The magic circle ‘odd one out’ has its own way of doing business, which leaves its trainees with “the sense that you’re in the best place for training.”
A high slaughtermark
“The chances are every trainee will be involved in some kind of multibillion-dollar deal,” thought one source. And headline-hitting work too, we’d wager. It could be advising Carillion on its £5.75 billion restructuring and entry into liquidation. Or maybe on TSB’s IT crisis, which locked almost two million people out of their online banking. Or perhaps advising Walmart on the Asda–Sainsbury’s merger. Trainees thought “it’s cool to be involved” with high-profile matters: “Everyone knows who Asda is, rather than obscure private equity firms.”
To begin answering that perennial question of how to tell the magic circle firms apart, you might look at the FTSE 100: Slaughters represents 32 of them – more than any other law firm. Burberry, Rolls-Royce, Barclays, Vodafone, Standard Life, and Diageo all adorn the firm’s client roster. Simply put, Slaughters aspires to excellence. Students know it, the clients know it, and Chambers UK knows it: the guide bestows top-tier rankings in corporate/M&A, insurance, banking & finance, competition law, financial crime and tax.
“You’re constantly doing new things, which is a bit alarming at first!”
For our interviewees, one of Slaughters’ key differentiators was its multi-specialist approach. Behind the walls of 1 Bunhill Row are corporate lawyers advising banks one day and fashion institutions the next; brains in dispute resolution that can ponder investigations and international arbitration alike. “You’re constantly doing new things, which is a bit alarming at first!” said trainees. “You can never think, ‘Oh yes, I did this last week, I’ll just copy that.’” The system favours “people who don’t need a comfort zone. I can’t imagine doing one area. That’d be boring!” The idea is that, when you hire high-achievers, they want to be pushed, they want variety rather than pigeon-holing, and they want to begin moulding their careers.
That doesn’t mean seat allocation is a free-for-all, though. Before starting, trainees are invited to a departmental fair that’s “like speed dating,” but with reps from different departments rather than hot dates. They then outline their seat preferences for the training contract and are allocated their first seat. After three months settling in, they’ll have a catch-up with HR (to update their preferences if need be) before finding out the remainder of their seat plan. Both corporate and finance are compulsory, as is a contentious seat. HR occasionally facilitated swaps, but the bottom line? “It’s a preference – not a choice.”
An optional secondment comes in the second year, which has a separate “review-based” application. Just over 20% of second-years were on secondment at the time of our calls. With three overseas offices (Brussels, Beijing and Hong Kong), Slaughters “hasn’t got a sprawling empire,” unlike its magic circle companions. But what it does have is a network of ‘best friend’ firms. That might sound cute, but through it Slaughters mingles with like-minded elites like Cravath and Paul Weiss, and sends intrepid trainees far and wide: France, Germany, Spain, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, the States. New York was popular: “People see it as a good career move because Americans work so many hours, it’s a golden stamp if you survive!” But some sources passed on the opportunity based on the weather forecast: “I imagined myself sipping a piña colada in Madrid. But it was winter, so it would’ve been raining.” Rupert Holmes would be most disappointed.
“There were hundreds of documents! But it came together that night. Well, that morning.”
Slaughters’ largest departments are chunked into smaller groups as a way “to organise people,” rather than by types of work. Four corporate groups with about 12 trainees apiece handle enormous, cross-border transactions, like biopharmaceutical company Actelion’s $30 billion takeover by Johnson & Johnson, and the proposed $23 billion merger of Vodafone India with Idea Cellular. Our interviewees worked on deals “mostly in the hundreds of millions of pounds” and had dabbled in public and private M&A, private equity, investment funds, insurance, capital markets, bid work, joint ventures, IPOs, corporate governance, fundraising, reorganisations, and regulatory work.
On the big transactions “it’s inevitable you’re gonna be deep in due diligence.” No sugar-coating – trainees said this could be “intensely boring. You’re going through contracts red-flagging anything that might blow up.” Hopefully Slaughters' AI tech platform 'Luminance' will increasingly ease some of the more tedious aspects of due diligence in the years to come. Some got more out of handling the signing process on a private equity deal: “There were hundreds of documents! But it came together that night. Well, that morning.” More on hours shortly...
Many preferred smaller transactions: “I’ve been put in charge of a solvent liquidation, with support if needed. There are lots of board minutes to draft and loan agreements to terminate.” On an auction sale, “I got to negotiate one-on-one with various bidders.” There are also corporate law questions to answer: “A company on the Toronto stock exchange needed restructuring advice, so I was liaising with Canadian lawyers.” Drafting intra-group reorganisation documents was “good for trainees because there’s no contentious element. Before or after M&A, companies need to make sure their assets are in the right places and know what’s transferring where.”
Three finance groups tackle banking work, securitisation and derivatives, restructurings, and financial services regulation. Brexit has kept it busy – Slaughters is advising financial institutions such as Swedish bank Handelsbanken on how to maintain access to the EU single market. We spoke to trainees who assisted on the $3.8 billion restructuring of Premier Oil’s debt facilities. Working on a facility agreement for the financing of Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium presented a challenge: “I had lots of calls checking against the Premier League – they had specific rules about what we could and couldn’t do with funding.” Another was “managing corporate authorities and making sure I had all the signatures for a $4 billion financing of a loan for a multinational company.” Others tried their hand at drafting debentures, security agreements, refinancing loan agreements, board minutes, “bits of a prospectus for a bond issuer” and “quite a complicated section of a facility agreement.”
“Thank God the client liked their sandwiches!”
Trainees might spend three months in tax, which was popular with our sources. The group advises on the firm’s biggest transactions, like Michael Kors’ £896 million cash offer for Jimmy Choo, and Standard Life’s £11 billion merger with Aberdeen Asset Management. Trainees reported less client contact, “but more interesting work. It’s ‘black letter’ law, which is great for people who love to dig deep and research.” Research formed 80% of trainees’ workload, with the rest spent on the nebulous task of “finding stuff.” Er, finding what exactly? “I was asked to look for advice we gave in the ’90s – we’ve got files going back to the late ’80s in paper folders. Luckily it was a targeted search, but it can be annoying if the partner can’t remember exactly what they’re looking for!”
Elementary, my dear trainee
The dispute resolution group recently defended Banco Santander in the Court of Appeal against €1.3 billion claims arising from interest swap rates between the bank and Portuguese companies. It also acted for JPMorgan Chase in an investigation into its foreign exchange trading, and represented drinks company Diageo (owner of Guinness, Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff) in $180 million proceedings alleging breaches of commercial contracts by Vijay Mallya, a shareholder in United Spirits. Trainees dabbled in international arbitrations, investigations, injunctions and High Court litigation. In a tax dispute, “it was down to me to arrange the nitty-gritty – break-out rooms, transcribers, lunch. It was satisfying sitting in the trial thinking, ‘Thank God the client liked their sandwiches!’” Another observed a Supreme Court case involving VAT interest: “I had to prepare a long note on it, which got circulated around the department.”
Rolls-Royce called on the firm in the face of a Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigation. Trainees recommended being proactive on investigations: “Some people get bored – they’re looking through documents and don’t see how their section feeds into the big picture. I went to lots of meetings because I wanted to know how my own little piece worked. I ended up establishing a good relationship with the partner.” In another SFO investigation, “two of us were directing a team of 12 paralegals at one point.”
“You’re focused on supporting an argument or finding evidence, which can make it quite fun.”
Sometimes the work can feel administrative here: “You’re focused on supporting an argument or finding evidence, which can make it quite fun.” Another discovered why note-taking was important: “I went to lots of meetings with my supervisor – they would sometimes last for eight hours! Initially I felt a bit disillusioned, but that changed very fast.”
Trainees might spend three or six months in pensions and employment. Assisting on employment tribunals was common: “I went up to Edinburgh to do witness interviews and drafted statements.” Like tax, it was “research-heavy,” but with more client contact: “Clients would actually call me and ask me questions, which was a nightmare because I had to be like ‘I’m not your lawyer!’”
And how were those magic circle hours? “All sorts of horror stories echo around this building of people staying for 48 hours.” Corporate had the expected ups and downs: “Yesterday I left at 5.30pm, but a few weeks ago I was leaving at 2am.” 6pm to 7pm was a typical finance hometime, with busy periods bumping up to 11pm. Trainees in the smaller teams reported more predictable hours. “The sense that you’re in the best place for training carries people through” tough times, but “it’s an odd experience to walk into a building and not know when you’re gonna leave. It’s up to you if money makes up for that.” A first-year salary of £44,000 shoots up to £80,000 on qualification. You decide.
Not all partners are created equal
Slaughters carries the burden of a hundred magic circle preconceptions: “I thought people would be blue-blooded Oxbridge and have the same posh accent.” A non-Oxbridge trainee relished the challenge of applying: “People said I’d never get in if I hadn’t been to Oxbridge.” Trainees described their peers as “intellectual and quite nerdy,” but that didn’t mean chit-chat was always high-brow: “One morning we’re talking about geo-politics and the next it’s about Gossip Girl.” Some did observe “everyone’s had a similar sort of upbringing,” but for others “it’s much more diverse than I expected.” Some even felt they’d become more open-minded: “I never expected to see the world differently after joining a traditional firm.”
Slaughters’ diversity networks may have had a hand in this. Mental health network Thrive is appropriately “thriving,” having recently hosted a panel on what the firm could do to boost awareness: “People within the firm talked about some of their issues with mental health.” In light of the 2018 gender pay gap reveal, interviewees were encouraged by a women’s network initiative: “Women in each group are invited to a female partner’s house for drinks. It’s a completely free forum to discuss why there aren’t many women in partnership, and what can be done.” On this note, women described a “respectful atmosphere – if you were pulling any weird, ‘bro’ nonsense, you’d quickly get rapped on the knuckles.” LGBT group Prism was praised for its efforts (“A transgender soldier in the British armed forces gave a talk”) and for having “the best parties.”
Overall Slaughters “isn’t a party firm” but drinks organised by the trainee-solicitor committee were still “pretty good craic,” and on Fridays “a WhatsApp message goes round asking, ‘Artillery Arms from 6pm, anyone?’” Everyone descends on the Grosvenor Hotel for a “swanky” winter ball, which may be the only time everyone gets together. Again and again we heard: “Each department is a microcosm.” In tax and pensions, “you sit with your head in a book, whereas in corporate you’ve got deals going down, so there’s more barging in and a lot of chat.” The group’s ski trip to the French Alps helped break barriers: “I realised people weren’t as intimidating as they looked!”
“Partners set the culture.”
On this note, a clear sense of hierarchy emerged: “Partners set the culture. I sat with someone pretty quiet in one seat, and now I’m with someone gregarious. It’s far and away the biggest variable.” Some wanted more consistency: “You get a few renowned personalities who’re difficult for trainees to work with. That should be addressed instead of being ‘one of those things’.” And while an open-door policy is in place, we heard that common sense should prevail: “With more senior individuals you should build a relationship with them first before you start just wandering into their office.” In the canteen, “trainees sit with trainees, and partners with partners – they also have a separate dining room.” Coffee ‘pods’ on every floor were more of a hub: “Ours is always filled with cakes from birthdays. Currently we have Colin the Caterpillar in there.”
No billing targets meant “you can genuinely ask others for help. No one is like, ‘I can’t record this, this is a waste of my time.’” This fostered an “all-in-it-together approach” among trainees, along with qualification: “There are jobs for almost everyone. No one is thinking, ‘What if they tell me to get on my bike?” In 2018, 67 out of 74 Slaughters qualifiers were retained.
Slaughters may be famous for its multibillion-pound transactions, but arguably its most important deal in 2018 was guiding a teenie-weenie legal publishing house called Chambers and Partners on its buyout by private equity firm Inflexion.
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How to get a Slaughter and May training contract
Training contract deadline (2021): 29 March 2019 (opens 1 October 2018)
Applications for both the training contract and work experience schemes at Slaughter and May begin with a straightforward online form, plus a CV and one-page covering letter. “I just wrote why I wanted to join the firm and why I wanted to be a lawyer,” one of the firm's trainees recalled. “Keep it short and sweet, though it does need to be formal of course.”
“We don’t have set criteria demanding you have three As at A level,” a source in recruitment says (the firm, rather vaguely, asks for 'good' A levels), “but we do look for a strong 2:1 degree.” Our trainee sources agreed that “the Oxbridge influence is undeniable, but no one looks down on someone who hasn't gone to a top-ten uni.” The firm tells us it will be visiting 27 universities over the course of 2018/19, including Lancaster, Leicester and SOAS.
Slaughter and May starts receiving applications for its work experience schemes in October, and it's worth getting in there early as the firm schedules interviews on a rolling basis. The scheme is aimed at penultimate-year law and non-law students.
Unusually, approximately half of the 250 summer work experience interviews usually take place on campus. The interview takes place with a partner and an associate, and includes a discussion about a topical article.
The firm runs a week-long scheme at Easter, two three-week schemes over June and July for law undergrads, plus another three-week scheme in September for non-law students. There are usually around 25 students on each of the schemes. All students sit in a single department for the duration of their visit, and take part in various workshops and case studies. One major highlight is a day trip to the Brussels office.
Work experience students have the option of interviewing for a training contract during the last week of their placement. The firm informs us they aren't given special treatment over direct applicants, however, and are also required to do the written exercise direct applicants do as part of their interview process (see below).
Training contract applications
The firm typically receives around 2,000 applications each year for up to 85 training contracts. In 2017 around 550 students were invited to an interview day, which includes a written exercise, an interview with two partners, a tour of the office with a trainee and a short interview with HR.
According to the firm's trainees, succeeding at interview involves “showing you can think laterally. They don't want you to repeat verbatim what you learnt at law school; they want new solutions and fresh ideas.” Our grad recruitment sources tell us the firm is particularly interested in those who demonstrate “the ability to show grit under pressure” and have “a range of interests outside the law.”
Interview with co-graduate recruitment partner David Johnson
Chambers Student:From the perspective of trainees, what sets Slaughter and May apart from its magic circle rivals?
David Johnson: I think the variety and quality of work here is unrivalled. Our departments cover a broad range of work – this is what we mean by multi-specialism. If you go through another Magic Circle firm, you’ll maybe have a financing seat, but that’ll be specialised. It will be three or six months in maybe asset finance or securitization or leveraged finance. Here, you’ll have a six-month financing seat and in all likelihood will experience all of those things. So you get the same exposure but you also get the benefit of continuity. We see value in slightly longer seats and making sure the work inside those seats is as varied as it can be.
I’d also highlight the collegiate atmosphere, which is a tone that’s set from the partnership down. We are one team pulling together, and we have no hours targets as we don’t think that is the right way to motivate people.
We have a dedicated and hard-working innovation committee. They get together and come up with ideas on how we can do every aspect of our work in this firm differently, better and smarter. We try to challenge traditional notions - in response to people saying: ‘What do you mean we need collaboration spaces? What are those?’, others will say, ‘That is the way we’re all going to be working soon. Let’s be the first through the door.’
I think that may surprise people but we’re pretty confident people are going to get it once they come here. The challenge for us as recruiters is how we get our message out to say, ‘Don’t think Slaughter and May is not for you. Come and meet us and you may be really surprised.’
CS:The application process was a big hit among our interviewees. From your point of view, how does a streamlined approach help you find the best candidates?
DJ: We don’t tend to adopt an aggressive lateral hire strategy, so recruitment is vital to get the right people in the building. We like to develop our people and promote them through the ranks. So it follows that our recruitment process is very partner-led – around 60 partners are actively involved in interviewing candidates and we back the judgement of partners. When candidates get here we ask them to do one simple written exercise, and then we’ll interview them for an hour. And it’s that interview that is the centrepiece.
CS: What are the key things you look for in that interview?
DJ: If there was an overall message it would be: trust yourself to be yourself. If you’re in an interview, there must be something great about you.
In terms of specifics, we like to sense a bit of intellectual spark. And intellect is not just measured by your result on paper - it’s measured by how able you are to think on your feet. Can you show a genuinely inquisitive mind? A desire to learn?
Beyond that we look for personality. We want somebody who’s not afraid to be their own person, and able to express their own opinions.
CS:How do you focus on diversity in trainee recruitment?
DJ: We try to get our message out to as broad a range of academic institutions as we can. We have lawyers from around 80 different higher education institutions all around the world, and over 100 different courses are represented.
We also use organisations such as Rare Recruitment to widen the net of people who think about us. They identify talented students from diverse backgrounds and give them exposure to us, a commercial law firm, so they understand that, actually, it’s an enabling environment.
Whenever we have any interaction with students, we stress the fact that this is already a diverse organisation. We say that if you come and spend the day with us you will see the complete diversity at Slaughter and May.
CS:What's your message to any students who're disheartened by the gender pay gap at partner level?
DJ: The story is quite simple for us as we are a straight lockstep partnership, so there is no element of discretion in remuneration once you’re partner. Our fixed remuneration pays by reference only to the number of years you’ve been a partner, not by reference to any other criteria. So gender pay gap at partner level is a function of how many women are in our partnership. The real question is how are we going to get enough women through to partnership? That’s a challenge for all businesses. How do you get enough women into the higher echelons?
We have been doing a lot of work in this area and have implemented a number of mentoring and leadership development programmes for our women associates. If you look at women in the entire partnership now, it’s 24%, but since 2008, 34% of new partners have been women. And we will continue to strive to do better.
CS:Which work highlights would you like our readers to know about from the past twelve months?
DJ: In terms of high-profile M&A work, the GKN defence of the hostile bid by Melrose. Our client GKN tried to fight off Melrose on the basis that it undervalued the company. It was one of the few takeovers in recent years that went all the way down to the wire. And in the end Melrose just got over the line but the price Melrose was made to pay was outstandingly higher than the initial offer, so GKN did their job in getting maximum value for shareholders.
An example of some interesting international work was Cineworld’s acquisition of the Regal cinema business in the US. This made Cineworld the second-biggest cinema company in the world. That transaction involved raising a large amount of debt and equity and going through a US public offer process.
Litigation and investigations have been busy. We’ve recently won a series of very interesting mandates. We’re looking after BAT in its long-running investigation by the SFO. And we were also recently involved in a landmark pensions decision involving the BT pension scheme.
The rest of the firm remains incredibly buoyant. Like most firms, we’re pleasantly surprised by the level of activity given all the uncertainty in the business world at the moment.
CS:Has the firm made any kind of contingency plan forBrexit?
DJ: The only hard thing I can tell you is that we foresee the number of people we have in Brussels growing. And although we still see London being the financial centre of Europe post-Brexit, we are constantly horizon-scanning. Without a doubt there will be some bumps on the road, but we believe in London.
CS:What are the benefits of having a ‘best friend’ model with firms overseas, rather than having a Slaughter and May office in those jurisdictions?
DJ: For us it’s all about ensuring quality. We need to be able to offer the best service in every jurisdiction and to do that we need to partner with the best local firms rather than try to establish our own offices.
From a trainee’s perspective, we second lawyers to our relationship firms and they second lawyers to us. Is it harder to be a secondee in a firm that’s not Slaughter and May? I don’t think so - if you talk to our trainees who’ve been on secondment, they settle in quickly and find that our relationship firms are very like us.
We have very good opportunities in the US for trainees. Some of our most popular secondments are to New York. The great advantage of not practising US law is that the US law firms are delighted to have our people with them.
CS:Is there anything you’d like to add?
DJ: We’re very excited about our Fintech Fast Forward initiative. We offer legal advice to locally-based fintech start-ups who might not think of coming to a firm such as Slaughter and May. The nature of that advice gives opportunities for all levels of the firm to get involved, particularly trainees and to experience the excitement of helping a young company grow.
Magic circle law firms
Slaughter and May
One Bunhill Row,
- Partners 112*
- Associates 430*
- Total trainees 152*
- *Worldwide figures
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices Beijing, Brussels, Hong Kong plus relationship firms in all the major jurisdictions
- Contacts The trainee recruitment team, [email protected] com, 020 7090 4454
- Application criteria
- Training contract pa: 80-85
- Minimum required degree grade: Good 2:1
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: Good A levels
- Vacation scheme places pa: 100
- Dates and deadlines:
- Please visit firm website for all deadlines.
- Salary and benefits
- First year salary: £45,000
- Second year salary: £51,000
- Post qualification salary: £83,000
- Holiday entitlement: 30 days
- LPC and GDL: Fees plus maintenance grant
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
- Overseas seats: Our overseas offices and close working relationships with market-leading law firms in other jurisdictions mean there are opportunities for trainees to apply for a secondment in their second year.
- Recent trainee secondment destinations include Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Copenhagen, Dubai, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Madrid, Milan, Munich, New York, Oslo, Paris, Singapore, Stockholm, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto and Washington
We are committed to a forward thinking, innovative approach to legal service delivery to complement the best in class, business focused advice on which our reputation is built. We take great store in drawing strength from diversity. With 111 different degree courses from 83 different universities and 31 nationalities represented among our lawyers, our culture is extremely broad.
Our trainees come from a range of universities – it is the quality of the candidate, not the university that is important to us. We like people with a sharp intellect, independent thought and curiosity, commercial awareness, energy, spark and commitment, the ability to relate to others, common sense and judgement, integrity, a range of interests outside of the law, an interesting take on things, resolve and resilience, a good sense of humour and a willingness to take on responsibility.
During the two-year training contract, trainees turn their hand to a broad range of work, taking an active role in four, five or six legal groups while sharing an office with a partner or experienced associate. All trainees spend at least two six-month seats in our market leading corporate, commercial and financing groups. Subject to gaining some contentious experience, they choose how to spend the remaining time. Our overseas offices and close working relationships with market-leading law firms in other jurisdictions mean there are opportunities for trainees to apply for a secondment in their second year.
Vacation scheme, open days and first-year opportunities
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Banking & Finance: Borrowers (Band 1)
- Banking Litigation (Band 2)
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 4)
- Capital Markets: Equity (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Structured Finance & Derivatives (Band 4)
- Competition Law (Band 1)
- Construction: Purchaser (Band 5)
- Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 1)
- Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 1)
- Information Technology (Band 3)
- Intellectual Property (Band 4)
- Litigation (Band 2)
- Pensions (Band 2)
- Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 5)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 3)
- Tax (Band 1)
- Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 3)
- Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 2)
- Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 2)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 3)
- Insurance: Contentious Claims (Band 5)
- Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 1)
- Life Sciences: Transactional (Band 3)
- Outsourcing (Band 2)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 4)
- Retail: Corporate & Competition (Band 1)
- Sport Recognised Practitioner
- Tax: Contentious (Band 3)