Macfarlanes LLP - True Picture

Off the beaten track, Macfarlanes forges its own path with a sterling mix of corporate and private client practices.

Macfarlanes training contract review 2024

The Firm

You know those things that don’t often go together, but it’s great when they do? Think peanut butter and marmite or Noel Fielding and the Great British Bake Off. Macfarlanes’ roll of the dice was to mix corporate and private client, and it’s another one that’s paid off. The firm has cooked up a £303.7 million revenue from its London HQ and satellite Brussels office in the last year, and bagged a bunch of accolades in the process.

“... an opportunity to make a name for yourself!”

Macfarlanes scoops a top-tier Chambers UK nationwide ranking in private equity buyouts, alongside corporate M&A and banking & finance: borrowers in London. There are also impressive rankings on the lenders side in the capital, as well as fund finance, commercial and corporate litigation, real estate and tax. The combination of practices wasn’t lost on the firm’s current cohort either: “I wanted a corporate law firm, but I didn’t want to be limited to corporate law!” one summarised. In short, what better place to find “an opportunity to make a name for yourself!”

The Seats

Macfarlanes has recently made some changes to the seat allocation process. Now trainees pick their top three choices from two pools – so six in total – with their ranked lists being sent to the careers team two months before changeover. Take a look at the 'Firm Facts' box on the right-hand side to get an idea of what groups fall under which pools. The general impression we got was that trainees were broadly happy with the seats they had been assigned to, but it did come with a word of caution for the most popular seats: “You’llneed to put them as your top choice every time.” Most trainees at the firm will spend at least some time in a corporate seat, “because the knowledge and experience is something that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your contract.” We were also told: “If you really don’t want to do it, you can structure your contract around it…” but as one trainee quipped, “if you were completely against corporate work, it’d be weird that you’d be here!” 

So, what might trainees in corporate expect from a seat built around learning the ropes? Well, expect a mixture, and a good deal of it: “Matters move quickly,” one source emphasised, “so there’s quite a bit of variety.” The corporate work on offer at the firm breaks into four key areas: public M&A, private M&A, private equity, and general corporate advisory. Here, trainees are subject to your typical drafting of ancillary documents but there is also a fair bit of project management, and trainees reassured that “the group’s efficient work allocation system and catch-ups ensure people aren’t doing the same thing over and over again!” In one recent deal, the firm represented cyber security solutions company NortonLifeLock on its merger with FTSE 100 company Avast.

Similar to the corporate team, banking features a lot of project managing deals both borrower and lender side, with drafting of ancillary documents and taking note of board minutes a trainee’s bread-and-butter: “It’s definitely one of the busier areas of the firm,” one trainee admitted, “but it is a fun team.” The type of work newbies do in the seat is dictated largely by who your supervisor is, but “there is scope to get involved in litigation because bankruptcy sits in that – it’s easy to branch out if you have capacity.” In one recent deal, Macfarlanes advised Binderholz UK on its acquisition of the BSW Group, the largest integrated timber and forestry business in the UK.

“…clients don’t want to read 60 pages of tax analysis, so we’re making our products look as good as they are technically!”

For trainees in private client, the sensitivity of a lot of the cases means “you’re not as outwardly facing.” As one trainee put it: “They read everything – even a senior associate has his emails approved by a partner!” – understandable given the firm’s longstanding relationships with some clients. The department works on a lot of trust tax matters – “succession stuff – generational wealth but also hedge fund managers and CEOs.” The tax & reward group folds in aspects of Macfarlanes' private client group besides its corporate, property, employment and fund formation work, but “it’s tax and private client that are very similar; they’re very technical so you’re making research notes, notes on advice for fund structures – it requires a very legal mind.” The team advises on the full spectrum of tax-related work, from VAT, tax policy and tax risk management to corporate advisory; "There’s huge variety in what you can do!” Something trainees found of particular interest was the creating aspects of structure papers for funds and M&A deals; “you do a lot of that as a trainee; in a structure paper you might have diagrams showing what’s going on – clients don’t want to read 60 pages of tax analysis, so we’re making our products look as good as they are technically!”

Within Macfarlanes’ funds offering, the firm has deep ties to private fund structuring, with a host of private equity manager clients like 17Capital, CBPE and Abrdn. In one recent example, the group advised UK-based private equity firm Synova on its Synova V fund, which closed at £875 million. For trainees in the seat, “it’s mostly regulated funds,” one explained, “a mixture of advisory and a bit of project management, so you’re advising clients, speaking with the FCA, doing some interesting drafting which isn’t necessarily contractual.” A lot of the work in the seat involves assisting clients in the hedge fund and private equity space work with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) to complete forms with the details of entities applying for statuses, “and there’s less precedent,” we heard, which helps to spice things up a little.

On the contentious side, the litigation department at Macfarlanes is now the firm’s biggest revenue earner, so while “by nature of litigation you don’t get as much responsibility,” there is still plenty for trainees to be getting on with. The team covers the breadth of litigious work and there is the option for trainees to get exposure to a spread of the different sub-teams that include the likes of international arbitration, construction litigation or corporate crime. “You do a lot of organisation and project management,” one trainee outlined, “so you’re in charge of knowing court deadlines and the next steps on a case.” One of the standout features of life in litigation was the fact that there are “a lot of client meetings, writing strategy notes to give to them, going to court, and taking calls with other lawyers – sometimes you’re a co-defendant so you’re working on strategy together.” You’ll likely come across a host of names you recognise too, with the firm’s client list including the likes of the State of Qatar and NatWest, and the firm recently represented Red Bull Racing in cases related to the movement of senior engineers between rival F1 teams… very cool indeed.

Macfarlanes’ financial services & products team shares a number of clients with the litigation department, but the firm boasts both a contentious and non-contentious regulatory practice. On the contentious side, the firm advises on regulatory disputes, enforcement actions and investigations. In one recent case, the firm represented the banks as members of the British Bankers’ Association in defence of a multimillion-dollar claim in the High Court over allegations that the BBA and its members conspired to manipulate the US Dollar BBA LIBOR interest rate benchmark during the financial crisis. On the non-contentious side, “the practice is the hub for all things ESG at the firm,” one trainee explained; “ESG is new, so you get to take the lead on that” – with newbies even being tasked with outlining the entirety of a funds management framework for a client.

Trainee Life

The general consensus among the trainees we spoke to was that there was high expectations when it came to the level of responsibility that trainees will take on: “It’s hard to emphasise just how much responsibility you get and how early it comes in!” This might sound daunting to some, but rest assured that trainees told us they felt well supported. All the trainees we spoke with were drawn by the firm’s “quality” formal training offerings which “all held up – Macs is brilliant with the organisation of training,” something that set newbies in good stead heading into their seats.

“It makes sure one trainee isn’t slammed while another has their feet up!”

It does also mean that trainees will find themselves juggling a fair bit, particularly in the larger departments. In corporate, for example, though trainees reported that you can be leaving at 5pm one day, the next “you can be working until two in the morning.” But, as one source put it: “You’re earning £50k as a trainee, so it comes with the territory.” To balance this however, some practices at the firm integrate work allocation systems to ensure trainees don’t have too much on their plates: “It makes sure one trainee isn’t slammed while another has their feet up!” one insider chuckled. Far from the “massive misconception that Macfarlanes is a stuffy firm,” those we spoke with were keen to highlight the firm’s sociable and friendly nature, yet trainees did concede that “at the top it is still quite Oxbridge and Eton heavy.”

Macfarlanes' trainees are expected to be in the office four days a week, but there was plenty to encourage trainees to come in: “Our number-one perk is our coffee shop!” With the firm’s headquarters just off Chancery Lane, and equipped with subsidised cookies and cakes, and free dinner in the evening, it’s no surprise that trainees felt “it’s quite the social place, and the staff are lovely too!” Although trainees were disappointed by the firm’s decision to chop off the Christmas party from the social calendar, they did tell us that the summer party is quite the affair involving a fairground – complete with a Ferris wheel and “dodgems – it was fun seeing the partners roll around on that!” Organised teams drinks also happen on a regular basis and there are a litany of clubs and societies like “chess, a running meet, rowing, a choir, music lessons… there’s a lot going on!”

“How will I get to be the smartest I can be by 30? Staying at Macs – that’s the answer!”

Six weeks into their fourth seat, trainees are given an insight into how many qualification spaces will be available in each department. Most of the heavy lifting is done through informal chats – “you’ve sat there for six months so they basically already know, you just tick a box on where you want to go,” but this can change depending on the seat and how many applicants a position gets. If a department is oversubscribed, interviews are held, but in seats like private client and litigation interviews are held regardless. Overall trainees were pretty positive about their prospects for progression, with one insider even asking the question, “How will I get to be the smartest I can be by thirty? Staying at Macs – that’s the answer!” In 2023, the firm retained 31 of 32 qualifiers.

Going the extra mile

Trainees are given an unlimited number of volunteering days for firm-approved charities or community projects.


How to get a training contract at Macfarlanes

  • Vacation scheme deadline (2024): Friday 5 January 2024 
  • First-year insight scheme deadline (2024): Friday 26 January 2024 
  • Training programme deadline (2026): Friday 19 July 2024 

Vacation scheme

Macfarlanes hosts a number of networking events, in-house presentations and its flagship events, including a virtual practice area open day, which allows students to explore each of the various practice areas, a Q&A with their senior partner and a dinner with their senior partner. 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 senior manager, early legal careers Catherine Morgan-Guest.  

50% of trainees 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 around 65 places in total across the three schemes, with pay that 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 early legal careers. Students sit in two different practice areas but also complete a mock transaction alongside other training sessions. Recent social highlights include crazy golf, flight club, a lunch and networking with the partners and a dinner on the penultimate night.  

Vacation scheme hopefuls can apply online. The firm typically receives around 1,500 applications each year. Macfarlanes looks for a predicted 2:1 degree result or above, but doesn’t have a minimum A level requirement. If you have extenuating circumstances which mean that you do not meet these requirements, you can still apply and detail these circumstances in your application form. You can also arrange a call with the early legal careers 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 an application interview and undertake ‘application blind’ assessments, which include a written exercise and a business case study exercise. With diversity and inclusion an important priority, the firm partners with Rare Recruitment. In the last three recruitment rounds, 60% of successful applicants were female and 30% were BME.   


“I’ve been told that our application process is tougher than other firms,” revealed training principal Jat Bains. To impress during the application process, Bains said it’s important to demonstrate certain traits: “Obviously we’re looking for brain power, but we also want people who work well with others and who are resilient to the demands of clients. Applicants need to demonstrate commerciality, practicality, ambition and a desire to work within the firm.”  

Macfarlanes receives another 1,200 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 9am until 2pm. The day involves a partner interview, plus two ‘application blind’ assessments, which include a written exercise and a business case study exercise.  

The interview 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 two different business case studies (which have been designed to test their commercial awareness) with a partner and senior solicitor who won’t have 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 trainees and early legal careers 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. Those who are concerned about a lack of legal experience can be reassured that the firm sees the value in all types of work experience. “Our application process isn’t a case of who you know or how many internships you’ve done, it’s about personal attributes,” says Jat Bains. 

Macfarlanes LLP

20 Cursitor Street,

Firm profile

We are a distinctive London-based law firm with a unique combination of services built and shaped around the needs of our clients. Our unrivalled blend of expertise, agility and culture means we have the flexibility to meet their most challenging demands and adapt to the changing world around us. While many of our practice areas can be found at other firms, the mix cannot.

As a trainee you could be working on major corporate transactions or commercial litigation, and then working for private clients on their most sensitive affairs.

We recruit people to build careers for the long term. We know each other personally which means we work together with more cohesion, and less formality. Our culture is thoughtful, challenging and supportive, and we are a place where everyone, at whatever level, can thrive.

Main areas of work

Our main practice areas are: commercial, brands, IP and IT; competition/antitrust; construction; corporate and M&A; derivatives and trading; employment; finance; financial services and products; lawtech;litigation and dispute resolution; pensions; private client; private equity; private funds; real estate; restructuring and insolvency; reward 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 SQE and a week-long induction at the start of your training programme. During the two-year training programme you will complete four six-month seats and will have the opportunity to work on real cases, doing real work for real clients from day one. Our seat rotation is designed with trainees in mind — we want to give you enough flexibility to shape your training programme 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 a spring and two summer vacation schemes. Each scheme runs for two weeks and remuneration is£450pw. 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 should be made online via the website and will close on 5 January 2024.

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 from either a law or non-law background. Candidates need to be in either the first year of a three year undergraduate degree or second year of a four year undergraduate degree.

Applications should be made online via the website and will close on 26 January 2024.

University law careers fairs 2023

Macfarlanes will be hosting a number of events over the coming months, both in-person and online. Further information can be found on the firm’s website.

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2023

Ranked Departments

    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers: Mid-Market (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance: Fund Finance (Band 2)
    • Banking & Finance: Lenders: Mid-Market (Band 2)
    • Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 4)
    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 2)
    • Competition Law (Band 3)
    • Construction: Contentious (Band 3)
    • Construction: Non-contentious (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: £100-800 million (Band 1)
    • Corporate/M&A: £800 million and above (Band 3)
    • Employment: Employer (Band 3)
    • Real Estate: £150 million and above (Band 2)
    • Tax (Band 1)
    • Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 2)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 3)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 3)
    • Investment Funds: Open-ended Funds (Band 1)
    • Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 3)
    • Partnership (Band 4)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: Up to £500 million (Band 1)
    • Real Estate Finance (Band 5)
    • Tax: Contentious (Band 3)

More from Macfarlanes:

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