Meet Slaughter and May at the Legal Cheek UK Virtual Law Fair on 4 November 2021
Slaughter and May prides itself on standing slightly apart from the crowd — 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 one of the highest in Europe with estimations ranging from £2 million to £3.1 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 actually a master of the art.
But there have been signs lately that the Slaughter and May aura is being tested. Pay seemed to be at the heart of the matter. After much speculation, the firm finally matched its magic circle rivals in upping London NQ lawyer pay to £100,000 in July 2021. Slaughters is also 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, before the pandemic made home-working the norm, all lawyers were given the opportunity to apply to work from home one day a week.
This made the switch to WFH easier but the lack of a budget for new equipment has elicited some minor grumbles, with rookies demonstrating a preference for new furniture and gadgets over the old office chairs. Slaughters clearly has not fallen in love with remote working, however. Whilst the pandemic has made some firms completely rethink their WFH policies, Slaughter and May has steadfastly reaffirmed that trainees will return to its one-day plan, with those more senior able to work remotely for up to two days a week. The firm is also piloting a series of flexi-work schemes, which includes the option for associates to ‘job share’.
The indications are that Slaughters’ focus on balance is working. The firm sets no annual billing targets and recorded some of the lowest working hours of any magic circle firm in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2021-22, with some trainees saying they typically stop work at around 6pm. Trainees were delighted that the firm bucks the trend of long City law hours, noting that the hours were “much better than I expected […] I rarely work a full weekend” and that “trainee life seems more relaxed than magic circle equivalents (7:30pm finishes are the norm), but you obviously have the odd phase of intense work”. Another sums it up like this: “I have had times where I have no life (when in corporate) and times when I don’t know what to do with my time. On the whole it generally balances out and the firm’s culture is one that encourages you to leave early whenever you are able to.”
And it is clear that the work isn’t half bad. Trainees consider it “very interesting work” and enjoy “acting for household names in a huge range of sectors, rather than churning the same documents for the same bank every week, or the usual mix of obscure funds”. That said, the firm has 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 FTSE 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.”
The Bunhill Row-based outfit also maintains its status as a top-notch place for training that is “best in class by a mile”, with a “high volume of good quality (partner-delivered) training” that can be deepened in 1:1 sessions and chats with partners and associates who “are always willing to take the time to explain complex issues”. This is also complimented by a variety of different secondments to locations such as Brussels (popular), New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and clients including Burberry, Blackstone, Shell, William Hill, Vodafone, IAG and Deepmind.
This implies excellent partner approachability, which seems to be improving. Partners here “aren’t as terrifying as they are made out to be”. But it can vary. Some are “incredibly outgoing and friendly, others I would be genuinely scared to talk to and would have to really think about what I wanted to discuss in fear of ‘wasting’ their time. You have to choose your time and person well”. One rookie confesses: “I would always think twice (perhaps three times) before approaching a partner with an issue.”
Among juniors the vibe is friendly. One Slaughters spy encapsulates the mood: “On the whole competitiveness isn’t common and there is a much greater sense of camaraderie than rivalry.” These trainees are a pretty social bunch, too, with “semi-regular events (departmental and trainee-wide)” pencilled in the diary.
When it comes to technology, the firm is involved in a high-profile partnership with Cambridge University-tied artificial intelligence start-up Luminance, with which it has been conducting automated document review trials. It’s also worth noting that Slaughters has a legal tech incubator, called Collaborate. But trainees’ exposure to this has so far been limited. “I’ve worked on a document automation project so things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly,” one tells us.
Of more pressing importance to future recruits may be the canteen, which enjoys “peaks and troughs”. For some “it looks like something out of a UK Gold re-run of Dinnerladies (the food isn’t much better)”; 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?
For now, though, such luxuries are off the table. “Global pandemic = no perks. Fair enough, I suppose,” sighs a trainee.