The Big Interview: Steve Cooke, Slaughter and May's Senior Partner


The Student Guide's Joel Poultney caught up with Slaughter and May maestro Steve Cooke to discuss how the life of a trainee has changed; what effect the pandemic has had on the industry so far; how the firm is supporting diversity; and much, much more...

Joel Poultney, October 2020

It really has been a year like no other, and as with most conversations this year, the one I have with Slaughter and May’s senior partner Steve Cooke begins with reflection. “On a personal note,” he replies warmly, “I think I’ve been ok and have adapted to the new normal for the moment.”

Cooke is charming from the outset and demonstrates both a humbleness and candour that you might not expect from someone of his stature. In addition to being senior partner at one of the world’s most well-known and prestigious law firms, Cooke headed up the firm’s M&A practice between 2001-2016 and regularly acts for a whole host of FTSE 100 and 250 clients. He has also advised on some of the most high-profile deals and investigations in recent years, including Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox; British Airway’s merger with Iberia; the Rolls-Royce bribery investigations; and Kraft’s hostile takeover offer to own Cadbury.

With this in mind, I recently caught up with Steve to ask about the life of a trainee, the road ahead, and much more.

Oh, to be a trainee (?)

Transitioning a leading law firm’s operations to the home studies and dining tables of its employees was an unthinkable task a matter of months ago. On a logistical firm-wide level, “once we sorted out some of the tech issues, it’s operated very well and as seamlessly as I would have hoped, and probably not expected,” Cooke confirms. But as the new became the normal, and the normal became the outdated, working from home doesn’t seem to be a sustainable long-term solution for the Slaughter and May model. “I’m probably in the school of thought that says we lack something from not being in the office,” Cooke notes, before highlighting the “energy” and “buzz” that can’t be replicated from home working. And while necessary changes to office dynamics – such as limited capacity with rolling sets of teams – will mean the working environment may not immediately emulate that of pre-pandemic life, it’s clear Cooke is drawn back to the firm’s London HQ at One Bunhill Row. “While I’m not absolutely chafing at the bit to get back,” he jokes, “I’m looking forward to primarily working from the office again.”

“I’m probably in the school of thought that says we lack something from not being in the office.”

Cooke rightfully highlights the limitations of working from home, particularly for trainees who are only just beginning their careers. “The best bits of training you get come from sitting in someone’s room, listening to what someone says on calls, joining in and learning through personal experience rather than reading a book. The ability to ask those little but important questions, learn through observation, and have ease of access to other colleagues simply can’t be replicated at home. Cooke points to the firm’s work experience scheme – “probably the most warts and all scheme of all firms” – as a key example. Participants would normally “get to see and do what you’re really going to do in practice,” with opportunities to work on real matters. Understandably, adapting that process to the virtual world was “very difficult, if not completely impossible.” While he’s quick to praise the work experience team for their endeavours, a week-long virtual programme wasn’t quite the same. “It was still very good,” he notes, “but that illustrates the challenge of working virtually if you’re learning.”

The conversation on learning then turns to his own experience of starting out as a lawyer. Fresh from undergraduate study at Oxford, Cooke joined Slaughter and May in 1982. “I really enjoyed being a trainee,” Cooke recalls fondly, “it was brilliant fun.” Notwithstanding the pandemic and the issues of unfairly comparing two eras, I ask Steve if he would enjoy being a trainee now. “I can’t experience the life of a trainee now,” he says, fairly. “So, if I was guessing, I’d probably prefer to be a trainee then because you were given more responsibility than you have now.” He adds: “There was less of an explicit training module component, which made life quite fun.”

“…you were actually doing the running of the transaction. You were looking at the due diligence material, assimilating it and doing the negotiations yourself.”

So, what’s changed? Well, technological advancements have certainly had an impact. “When I joined, we didn’t have tonnes of data to process; you didn’t get a download from a virtual data room simply because it didn’t exist.” A more judicious approach to data sharing used to be determined by the confines of physical documents, with Cooke highlighting how people tended “to be more economical rather than chucking everything into a virtual room.” The sheer volume of information stored in these virtual data rooms has had a noticeable effect on the lives of trainees and newly qualified associates, who now spend more of their time sifting through online documents for relevant material. For Cooke, as an early practitioner, “you were actually doing the running of the transaction. You were looking at the due diligence material, assimilating it, and doing the negotiations yourself.” This, he suggests, amounted to a more “fulfilling experience than I expect a lot of trainees and NQs have had over the last twenty years.”

Cooke, along with many of the firm’s partnership, recognises the need for there to be remedies – and technological ones at that. He points to how AI could be a solution for this technology-prompted problem. “I would hope that it will replace a lot of that lower cognitive work that sometimes trainees are having to do and actually give them their lives back,” he proposes. “So, when people qualify, they go back to doing the things they got the job for and not their ability to read 500 near identical contracts and spot the one which has something slightly different.” He concludes on a hopeful note, finding that this will change the trainee experience “for the better.”

The ship and its captain

“I wouldn’t call it a management role,” Cooke clarifies, when we talk about his 40-year career at Slaughter and May, which has seen him rise from trainee to senior partner. “It’s more of a chair role, acting as a bit of a cheerleader.” He notes that the role comprises a mix of business development and client responsibilities one would expect from a chair, as opposed to a CEO.

“It’s an easy firm to lead. We’re pretty clear on our strategy [...] we’re as unified as we’ve ever been, so there’s not lots to do in that sense.”

Cooke goes on: “We’re very decentralised. Most good ideas come from partners taking the initiative and doing their own thing.” While decentralising allows for a greater degree of autonomy, I ask Steve if problems inevitably arise from trying to keep everyone on the same track. “To be honest,” Cooke notes, “it’s an easy firm to lead. We’re pretty clear on our strategy, and while I wouldn’t say there’s no dissent from that, we’re as unified as we’ve ever been, so there’s not lots to do in that sense.”

On this note of unity, Cooke points to the partnership model as evidence of the mutual understanding and loyalty that’s forged at the top. There’s an insularity about the firm’s approach to promotions, with the firm generally not electing external candidates directly into partnership: of its 92 UK partners, 69 joined as trainees, with others working as associates at the firm before moving up. “We’re a very flat, lockstep partnership,” he explains. “There’s no competition between partners and generally we’re friends as well.” This environment, according to Cooke, “is a supportive one that fosters individual entrepreneurialism and innovation without jealousies or envy.” A lack of billing or hours targets similarly adds to this sense of cohesion.

I turn to a topic that has been written about many times in relation to Slaughter and May: the firm’s ostensibly conservative approach. “I don’t recognise the label at all,” laughs Cooke when I raise it. This reaction suggests that we’re dealing with that age-old problem of external perceptions versus internal realities. “We don’t tend to broadcast to the world what we’re doing and that therefore tends to be translated as conservative,” Cooke reasons. The firm tends to do things its own way; for example, it doesn’t share its financial results, nor does it pursue a strategy of physical overseas expansion akin to its competitors – instead it calls upon a best friend network of elite law firms from various jurisdictions around the world. Cooke points to the results of a recent client survey to give us some more insight into what life at Slaughter and May really looks like: “What they would say is that it’s quite a broad church of interesting and slightly whacky people. Very few of the people who know us well would say that we’re conservative.”

“We don’t tend to broadcast to the world what we’re doing and that therefore tends to be translated as conservative.”

Quick to dismantle the conservative labelling, Cooke draws focus to the firm’s decentralised structure as a system which allows for greater degrees of innovation, with partners seemingly unencumbered by bureaucratic management procedures. “You’re dependent, particularly in the partnership, on entrepreneurial individuals who spot things and don’t need to go to a committee to ask if they can start expanding into a particular area they just get on and build.” Cooke cites Luminance – an AI software designed to rapidly enhance due diligence processes – as a prime example of this entrepreneurialism. “I think we’re still one of the only firms to help with the launch of a leading AI product and basically helped birth it.” The lack of debate around their involvement, according to Cooke, is emblematic of the innovative approach he sees typifying the firm. He similarly points to the firm’s recent tech incubation programme, Fast Forward, as evidence of the firm’s historically conservative reputation needing to be dispelled. “These things aren’t something you’d necessarily connect with Slaughter and May,” he concludes.

Pandemic performance

Standstill has characterised much of 2020, and M&A activity has certainly been affected in this sense – especially in the early months of the pandemic. 2020 opened with the slowest start to deal making in seven years, with the value of announced mergers down 25% compared to the first quarter of 2019. Despite this, Cooke strikes a surprisingly optimistic tone. “We weren’t expecting any really significant M&A until the autumn, but it’s been pleasantly surprising how much there’s been.” Of note, this autumn saw the firm advise industrial data software company OSIsoft on its $5 billion acquisition by Aveva. Cooke continues: “I can’t pretend it's up there with great M&A years, but the fact there’s been some is quite encouraging.”

“The fact that M&A is coming back is good as the crisis work won’t be carrying on forever.”

While corporate and M&A form the cornerstone of the firm’s practice, there’s much more going on at Slaughter and May. “We’ve had plenty of other work,” notes Cooke, highlighting how crisis matters in the initial stage of the pandemic proved to be “very partner intensive,” with “lots of fundraising work” similarly keeping the proverbial desks full. He also cites the firm’s disputes and investigations practice, “which has been doing very well; they’re as busy as ever.” With dust settling, Cooke looks ahead to more familiar terrain: “The fact that M&A is coming back is good as the crisis work won’t be carrying on forever.”

As the financial implications of this year aren’t yet fully felt, Cooke’s expectation of a “frantic” time for the firm’s restructuring and insolvency teams hasn’t yet materialised. “It’s not been a wipe out,” he explains. “That may of course be the effect of the financial assistance the government has put in place, so the problems are being held back until the government’s financial assistance spigot gets turned off. At that point we might see the more severe effects of the recession, which then may mean those practices become inundated.”

When you’re tired of London…

With an eye cast to the horizon, one would be remiss not to mention Brexit and its impact on the legal market in the UK. “To be honest,” Cooke pauses, “I struggle to make any predictions on this.” One thing he’s quite set on though is the robustness of both English law and the lawyerly profession. “English law is probably the predominant and most respected independent governing law,” he states, “so there’s always going to be lots of work.” And beyond being “a more secure occupation than many others,” he adds that Brexit will present many issues for lawyers in the UK to deal with. “There are definitely aspects of Brexit that will actually increase the amount of work,” he suggests, citing the necessity to abide by and advise on both European Commission merger regulations and those of the CMA as an example.

“It will carry on as a significant financial centre and almost certainly the leading financial centre in Europe.”

And despite his resistance to crystal-ball gazing, Cooke speaks with certainty about London’s continued dominance. “It will carry on as a significant financial centre and almost certainly the leading financial centre in Europe.” Noting a speculative shift towards New York as the premier financial centre, he also adds that “there’s clearly a risk of a slow drip away from London, but I really don’t see many other contenders to replace it in Europe.”

On this transatlantic connection, much has been written about the growth of US firms in the London legal market. As of 2018, there were roughly 100 US and transatlantic firms with a presence in the UK, with around half opening their doors to prospective trainees. While not necessarily a recent development, Cooke identifies the advent of these firms as one of the prevailing trends in London. “Firms like Latham and Kirkland are making decent footholds in the market,” he says, noting how each are “recruiting quite aggressively” for both partners and associates, as well as “clearly establishing very good practices.”

And good practice is something Cooke’s quite accustomed with. Where once the capital was dominated by a select elite – known ubiquitously as the Magic Circle – the significance of the label may now warrant a re-appraisal. “It’s convenient,” supposes Cooke, “as it helps differentiate different types of firms.” Traditionally demarcated by its sophistication of work, client base, and revenue, the rigidity of the Magic Circle criteria now feels more nebulous. Cooke speaks to this potential evolution in the way the market is categorised. “It may be shifting,” he reflects. “There are quite a few American and non-Magic Circle firms who are equally there now.” He uses Herbert Smith Freehills as example, asking rhetorically: “Why aren’t they a Magic Circle firm? I don’t really know the answer to be honest.”

The changing times

This leads us to a discussion of diversity within the Magic Circle. Statistic released in 2020 showed that of the 800 partners at the Magic Circle, only six are Black. “We weren’t doing well enough,” says Cooke. “I’ll readily say that.” He also notes that while 6% of the partnership are from BAME communities, “none of them are Black and that’s something we need to focus on.” And while the problem is not exclusive to Slaughter and May, solutions must be sought to remedy this chronic imbalance. Cooke rightly notes that beyond the recruitment of Black trainees – for which, he says, the firm is doing well on – it’s the ability to retain those individuals that requires focus. “We need to change the way we integrate people into the business, because it’s about retaining people, rather than just recruitment,” he clarifies.

“It’s not just a meaningless and ephemeral, ‘we’ll try and do better.’ It’s a proper commitment.”

Accordingly, the firm has recently committed to the Race Fairness Commitment in collaboration with Rare Recruitment, the contextual recruitment company for which Slaughter and May were the first firm to work with. The commitment ties the firm to a number of measures, including analysis of quantitative data and monitoring the trajectories of BAME employees in order to address the points of divergence in careers compared to peers. The pledge couples the firm’s recent signing of an open letter in The Sunday Times acknowledging the lack of progress and its commitment to foster more BAME talent. “It’s not just a meaningless and ephemeral, ‘we’ll try and do better,’” says Cooke. “It’s a proper commitment.” The firm has also committed to ensuring access to senior management for junior BAME employees, as well as having race and racism talked about in every induction and exit interview. In addition, it has created sponsorship, mentoring and reverse mentoring opportunities.

2019 also saw Slaughter and May commit to cutting its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, which meant it became the first law firm to set approved science-based climate change targets. “We just decided we needed to do something that was measurable and something that would make a difference.” He adds wryly: “I mean, we all watched Blue Planet Two.”

And finally…

As the conversation draws to its conclusion, Cooke offers a few words of wisdom to any would-be trainee. “Make sure it’s what you want to do,” he says. “I can’t think of anything more soul destroying than being in a job that you really don’t enjoy.” Where buzzwords abound – like passion, which he finds to be “overstated and overused” – specific and tangible skills cut through the bluster. He rightly champions analytical ability, logical thought processes, and the ability to express complex subjects very simply as core legal skills. “And maybe a little creativity as well,” he adds. “Perhaps not as important as the others, but the ability to come up with interesting ideas and new ways of doing things.”

“I can’t think of anything more soul destroying than being in a job that you really don’t enjoy.”

And for Cooke, creativity has never been confined solely to the boardroom. From playing in a post-punk band at Oxford, to scoring BAFTA and Emmy awarding winning documentaries more recently, music has remained a constant across his career, with Cooke’s Sunday nights regularly devoted to recording with his long-time collaborator. But like most activities this year, the ability to produce in person has been upended by the pandemic. “There’s something missing from jamming together and coming up with something, as opposed to exchanging files over the internet.” Whether there’s something missing or not, Cooke highlights some of the commissions that he’s found the time to work on over lockdown. “One of them, in fact, was for my most prestigious client of all.” The government? Her Majesty the Queen? “No, no,” he laughs. “For Slaughter and May. I did the music for our responsible business film.” Let the band play on, Steve, let it play.