Most of the City of London’s mega law firms have offices spanning the globe, but Macfarlanes gets by with just two. And without all those costly overheads, it reaps a profit that is significantly higher than most. Operating profit sits at £126 million, up 14% year on year, while its 2020 turnover increased 9.5% to £237.6 million. The firm’s profit per equity (PEP) figure, meanwhile, jumped 10% to £1.91 million despite the economic headwinds brought by the COVID-19 crisis.
That’s not to say the firm hasn’t had to tighten its belt in response to the pandemic. At the same time as announcing its stellar set of financials, the firm cut base rate salaries for newly qualified (NQ) lawyers — £85,000 to £80,000, a reduction of 6% — pending a review later this year.
Money matters aside, Macfarlanes continues to score highly for its training in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey. First-rate instruction is combined with plentiful seminars from internal and external speakers to deliver a grounding in corporate law matched by few firms. It’s “second to none”, one junior lawyer tells us, and “each department dedicates energy and time to ensuring its trainees are up to speed at the beginning of the seat, which enables us to contribute more and take on more challenging pieces of work.” Another rookie reveals the standard of training remained high throughout lockdown, with regular sessions delivered via Zoom.
Some of the work — which is largely high end M&A — can be slightly terrifying. One Macfarlanes rookie recalls their feeling upon being handed a particularly complex task: “Are they seriously trusting me with this? REALLY? OK. Cool. Pssh I got this. TF for insurance.” Another explains how trainees will occasionally get thrown a “boring admin task”, but on the whole “you will work in small, close-knit teams with partners and senior associates on important work.”
Don’t expect to coast through your training programme. “Hours are long and demanding”, one insider tells us, although “there is no expectation for you to be in the office if you don’t need to be”. Other insiders say the hours vary from department to department, warning that those plugging away in litigation “will regularly burn the midnight oil”. Another offers this insight: “In corporate I can count on two hands the times I stayed after 9pm in 6 months, but other departments have more of a 9-7 culture.” An average leave the office time of just before 8pm is not bad for high-end corporate law. And apparently Macfarlanes adjusted well to life under lockdown, with weekly online socials and lots of IT support, as well as a healthy budget to cover home-working essentials including chairs, desks and monitors.
A “collegiate atmosphere” among the “pretty nice bunch” of trainees helps soothe the grind, as does the “very approachable” senior associates and partners who adopt an “excellent” open door policy. Although, according to one rookie, there can be a “bit of an old-guard vibe amongst some of the older partners” who are quick point out your “professional [and] fashion faux-pas”.
What you are unlikely to get if you do a training programme at Macfarlanes is an international or client secondment, with the firm typically waiting until associate level before it sends lawyers abroad to a host of independent law firms with which it has close ties and/or client organisations. The firm’s thinking is that six months away from the heart of the action at too early a stage undermines its training scheme. There are, however, occasional opportunities to travel on particular pieces of business, with destinations including Jersey and the firm’s office in Brussels.
The perks are decent; the private health insurance is appreciated, as are the free dinners after 7:30pm and the £30 monthly gym allowance. But despite everyone last year receiving a swish new Surface Pro, which has apparently helped with the aforementioned home working, there remains a feeling within the firm that it could be doing a bit better with its IT. “Trying hard but way behind”, one bluntly reports, while another tells us: “The firm has historically underinvested in IT, however, in fairness, this is recognised and being addressed”.
An office move that has seen Macfarlanes relocate most lawyers to 98 Fetter Lane (but kept its client facing operations round the corner at 20 Cursitor Street) has boosted the firm’s rating for workspace in the Legal Cheek Survey. The still relatively new gaff has its very own branch of the hipster coffee chain ‘The Department of Coffee & Social Affairs’, alongside a very pleasant roof terrace. But the overwhelming reception from trainees and junior lawyers has been slightly muted. “Not flashy and fairly reserved”, one spy tells us before adding: “Then again, I don’t need a large fountain in the reception”.
Drinks down the local pubs on a Friday (one metre plus apart, of course) remain a weekly feature of trainee life, while all the departments have hotly-anticipated parties throughout the year. “Let’s face it, your social life outside the firm is unlikely to be buzzing so you need to make the best of what you’ve got,” reflects a trainee.