Macfarlanes LLP - True Picture

This suave silver circler has charmed many an ambitious trainee with its mix of top-end commercial and private client work.

Brussels sprouting

Macfarlanes is a distinguished London institution, with a unique offering for those who have trouble choosing between working for mega companies or serving the mega rich. This 'silver circle' firm packs a mean punch for both its corporate and private client work – achieving top-tier Chambers UK rankings for both of these areas in the capital. It also scoops up high rankings in private equity, agriculture, investment funds, construction and tax.

Traditionally, Macfarlanes has been strictly single-site, operating out of its digs close to Chancery Lane station. However, in January 2017, it broke with tradition and opened up shop in Brussels after hiring an ex-King & Wood Mallesons competition partner who was based in the de facto EU capital. Far from heralding a new era of overseas expansion, graduate recruitment partner Seán Lavin assures us this new office is “specifically linked to the recent expansion of the EU and competition practice, including accommodating the Brussels-based lawyers we hired from KWM.” (London also gained two ex-KWM competition bods.) Lavin continues: “The strength of our firm is built around our independence and we have no desire to change that. Being a quality independent UK law firm has enabled us to maintain a strong place in a market in which most of our competitors have chosen to pursue the global, rather than the independent, model.”

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that the firm's concentrated physical presence means it has a predominantly domestic practice: “I don't think I've done any work that hasn't had an international element to it,” one trainee reckoned. Macfarlanes is top-ranked in Chambers Global for its deft handling of the international super-rich, with notable expertise in the concerns of Russian, American and Middle Eastern clients. Our sources were quick to tell us how this all trickles down into the work they do across the firm's departments: “In litigation the research we do is often about jurisdictional issues or how an international element affects part of the case. In corporate we're often dealing with a huge international company that spans many jurisdictions, while in private client we often act for foreign individuals with UK assets or British citizens with international interests.”

Full throttle

A seat in M&A is compulsory, as is one with a corporate specialist team such as commercial, pensions or banking and finance. The remaining two seats can be filled with stints in the litigation, private client, commercial real estate or tax and structuring departments. Trainees rank three preferences prior to each rotation. “If you're consistently putting down the same two or three choices, you're more likely to get them,” sources advised. Most were content with the allocation process, though several did note that “if you don't get any of your choices the reasons behind that can be quite opaque.” Client secondments were scrapped a couple of years back, but trainees are hardly clamouring for their return: “It's much better to get your face out there within the firm for a whole two years.”

The corporate and M&A department's VIP client list includes RBS, Deutsche Bank and Visa. Both mid-market and high-end deals crop up here, and some run into the billions: the team recently advised Formula One's senior management members on its jumbo $8 billion sale to US mass media outfit Liberty Media. It also acted for US communications giant Verizon during its $2.4 billion acquisition of Irish software company Fleetmatics. The M&A department also houses a large private equity group, which represents PE houses like Lyceum Capital and 3i; the team recently advised the latter on its £300 million sale of baby bottle maker Mayborn Group to Chinese cosmetics maker Shanghai Jahwa.

Trainees can tackle both public and private acquisitions, as well as IPOs: “I prefer the private side; public deals are more rule-dominated with very strict deadlines, while private deals feature a lot more commercial negotiation,” one deal-doer explained.  “A lot of the trainee tasks are fairly low-level, like disclosure and due diligence,” another source told us. “You're often the first point of contact for the client. If something more complicated comes up you field it off to your supervisor, but essentially you're the admin body who drives everyone forward.” Becoming a master of organisation is key, as trainees are tasked with “keeping track of everything, running the document list and making sure nothing gets lost or forgotten.” Some diary time can still be allocated to drafting though, as interviewees had penned ancillary documents and first drafts of heftier share purchase agreements.

“Combing through newspaper archives at the British Library to prove the theft of some artwork.”

Private client “covers everything from immigration and charity law to probate matters and tax structuring and planning.” Ultra high net worth foreign individuals seeking UK residency or wealthy Brits with cash stashed abroad are both regular features here. One source admitted: “Private client really surprised me. People think of it as old-fashioned lawyering with wills and probates, but there is so much corporate structuring. There's a huge overlap with our corporate tax department due to the types of vehicles we're using to structure trusts in different jurisdictions.” Sources often find themselves honing their drafting skills on “agreements between various companies in these structures: this seat boosts your technical drafting knowledge on both corporate and more traditional private client documents.” Indeed, a whole host of wills, codicils, deeds of assignment and terminations of trust all flow from trainees' pens.

Trainees here are taken along to client meetings to “frantically scribble down notes,” but interaction with the clients themselves is “very limited in scope; I had the least client contact in private client,” one fourth-seater told us. “It's a very advisory seat and as a trainee you just don't know enough to give them any real meaningful advice.” Tasks can therefore be “more process-driven, like compiling document lists,” sources told us. “It's a very technical department and matters are rarely straightforward; if one involves a UK resident with UK assets a trainee will get more responsibility, as it's a lot less complex than something involving assets in fifteen jurisdictions and multiple holding companies.”

Walking on eggshells

The litigation group has an eclectic list of clients, including mining extraordinaire Anglo American, Thai Airways and Lego. The group takes on all kinds of disputes, so trainees could see anything from employment spats and private client trust squabbles to financial services investigations complete with dawn raids. General commercial disputes that have hit boiling point are also on the menu: the team recently advised Dutch dried egg product producer NIVE on a €23 million breach of contract dispute with its US customer, which required Macfarlanes' litigators to become well acquainted with the US Egg Products Inspection Act.

The mix of disputes means trainees can be assigned “really strange, niche research tasks,” sources told us. “One person ended up combing through newspaper archives at the British Library to prove the theft of some artwork.” Doc review “is inevitable, but you get to know the case well and can therefore make meaningful contributions when asked for your opinion,” one source reasoned. Another upbeat trainee told of how their time delving into the docs “all went toward probing a client's employees on suspicious looking communications; I got to sit in on those interviews and draft the report afterwards.” Bundling, disclosure exercises and drafting correspondence to the other side are all on the table too.

“It's really cool to see the tangible impact of what you're doing when you see the building go up.”

Macfarlanes' real estate team handles investment and development work, commercial lettings and mega property acquisitions; they represented property manager Intu Properties during its £410 million acquisition of a 50% stake in the Merry Hill shopping centre near Birmingham. They also advised real estate portfolio managers AXA IM -- Real Assets on the building contract for the development of 22 Bishopsgate in London; once complete the towering skyscraper, complete with shops, offices and homes, will be the tallest building in the City of London. Interviewees relished working on development matters as “it's really cool to see the tangible impact of what you're doing when you see the building go up.” Acquisitions often see trainees working with the corporate department to chip in with due diligence and the drafting of reports. Meanwhile lower value landlord/tenant work features plenty of reviewing and drafting of leases, licences to sublet and deeds of easement.

Most seats allow trainees to grab their coats and head for the door around 7.30pm, but transactional departments such as corporate and banking can involve some energy-zapping spikes: “Near the end of a deal you're in until midnight or the early hours of the morning.” Those seeking coffee to power them through the longer hours were pleased with the addition of “a jazzy new coffee place” the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs – which has sprung up in the firm's new office building. Macfarlanes used to be spread across six buildings clustered close together, but a new space has been constructed to merge these sites together, “making the environment more cohesive.”

Eddie the Legal Eagle

A couple of years ago Macfarlanes introduced a trainee survey to try and uncover any niggles bothering its junior members. Feedback from the first round overhauled the review and mentorship system: trainees now sit down for a mid and end-of-seat review with their supervisor; the latter is followed by another meeting with a member of the trainee committee and the trainee's partner principal – “someone who’s assigned to mentor you for the two years” – to chat about their review or any issues bothering them. “When things are going swimmingly it can feel like overkill,” one source admitted. “But it works really well if you ever do have any problems.” The survey has also resulted in some tweaks to the qualification process: trainees were pleased to report that the firm now rolls out an NQ vacancy list and were especially pleased to discover more vacancies than trainees applying. In 2017 the firm kept on 29 out of its 31 qualifiers.

“We're old school in the sense that we prioritise the quality of our work and relationships with clients."

“We have a reputation for being old fashioned, but that's not what we're about,” many sources were keen to stress. One revealed: “I didn't apply for two years because I thought it was this stuffy Oxbridge firm. It might have been that way a few decades ago but now the trainees come from more varied backgrounds.” Macfarlanes is a big advocate for using blind and contextual recruiting to help reap a more diverse intake: “The Rare contextual recruitment tool isfantastic because it shows candidates' actual A-level grades against the average for their schools, as well as other social mobility factors, so it helps us to level the playing field,” graduate recruitment partner Seán Lavin tells us.

Others felt that traces of this reputation do remain: “We're a bit more restrained and conservative. We don't go in for big flashy offices or lavish gestures. We're old school in the sense that we prioritise the quality of our work and relationships with clients above something like opening lots of new offices,” one interviewee said. Another agreed that “it's a demanding place with high standards,” but qualified: “Although people take pride in their work they don't confuse that with corporate masochism or aggression.” Different groups can attract different personalities, so “in corporate they're really tongue in cheek,” while in private client “you'll find the more eccentric, eclectic people.”

One throwback still floating around is the firm's peculiarly-named trainee social committee, QUACC. It stands for 'Quasi Articled Clerks Committee' and refers to the term once used for trainees: the articled clerk. “We tried to vote for a new name in our annual survey but couldn't come up with anything, so we're stuck with it,” one source admitted. They may be lumped with the name, but the group is hardly a lame duck and organises trainee get-togethers on a quarterly basis. There are plenty of social events in between these, involving departmental drinks trolleys, sports clubs and quick jaunts down the pub in the evenings. Don't despair if necking pints is not your bag though, as Macfarlanes also hosts regular 'Culture Club' events. “How to describe Culture Club...?” one trainee mused. “It's so weird. One time Eddie the Eagle came in to give a talk and at the next event they showed Star Wars. Then an artist came in and taught us how to paint, and the next one's a showing of La La Land. A whole range of interests are catered for.”

From firm-wide netball and football tournaments to squash, cycle and even table tennis clubs – is there any sport Macfarlanes lawyers won't turn their hand to?


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How to get a Macfarlanes training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2018): 31 January 2018

First-year insight day deadline (2018): 28 February 2018

Training contract deadline (2020): 31 July 2018

Vacation scheme

Macfarlanes attends “as many law fairs as possible,” but also hosts in-house presentations and networking events on campus. 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 vac scheme with the firm – that proportion is higher than it was in the past. There are three vac 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 – and the pay is £330 per week.

Typical vac scheme tasks include research, drafting and sitting in on meetings with clients or counsel. “We want students to  eel 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, bowling and pizza evening and a lunch with the partners.

Vac 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.”

Vac schemers 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's 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 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.

Interview with graduate recruitment partner Seán Lavin

We chat with graduate recruitment partner Seán Lavin.

Chambers Student: Macfarlanes recently opened a Brussels office. What was the reason behind that?

Seán Lavin: It was specifically linked to the recent expansion of our EU and competition practice, including accommodating the Brussels-based lawyers we hired from King & Wood Mallesons. We are an independent UK firm and our international policy is to not pursue foreign offices.  We have, however, had a presence in other places from time to time (in Tokyo and South Africa, for example). This tends to occur when we see a specific opportunity for the business – in this instance, it made sense to have a base in Brussels to support the former KWM employees we took on out there.

CS: What should students know about the firm's strategy and what you want to achieve?

SL: The strength of our firm is built around our independence and we have no desire to change that. Being a quality independent UK law firm will enable us to maintain a strong and distinctive place in a market in which most of our competitors have chosen to pursue the global rather than the independent model.

CS: The firm's offices are currently undergoing building works to bring all of your lawyers under one roof. Can you tell us a bit about that?

SL: We moved in during September 2017: the new building is adjacent to our existing offices. It's a transformational moment in the life of our firm. We've not been able to bring all our lawyers together under one roof for many years and we are delighted to be able to do so now. It's also really important for us to be able to stay in this part of London and we'd have been disappointed if we'd had to move, so it's great that we have been able to achieve both objectives in a state of the art building. 

CS: You've also continued to undertake your trainee survey. Have there been any recent changes implemented because of feedback?

SL: As a result of the survey last year, we improved our review processes and established trainee constituency groups to give trainees direct access to partners on the trainee solicitor committee in small discussion groups (in addition to their individual partner mentors). Feedback on last year’s initiatives was essentially positive. We're going to stick with and improve them and seek out feedback again in the next survey.

The survey process is an end in itself because it allows our trainees to express their views, have access to partners and become part of the dialogue about what's going on at the firm. 

CS: You've implemented contextual and blind recruiting for a couple of years –  are you happy with the results it's producing?

SL: The Rare contextual recruitment tool is fantastic because it shows candidates' actual A level grades against the average for their schools, as well as other social mobility factors, so it helps us to level the playing field between candidates from different backgrounds.

Improving diversity at a firm is a work in progress and it can take time for results to flow through to partner level. It's about recruiting, retaining and promoting all groups (not just trainees) in the firm fairly and we have spent a lot of time reviewing our processes this year to ensure that everyone has the same chance to develop and advance here. The trainees we hire tend to stay here for a long time. The partners on our trainee solicitor committee are therefore acutely aware of the important opportunity we have to improve the firm’s diversity.

Recruitment decisions have to be fair to all which is why we were quick to embrace the CV blind and contextual recruitment methods. 

Macfarlanes LLP

20 Cursitor Street,

  • Partners 87
  • Associates 239
  • Total trainees 60
  • UK offices London
  • Overseas offices Brussels
  • Contacts 
  • Graduate recruiter: Catherine Morgan-Guest, [email protected], 020 7831 9222
  • Training partner: Seán Lavin, [email protected]
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contracts pa: Up to 30
  • 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 2017
  • Training contract deadline 2020 start: 31 July 2018
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
  • Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 January 2018
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £42,000
  • Second-year salary: £46,000
  • Post-qualification salary: £75,000
  • Holiday entitlement: 26 days
  • Sponsorship 
  • LPC fees: Yes
  • GDL fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £7,000
  • International and regional 
  • Offices with training contracts: London
  • Overseas seats: None
  • Client secondments: None

Firm profile

Macfarlanes is a leading City law firm with a straightforward, independently-minded approach. The driving force behind the firm is an absolute commitment to delivering the right advice in the right way to clients. The size of the firm is important. Macfarlanes keeps things simple. It decided against growth at the expense of quality, against size at the expense of efficiency and agility. So whilst the firm is large enough to advise on the most complex matters, it is also small enough to ensure that its people and its work are exceptional, without fail.

Main areas of work

Banking and finance; commercial; competition; corporate and M&A; corporate and regulatory investigations; data privacy; derivatives and trading; employment; financial services regulation; hedge funds; investment management; IP and IT; litigation and dispute resolution; pensions; private client; private equity; projects; 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 in different areas of practice; typically it is one seat in corporate and M&A, a seat in one of the firm’s specialised practice areas within corporate and then two seats in either private client, litigation, commercial real estate or tax. The precise allocation of seats is flexible so that it can offer you as broad a legal training as possible. 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 £330 pw. 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.

Applications are online via the website and close on 28 February 2018.

University law careers fairs 2017

BPP, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Exeter, Nottingham, Oxford and York.

Macfarlanes will also be hosting events at their London office. Further information can be found on the firm’s website.

Social media

Facebook MacfarlanesGrad

Twitter @MacfarlanesGrad

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2017

Ranked Departments

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