The Legal Cheek View
Baker McKenzie’s founder, Russell Baker, was so poor that he rode for days in the cattle carriages on trains in order to enrol at the University of Chicago; he then worked as a boxer to fund his tuition there. Nearly 100 years on, his firm is among the largest in the world, with an annual turnover of just below $3.3 billion (£2.87 billion), rivalling that of fellow behemoths Kirkland & Ellis and Latham & Watkins.
In the firm’s most recent financials, profit per equity partner (PEP) grew 9% to $2 million (£1.74 million), although Baker’s profits remained flat. London newly qualified solicitors have seen their pay boosted several times in the past few years as the City’s pay war continued to rage. NQ pay now stands at a whopping £110,000, suggesting the firm’s overall financials are now considerably healthier than they were when the previous figures were announced. The firm has also gained 116 new partners in the past year, 41 of which were poached from rivals, and upped their London trainee intake to 40 (from 33), suggesting a happy ship firmwide.
Its roots may be in the US, but Bakers sees itself very much as an international firm, and is keen to emphasise that its largest office is London rather than Chicago. In total, the firm has nearly 74 offices across almost 45 different countries.
Although Covid-19 disrupted some rookies’ plans to go on secondment, Legal Cheek understands things are back to normal and that a significant proportion of Bakers’ London trainees and junior lawyers get the chance to do a stint overseas, with Brussels, Tokyo, Dubai and New York among the most popular. Most secondments are three, rather than six, months, leaving some trainees the opportunity to do two. Although this all boils down to business need. “You can go anywhere,” we’re told, “as long as you can make a decent case for it.” In the past, London rookies are known to have seen both Washington DC and Hong Kong during the course of their TC, for example.
There are some excellent client secondment opportunities too. Classic corporate locations include Shell, Standard Chartered and Macquarie. More leftfield examples include The Guardian, the Royal Courts of Justice as a judicial assistant, or pro bono secondments. And if you’re really lucky you might get to do a placement at the Silicon Valley head office of a certain global technology and internet services company that the firm counts as a client.
When you’re not on the road, there’s some high-quality work to get stuck into in London. Trainees report that “the firm puts a real emphasis on training and up-skilling trainees”, which appears to translate mostly into informal training from supervisors — better hope you get a good one! Luckily, most trainees seem to, and another spy reassures Legal Cheek that there are also lots of “extra resources available through the BakerWorld intranet” to complement your learning. This insider has a particularly nice story to tell about their supervisor’s training: “My supervisor — who despite being the global head of one of the practice areas — has met with me every week to go through what I am working on and consistently includes me in his deals.”
Being given “lots of responsibility” is certainly a theme throughout the junior lawyers’ responses. “I was treated as an NQ for most of the training contract,” one insider tells us, and another confirms that “I feel like I’m treated like an associate”. Not only does this provide valuable training experience, it also results in work being more stimulating. As one trainee summarises, “very interesting clients and chance to get fully involved rather than just do admin”.
Before you get too excited, no one said you wouldn’t be doing any admin — BM trainees are certainly still expected to do “a fair amount of due diligence and admin” tasks. But this can sometimes act as a welcome breather from the stress of being given more responsibility. One rookie reminisces about a recent brush with the stress of the job: “I found myself basically running a closing when the associate on the matter was on holiday, it was a little stressful to deal with as a first seat trainee but I think it was good for my overall professional development.” We bet they needed a holiday after that!
But with more responsibility comes more work, and longer hours — you’re likely to be in the office until around 8pm, on average. It’s hard to be too precise though — the proximity of nose to grindstone will depend a lot on the seat and what work comes in. Work/life balance apparently ranges from “very up and down” in transactional seats to “more balanced” on the advisory side. “Some weeks I’ve been working in the taxi home at 2:00 AM, waking up in the morning and not having any time to shower or change before starting it all over again! However, some weeks I’ve had very little on so I’ve mainly worked on pro bono matters and administrative tasks, which are encouraged by the partners. Generally people are understanding even in busy periods as long as you are communicative, being super responsive goes a long way!”, shares one insider. Fortunately, “work providers are generally very good at flagging where work can be done the next day”, and overall work/life balance at the firm is described as being “better than expected”.
Working from home has apparently helped with the work/life balance conundrum. One rookie described their experience like this: “As time is not spent on travel I feel like I can log on earlier/work where I would otherwise be travelling. I can multitask when dialling into calls — whether that’s work or exercise, I incorporate walking meetings into my week. I find I am efficient at home.” Post-pandemic Baker McKenzie has announced its BAgile plan, where employees work from the office for two days a week, two from home, and one from either location. This plan has been welcomed by trainees, who report that the plan is making “a huge difference”, and that the firm has got “the balance right here”. But trainees are also quick to add that the firm’s support when it comes to a WFH set-up could be better. Expect a keyboard, mouse and a single monitor, but nothing more. Oh, except “many computer issues”. Looks like IT generally is not the firm’s strong point, but if that’s the worst thing the trainees can complain about, we don’t think that’s bad going for a firm the size of BM.
Of course, the excellent salary helps salve the junior lawyers’ woes (or at the very least, it can’t hurt). Trainees receive £50,000 in their first year, which rises to £55,000 in their second year. And LPC students aren’t forgotten about either, receiving a £10,000 maintenance grant which this year it was announced will be supplemented by a further £4,000 ‘Baker Boost’ payment for those experiencing financial difficulties during their LPC. Unfortunately, wider perks at the firm are less impressive. Not only do trainees seem unclear about them (is dinner free after 8:30pm, 9pm or 9:30pm? We can’t say, and it appears the trainees can’t either), but they are also far from “all bells and whistles”. The standard offerings of a gym subsidy, private medical insurance and free dinners after a certain undetermined point in the evening are all welcomed, but it is clear that the trainees believe that the firm could “improve” in this area.
Luckily it is an altogether happier story when it comes to company in the workplace. There’s reportedly a “sense of camaraderie among trainees”, and generally “everyone is incredibly friendly and supportive”. One rookie enthuses: “Everyone in my intake is super nice, but they’re all also ambitious, smart, switched on. In casual conversations we often flip between discussing current events and market trends to just having a laugh.” This may explain the lively social life ― the Blackfriar Pub is apparently “BM HQ after 5:30pm on a Friday”.
Partners, meanwhile, are mostly “incredibly approachable and friendly” and spearhead the “big cultural emphasis on coaching and mentorship”. While there will always be the odd occasion where a superior is caught at a bad moment, this is described as “nothing horrendous and consistent with my friends in other firms”. Another insider adds: “You can approach partners here to discuss work issues, but also to talk about plans for the weekend or last night’s football match. It’s an office run by very down to earth and likeable people in the main.”
Speaking of the office, the firm’s London digs don’t excite the rookies much. Though according to one rookie, this shouldn’t put off prospective BM applicants: “You may find yourself in a tower of sociopaths with amazing views, but it doesn’t make your life any less miserable.” Regardless, never fear, because the firm will be moving to their new Spitalfields home in 2023 — a fact that every trainee who commented on the office told us. Do you think they might be just a little excited about the new gaff? Mind you, rightly so. While it will be smaller than the current office, we’ve heard it will have a roof terrace. We’re still waiting on our invite to the welcome drinks…