Slaughter and May prides itself on standing slightly apart from everyone else – note the “and” rather than “&” in its name and the policy of not disclosing financial results. Certainly there can’t be many City law firms that still have a dining room where every partner has their own pigeonhole and napkin. But it’s also a modern and relatively enlightened place, with a fairly diverse trainee intake (a scan of Slaughters’ trainee profiles on LinkedIn shows that the firm hires from a wider range of universities than many) and a strong commitment to meritocracy.
Of course, all the pigeonhole and napkin stuff works an absolute treat in helping to foster a mystique that casts Slaughter and May as the Real Madrid of the legal world. Profit per equity partner is rumoured to be the highest in Europe at over £2 million, but no one knows for sure. And the firm’s lawyers are said to offer a level of legal insight that is perhaps beaten only by leading commercial barristers. Such chatter naturally attracts the slightly nerdy academic types upon whom Slaughters has built its name. The firm that supposedly shuns marketing – until a few years ago its partners ran its press office – is an absolute master of the art.
But there have been signs lately that the Slaughter and May aura is being tested. Pay seems to be at the heart of the matter – the firm is now someway adrift of magic circle and MoneyLaw rivals after some very modest recent pay rises. Rather than competing on cash, Slaughters is increasingly building its pitch to new talent around being a nice place to work. Holiday entitlement is up to 30 days, associates with at least three years PQE are being offered “a four week paid sabbatical”, and all lawyers have been given the opportunity to apply to work from home one day a week.
The indications are that this is working, just about. Slaughters recorded the lowest working hours (just over ten and a half hours daily) of any magic circle firm in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2018-19, with an average leave the office time of before 8pm. But with hours creeping up slightly from last year, the firm managed to drop from a B to a C for work life balance. One trainee sums it up like this: “Incredibly variable. I leave at 6:30pm fairly frequently but equally have had several weeks worth of post-midnight finishes in my first five months here and have had to work a few hours to a whole day on several weekends.”
Meanwhile, frustration about pay continues to mount. An insider encapsulates the mood: “Pay is falling behind not only US firms, but also now it appears the top of the magic circle and even the silver circle. This needs to be addressed.”
It doesn’t help towards pacifying the worker bees that a few Slaughters partners have a tendency towards haughtiness. “Some are great,” we’re told, while others “can be a little frosty”. Another insider adds: “Partners are mostly difficult to approach, you have to pick and choose your moments and know precisely what you’re going to say.”
Nevertheless, this remains an A-rated place to train, with a “high volume of good quality (partner-delivered) training” and “lots of responsibility from early on.” The work itself is mixed, with Slaughters having a reputation for blooding its trainees quite slowly and reserving the interesting stuff for associates. One rookie sums it up like this: “Sometimes it can be directly advising FSE 100 companies and attending and contributing at significant meetings. Sometimes it can be checking documents for typos. On the scale, the highs would come close to 10, the lows not far from 1.”
When it comes to technology, the firm is involved in a high profile partnership with Cambridge University-tied artificial intelligence start-up Luminence, with which it has been conducting automated document review trials. The reaction on the ground has been muted: “Seem pretty keen to follow new trends, but the IT systems could do with being upgraded.”
Of more pressing importance to future new recruits may be the canteen, which has recently been taken over by a new catering team. Reviews are mixed. For some the food is “appalling”, for others it serves “almost always something that I’m keen on” and is “fairly cheap, with a full roast (for example) coming to about £6”. Which begs the question: who eats a full roast at work?