A&O hit the £1 billion threshold back in 2008 and hasn't looked back since. Its most recent financials saw turnover rise 10% to £1.94bn.
In the last 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 they charged accordingly – how many firms can nationalise 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 in 2009. 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 in 2011. There were redundancies at the time and again in 2013.
However, the reduction in staff costs helped the bottom line, and the firm saw the benefits of its decision to cut some staff and ship out others to Northern Ireland.
Although known primarily for its banking and finance grip on the legal market, A&O has also bolstered its corporate and commercial force. But it's a rounded offering, too, with growth being particularly strong in litigation. And there’s the overseas market. As a trainee, there are opportunities to travel a-plenty. Well, pre-Covid there was, anyway.
Decent efforts seem to have been made to boost the ranks of female partners. The firm brought in a flexible working scheme for its partners back in 2010, 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. That said, one lawyer commented that there is "lots of noise but not much action on encouraging women to hold on for partnership".
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", said one junior. Another said 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 was hugely successful, but now it's feeling a bit creaky, say staff - a move is on the cards. Although, as one lawyer put it: "anyone who complains about the almost non-stop availability of food and drink and the 24/7 print room, IT support and gym, has had the A&O silver spoon in their mouth too long".
A&O has historically been a pretty happy ship, but 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.
Partners may make a fortune, but your chances of joining their ranks are slim - although that's true of most firms. A 5QE lawyer said "being emotionally and nearly physically dead seems to be the only way to survive the 10+ year slog to partnership - if you are even that lucky as the stats are strongly against you". 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.
Pay "looks alright on paper", said a solicitor in the RollOnFriday Best Law Firms to Work At survey, "until you're in at 4am wondering why you didn't (A) go to a US firm and at least partly justify this hell or (B) give it all up to join a commune". It's "as good as can reasonably be expected given that life is fractionally more civilised than in the US firms", countered a colleague.
Here's what its people had to say in 2023:
"Hard to believe too much in the firm’s commitment to work/life balance when at least one partner has been known to boast of sleeping with his phone on his chest."
Office and amenities
The Magic Circle firm's current Bishops Square office is “truly antiquated”, but A&O is moving out. In the meantime as management “won't put a penny into the office now they've decided to move in 4 years time”.
The mock-up of the new layout “has proved controversial as lawyers at all levels have been torn from the safety of their offices to hot desk at random”, said a lawyer. “To ensure compliance with the clean desk policy, individuals have been furnished with little white plastic trays to store their bits and bobs and a locker in which to store their pride. The pilot continues”.
Taken in the round, it's "excellent", but there's always more that could be enjoyed, and in 2022, cautious "management's pay freeze for associates whilst partner profits went up again went down like a cup of cold sick on Christmas morning".
A&O was accused of being “only interested investing in two places - the US and China”, despite both being “absolute basket cases! Someone should ask the firm how much it’s losing in the US per month” as “here in London some of the big swinging dick partners are getting pissed with how much money is being thrown at China and the US with no ROI”.