Author: Legal Week
21 Aug 2009 | 09:11
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The definitive City blueblood, Slaughter and May has long prided itself on its status as the firm all other magic circle partners secretly want to join. As famous for its conservative outlook as for its supreme profitability and seemingly pre-ordained right to a seat on the biggest deals in domestic M&A, Slaughters has nevertheless faced some tricky questions as the decade has progressed - most notably over its tight domestic focus.
As such, the announcement in January 2008 that corporate chief Chris Saul would replace Tim Clark as senior partner as part of a management shake-up was always likely to alert rivals, who will be watching closely for signs of a shift in that UK-centric policy. (For an analysis of Saul's appointment, click here).
One early contributor to Slaughters' entry on the Legal Week Wiki hails the firm's recruitment process as a joy to behold, with the subsequent promise of a highly-paid gig on the top M&A deals presumably just an added bonus. However, another poster says the process was far from rapid, comparing the interview itself to a grilling from the police.
Though Slaughters divides views in the City, with some cheering the firm's rejection of the international strategy of its rivals and its drive to remain a traditional partnership, its tightly-focused model looks well placed to weather the current downturn. With Slaughters also securing an enviable run of mandates related to the banking crisis, including acting for the Treasury on a string of bank rescues and capital injections, Slaughters is set to remain a highly influential player in the City legal market for years to come.
"[Slaughters] was founded on January 1, 1889, by William (later Sir William) Capel Slaughter and William May - two associates who had moved from Ashursts," recounts one biographer of Bunhill Row - presumably not from personal memory. "The firm has always had a strong collection of clients and in the 1930s acted on some of the largest UK deals around." How times change. Or, er, not.
"During the 1980s, the firm acted on a number of the privatisations instigated by the Conservative Government, including British Aerospace, Amersham International, Associated British Ports, British Airways, Enterprise Oil, Sealink, Jaguar, British Telecom, Britoil, BP, British Gas, British Steel and the electricity industry. It has retained most of these companies as clients post-privatisation."
The firm in its modern incarnation has, however, been through some changes. In the 1990s then senior partner Giles Henderson repositioned the firm during a crucial period in which its key London rivals began to aggressively expand internationally - a strategy Slaughters continued to reject. Henderson felt, however, that the firm must move with the times, a major plank of which was building on and articulating its so-called 'best friends' referral alliance of leading international law firms.
This strategy was continued under the leadership of Tim Clark, who became senior partner in 2001 after an unusually open contest that saw a group of heavy-hitters touted as successors to Henderson.
Perversely, Slaughters was aided in this delicate repositioning by the deal slump of 2002-04, which strained the rapidly-built international networks of its magic circle rivals. The smaller Slaughters, by contrast, was less affected by the slump in European M&A, bolstering its position for a few years.
The potency of the challenge from global firms was once again apparent during the deal boom of 2005-07, a period when some argued Slaughters was struggling to compete in the increasingly cross-border global deal market. However, by the time of the appointment of head of corporate Chris Saul as senior partner in 2008, the firm was once again facing a gloomy market.
In addition, Slaughters was to distinguish itself by securing an unbeaten run of high-stakes mandates related to crisis in credit markets. Likewise, the firm was to avoid the kind of painful restructurings and redundancies seen at many of its City peers in 2009.
Click here for recent stories on Slaughter and May.
For many a strong card. Slaughters rightly prides itself on a singular culture built upon genuine excellence, hard work and maintaining a true partnership ethos. As such, the firm operates a pure lockstep partnership, never makes lateral appointments in the UK at partner level and favours developing its own assistants over external recruitment. This distinct culture makes most of its lawyers strongly committed to the firm.
The challenge for Slaughters has been to maintain the best of these characteristics while bringing in some of the benefits of modern management. There are varying views on how successful the firm has been at reconciling these competing demands; but, understandably, partnership at Slaughters is highly sought after.
Legal Week Intelligence's 2009 Employee Satisfaction Report gave the firm solid rankings for culture and the extent to which staff feel valued. It was also notable that none of the 74 responding assistants from Slaughters said they were looking for another job.
Slaughters is not exactly known for the sort of unseemly departmental squabbles that break out in various other City leaders - corporate is king and everybody knows it. The City thoroughbred is not just a one-trick pony, however, with its tax and competition team "some of the most respected and highly ranked in the City", according to the uncontroversial view of one contributor.
In 2008, the firm went through its latest round of elections for departmental heads, with Frances Murphy confirmed as the new head of that all-important corporate team. You can read further details of the appointments here.
Slaughters famously gets its international coverage through its network of overseas 'best friends', which include top-rated independents such as Hengeler Mueller in Germany, Italian leader Bonelli Erede Pappalardo and Spanish giant Uria Menendez. In France, the firm is paired with Parisian firm Bredin Prat, which took over Slaughters' own eight-partner French outpost in December 2005.
For an analysis of that strategy by Legal Week editor Alex Novarese, click here.
The elite City firm currently operates overseas branches in Hong Kong, through which it remains eager to develop its China connections, and Brussels.
"The firm has more FTSE100 clients than any other firm," raves one admirer, including "British Airways, Diageo, Deutchse Bank, Abbey, Shell and Boots."
Nigel Boardman (pictured) remains probably the best-known M&A lawyer at the firm, if not the City. Indeed, in 2008 he was the sole UK lawyer named in The American Lawyer's influential 'Dealmakers of the Year' list.
Slaughters' star-studded corporate ranks also include former department head Chris Saul - confirmed in January 2008 as the firm's new senior partner, taking over from fellow corporate heavyweight Tim Clark. Frances Murphy replaced Saul as corporate chief.
Veteran partner Anthony Newhouse is nominated out by one contributor as a noteworthy name in finance, while outgoing practice partner David Frank - a finance and capital markets specialist - was for a long time the public face of an intensely private firm before moving towards retirement in 2008. Tom Kinnersley is another singled out in finance, alongside Glen James. Former real estate chief Graham White - stepping up to executive partner in 2008 - is well thought of, while tax partner Steve Edge is widely recognised as among the best in the business.
Its ultra-compact, old-school structure means lawyers reach partnership at Slaughters faster than at any of its City rivals, with the firm topping Legal Week's partnership track survey with an average wait of just seven years - hardly overnight stuff, but still almost two years quicker than an average of 8.7 years among comparable rivals.
However, the firm made up only four partners in 2008 - a drop from the modest five it promoted in 2007, despite the sustained boom in its core M&A market. Clearly you need to do more than turn up on time each day to get into that equity.
Of course, the fast-track to partnership glory means there are no easy years dawdling in the junior ranks for the select few. "The jump up to associate was a startling process," says one contributor, "[and was] described as 'absolutely terrifying' by the partner who interviewed me!"
In common with many City rivals, promotions were down again in 2009, with Slaughters promoting only two new partners. Legal Week research the same year found that assistants were not entirely satisfied with their partnership prospects in a firm that is so selective regarding equity.
The firm pays around the top of the market for UK law firms. In common with most of its peer group in 2009 it announced it was freezing assistant salaries at 2008 levels in response to the recession. In 2008, newly-qualified lawyers started on £66,000.
The firm also gets good feedback on its bonus scheme, which is more straightforward than some rivals. Legal Week Intelligence's Employee Satisfaction Report found its assistants were the most satisfied regarding its bonus out of 58 major law firms.
One future Slaughters trainee lauds the City giant's recruitment process - perhaps unsurprisingly, seeing as this contributor already has his foot in the door. He says: "The trainee recruitment system is fantastic because it avoids the 2000-word online application forms as well as the tests, case studies and 90-minute grillings of other firms. The interview is an excellent way to be yourself, relax and (hopefully) shine!"
That probably depends on whether you find interviews with the most conservative characters in City law a relaxing experience. Which not everyone does. "The interview itself consisted slightly of a 'good cop, bad cop' routine," counters another contributor. "This is fair enough practice, but I think interview experience will depend largely on the character of the partners who interview you. Arguably, an exercise might have been better, as then everyone is put through the same process."
Click here for more careers information on the firm
"Work-life balance is similar to anywhere in the magic circle," says one lamb to the Slaughter. "Do expect occasional all-nighters and periods of ridiculously long hours. But there is no 'face time' here - if you have nothing to do there is no need to hang around."
Ironically, given its hardcore City image, Slaughters doesn't score as badly on work/life balance as you would expect. For a start, assistants are glad of the fact that the firm puts so little focus on annual billing targets. The firm also scored better for work/life balance than many of its peer group according to its own assistants in recent research from Legal Week Intelligence.
"In terms of diversity, the firm does not live up to its conservative reputation," says one contributor. "Seventy percent of the lawyers are female [and the firm has] one of the larger ratios of female partners in the magic circle."
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