Allen & Overy (London)
A&O hit the £1 billion threshold back in 2008 and hasn't looked back since. In 2013/14, turnover grew 1.6% to 1.21bn.
In the downturn, the firm managed to retool its finance lawyers into restructuring and insolvency lawyers. Much of the work that the Magic Circle did was cutting edge and 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 was 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 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. As a trainee,
there are opportunities to travel a-plenty, and there's a decent chance
you'll find yourself in somewhere far-flung for six months of your
training (although one says the chance of a foreign secondment is "more like 50% in reality
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.
A few years ago it put bonuses through a complicated shake up
. 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 potentially larger bonus and much more responsibility. The firm also introduced a "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.
And yet pay is now a sore point for some at A&O. There's the unfavourable comparison to US firms (one associate sums up: "We're doing more hours than our friends at US firms. They take home a lot more. Something needs to change
"). But that's typical within Magic Circle firms. A&O's decision to raise salaries much later in the year than the other Magic Circle firms is what put it last of the five in the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year 2015 survey for satisfaction with pay. That and the "great bonus stitch up 2014
". Staff said that the firm decided that 85% busyness for the year would be the threshold for a bonus, but only told them a month before year-end. A&O says staff were warned the previous April, but in any event there were "a lot of peeved associates
" who say they had no time to get the extra hours and missed out by a sliver.
Decent efforts have been 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 was 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 some of the the best in the City. There's "excellent work and as much responsibility as you can handle
", says one junior. Another says there's "great training and supervisors are committed to development of trainees
", while higher up there's "impressive dedication
" to associate development.
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. There are, says another "exceptional facilities
", including an on-site gym, subsidised bar and even music rooms.
A&O has historically been a pretty happy ship. As one associate says,
"If you're going to work punishing hours, at least the people at A&O are genuinely very nice and appreciative
". And 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 two 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 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.
The firm came last of the Magic Circle in the Firm of the Year 2015 survey, which was unusual: in previous years we have got fewer complaints from lawyers at A&O than from any of its competitors. Overall, it’s still a very strong proposition: outstanding training, some of the best work in the City, good pay and a glittering name on your CV.
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