In his own words: solicitor behind the viral 1981 Slaughter and May video on life in the good old days

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By James Mitchell on

James Mitchell — whose extraordinary video of Slaughter and May 33 years ago went viral after being unearthed by Legal Cheek — recalls magic circle life in the dark ages.


I arrived at Slaughter and May in the autumn of 1978 — when the Boomtown Rats with “Rat trap” and Dollar with “Shooting Star” were in the Top of the Pops, and James Callaghan led a Labour government with a wafer-thin majority of three.

Joining me were Graham White (who became Slaughter’s managing partner), James Cripps, Chris Smith and Mark Cardale (all present or retired partners with the firm), Michael Cuthbert (now a partner at Clifford Chance), Caroline Goodall (now Herbert Smith), John Davies (now Simmons & Simmons), Guy Stobart (now chief executive at Kennedys), and Jonathan Gay (now an in-house lawyer at UK drinks company SAB Miller).

On the day of our arrival, we were given a brief introduction speech by managing partner Peter Morley-Jacobs. Afterwards, and before being introduced to our principals, we were treated to lunch at a local “greasy spoon” by Chris Saul, now Slaughter’s senior partner, who was then in his second year as an articled clerk. In those days, trainee lawyers were ‘articled’ to an individual lawyer, who accepted responsibility for their training.

In 1978, as has been observed, there were no computers and thus, apart from the telephone, no electronic means of communication other than the telex machine (pictured) and an early version of a fax machine (which, as I recall, rarely worked). Each solicitor had an individual secretary (there was no pooling or sharing), most of whom took shorthand notes. A few of the partners had dictation machines, but even those were regarded with some suspicion by the older lawyers.


All the partners in 1978 — and most of the other qualified lawyers — were male. I remember being invited to lunch in the partners’ dining room on the top floor shortly after my arrival and being told by one of the senior partners that “there will never be a female partner — for one thing there are no women’s toilets on the top floor”. Conversely, all the secretaries were women.

Things are changing, but perhaps not as fast as many would like — in 2013 female partners accounted for about 20% of the total at Slaughter and May, despite nearly half the solicitors at the firm being women.

As well as being trained to be solicitors, all the articled clerks were expected to perform more arduous tasks. The least popular was proof reading: two trainees would sit together in a room, one reading to the other from a draft and the second checking that the words had been correctly transcribed into the document to be presented to the client.

Making a mistake was considered a very serious misdemeanour as the reputation of the firm would suffer if, for example, even a small error were found in a public prospectus.

One of my earliest duties was to serve champagne in the boardroom following the conclusion of a successful transaction. I was taught how to open bottles without making any noise, or spilling a drop — a skill I take pride in today.

Every boardroom had a selection of cigarettes and cigars available for clients. Most meetings were conducted through a smoky fog — and there was no modern air-conditioning to clear the air.

As can be seen from the 1981 video, the firm had a switchboard through which all calls, both incoming and outgoing, were directed. Calls to the firm were answered by one of the operators, who would check to see if the required lawyer was available, and manually patch the call through.

My impression of Slaughter and May from the outset was excellent. The firm had — and still has — a reputation second to none, and maintained its pre-eminence by selecting the best potential lawyers and providing them with first-class training and a wonderful working environment. Most of the partners maintained an open-door policy, with an invitation for any articled clerk to come in at any time to ask for help or guidance.

Lawyers were given enormous responsibility from an early stage. I had only been qualified for a few weeks, when I found myself in the huge boardroom at investment bank Lazards presenting a report in the presence of a minister of state. It seemed that everyone at the firm was a friend, regardless of status and most of us who joined in 1978 remain in close contact today.

I took the video in 1981, in my first year as a qualified solicitor. In fact, I had hired the camera and (separate) VHS recorder to use for a family function over Christmas, and brought it in to the firm very much as an afterthought.

The camera was huge, and the recorder (which I carried over my shoulder) was even bigger and very heavy. In 1981, most video cameras needed bright lights to operate, so I was also carrying a strong light connected to the recorder. In the interview with Frances Murphy near the end of the recording, she shields her eyes from the brightness.

Some of the lawyers in the video have already been identified. Costs draftsman John Remnant is appears at 1:47 (he was instrumental in assisting with the writing of the history of Slaughter and May in 1989); Jack Joyce at 7:12 was, I believe, a senior legal executive, who sadly died several years ago. And the articled clerk (pictured below) at 9:52, who seems to have attracted everyone’s interest was, Phyllida Gerrard, the daughter of the then senior partner of what was Lovell White & King.

Phyllida was sitting with George Stevens, who is the lawyer I was talking to at 16:15 (and with whom I sat with for six memorable months during my time as an articled clerk). Patrick Jennings (a property partner) is the man in the blue shirt sitting at the desk and leading the singing at 16:45 (and he is also the voice talking to James Barnes about his undertaking at 17:45, and dancing unconvincingly at 19:54).

Partner Frances Murphy is the interviewee at 19:00, and Michael Cuthbert, who went on to be the managing partner of Clifford Chance’s Moscow and Central European offices, can be seen at 22:32.

As they are today: The Slaughter and May class of ’81



No computers, smoking in the office and a comment about a female trainee’s ‘backside’: this video of Slaughter and May from 1981 is incredible [Legal Cheek]

Revealed: Where the stars of that 1981 Slaughter and May video are today [Legal Cheek]