Allen & Overy (London)
A&O hit the £1billion threshold back in 2008 and hasn't looked back. The firm is broke the billion pound revenue barrier a few years ago and 2010/11 saw turnover increase 7% to £1.2bn. So how does a finance firm manage to make quite so much money in the downturn?
For one thing, the firm managed to retool its finance lawyers into restructuring and insolvency lawyers. Much of the work that the Magic Circle has done recently is cutting edge and can be charged accordingly – how many firms can nationalize a building society over one weekend? There’s the much vaunted “flight to quality
”, where clients turn to trusted brands when the going gets tough.
And of course the other way to save money is to make 200 fee earners, 200 support staff and 47
partners redundant. Plus freeze salaries and jettison your private
client team. The management blamed the worsening economic situation -
but A&O had just posted its strongest results ever, and it came as a
huge shock within the firm - and the rest of the market. As did the more recent announcement that 180 staff (mainly IT, HR plus some legal support) were to be shifted to Belfast.
Although known primarily for its banking and finance grip on the legal market, A&O has been gearing up its corporate and commercial force (although still lags behind it's competition on this front). But it's a rounded offering, too. Unsurprisingly, the firm's litigation and restructuring groups have also been very busy recently. And there’s the overseas market - recently the fastest rate of growth at A&O
has been outside London, particularly in the emerging markets, Central and
Western Europe. And just in 2010, it opened up in Oz. As a trainee,
there are opportunities to travel a-plenty, and there's a great chance
you'll find yourself in somewhere far-flung for six months of your
Firms don’t get to be this successful by sitting on their hands, and A&O hasn’t been afraid to make changes. At the end of 2006 it abandoned its egalitarian pay structure and sparked a salary war within the City. Bands were introduced and salaries rocketed across the board leaving the rest of the City shell-shocked.
And recent measures, including bonus
increases and an extra days' holiday show that that the firm is keen to
reward its staff. Those bonuses have gone through a complicated shake up
. NQs can now expect to trouser £5,000. Associates with 3 years' PQE are looking at a bonus of between £14,500 and £30,000 per year (average £19,800) whilst senior associates can take home an amount in the range of £29,500 and £60,000 which - averaging out at £39,500 - is certainly not to be sniffed at.
The firm also introduced a whole new raft of measures designed to improve fee earner management and provide new career paths. Associates who hit 5 years PQE should be promoted to senior associate (unless they’ve got no real prospects at all). This means more cash (a basic salary of £98,000) a potentially larger bonus and much more responsibility. They’re given a business development budget, accountability for financial performance on transactions and a say in the department's strategy. There are new career management programmes, upgraded career guidance and appraisals, and the firm has also introduced a new "counsel" role to provide an alternative to partnership. It's compatible with working part time or fixed hours, carries a raft of responsibilities and although the cash is less than you'd make in equity, not many people will complain of a basic salary of up to £230,000.
Decent efforts are also being made to boost the ranks of female partners. In 2010, the firm announced a new flexible working scheme for its partners - offering them the chance of working a four day week or taking a maximum of 52 days extra holiday a year. Whilst open to all partners, the scheme is primarily an attempt to address the gender imbalance at partnership level.
At the more junior end of the scale, the firm's training is widely regarded as the best in the City. A&O is also making the most of new technology, with an excellent online precedent system, the "Newchange" online deals room, automated document drafting and a remote working system that actually works. "There’s a pretty good system for working from home
”, says one associate, "which can be a good or a bad thing…
The move a few years back from St Pauls to custom-built offices next to Liverpool Street Station has been hugely successful. What is best about the firm? "The roof terrace with views over the City. Fantastic in summer with a glass of Pimms and evening BBQ. Living the dream
" croons one associate.
A&O is thought to be a pretty happy ship. No
doubt you'll work the hours, but it's probably just about the friendliest face in the Magic Circle. So what are the downsides? Well, you will put in crippling hours, remote working or not. Cancelling your evening plans can become routine. And it's not just the hours. A&O regards itself as the gold standard, and you will be expected to achieve perfection in your work. As one assistant found out when told off for a typo in an internal document he prepared at 2:00 in the morning - there are no excuses. Work allocation is seen as absurdly inconsistent, and the firm apparently is “overly tolerant of wankers in senior positions as long as they bring the bread in
Partners may make a fortune, but your chances of joining their ranks are remote (check out the disparity between the trainee intake and partnership promotions...). But hopefully the new counsel role and the upgraded appraisals should go some way to mitigating this. If you do make the letterhead you'll spend two years on a salary before embarking on a 15 year climb up the lockstep - the longest ladder in the City. There are Croesan riches at the top of it, but young, star partners impatient with the wait can easily be tempted elsewhere - the firm has lost a fair few partners to high-paying American firms.
But for now we get fewer complaints from lawyers at A&O than from any of its competitors - it really does seem to be a decent place to work. And it almost always does well in the Firm of the Year survey. Overall, it’s a no brainer: outstanding training, some of the best work in the City, excellent pay and a glittering name on your CV.
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