writing and reading documents. “The informal training is impressive too, people make a real effort to sit you down and explain things. You almost feel bad for taking up so much of people’s time.”

There’s a similarly rigorous approach to the firm’s diversity efforts: “We have a BME programme and recently launched a female solicitors’ group. Sessions cover skills that can help you progress and it provides a forum to talk about any issues.” Trainees also got involved in other diversity initiatives including “mentoring at underprivileged schools in London to try and instil an interest in law early” and other schemes. “The initiatives will take time to make a difference, but we’re starting to see the effects trickle through,” a source concluded. “Our incoming graduate classes have been more diverse – it’s still an uphill battle but I'm reassured that real steps are being taken.”

Qualification at Macfarlanes kicks off “quite soon into your fourth seat.” Trainees attend a presentation in which the firm explains the process and outlines how many spaces each department has. Partners “put out feelers” before this; the firm told us that offers are made based on capacity for NQs in each department. Trainees then submit a form with their preferences, and depending on how many people apply for a role there may or may not be interviews. “If a department is oversubscribed, they try hard to help you find another position. The firm is relatively flexible and transparent about the process.” Impressively, Macfarlanes retained all 30 qualifiers in 2019.

In the midst of summer pay rises across the City, the firm bumped NQ base salaries to £85,000 in July 2019.

How to get a Macfarlanes training contract 


Vacation scheme deadline (2020): 31 January 2020 

First-year insight day deadline (2020): 28 February 2020 

Training contract deadline (2022): 31 July 2020 

Vacation scheme 

Macfarlanes attends "a select 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,” says 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 ‘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 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 ‘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 and senior soliciotr 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 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 90
  • Associates 253
  • Total trainees 61
  • UK offices London
  • Overseas offices 1
  • Contacts 
  • Graduate recruiter: Catherine Morgan-Guest, [email protected], 020 7831 9222
  • Training partner: Seán Lavin, [email protected]
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contracts pa: 31
  • Applications pa: 800
  • Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
  • Minimum UCAS points or A levels: None
  • Vacation scheme places pa: 55
  • Dates and deadlines 
  • Training contract applications open: 1 October 2019
  • Training contract deadline 2022 start: 31 July 2020
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2019
  • Vacation scheme 2020 deadline: 31 January 2020
  • 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 day 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.u

Applications are online via the website and close on 28th February 2020.

University law careers fairs 2019

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, 2019

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers: High-end Capabilities (Band 3)
    • 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: Purchaser (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 1)
    • Employment: Employer (Band 3)
    • Environment Recognised Practitioner
    • Litigation (Band 3)
    • Pensions (Band 5)
    • Real Estate Finance (Band 5)
    • Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 3)
    • Tax (Band 2)
    • Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 3)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 3)
    • Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 5)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
    • Investment Funds: Open-ended Funds (Band 2)
    • Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 3)
    • Partnership (Band 2)
    • Partnership: Large International Structures (Band 2)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 3)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: Mid-Market (Band 1)