Allen & Overy
A&O hit the £1 billion threshold back in 2008 and hasn't looked back since. In 2015/16, turnover rose 2.3% to £1.31bn.
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 they 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 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 has helped the bottom line, and the firm has started to see the benefits of its decision to cut some staff and ship out others to Belfast. In 2015/2016, profit was £562m and profit per equity partner reached £1.21m.
And in 2016 A&O raised NQ salaries to £75,000. Whilst some of the lawyers are off to buy big gold watches, one non-fee-earner complained "for support staff, this place is the least paid", with bonuses being small or non-existent. Whilst another from the Belfast office said, "the London associate pay rise was an extra slap in the face - their pay hike was more than the total salaries of most of the people in my department". And not even all the lawyers are happy with one NQ looking at the dollar associates are making elsewhere: "Money is still not as good as US firms". Another associate said that the increase to Associate salaries was done to "much back-slapping and fanfare among the partnership" but that associates in London would have preferred the money to have been spent on "hiring more lawyers" to address "work/life balance".
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 it still lags behind the competition on this front). But it's a rounded offering, too, with growth being particularly strong in litigation over 2014/15. 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"). And it won't be Canada, as the firm closed down its sole office in Toronto in 2015, after just a year. Should you be flown over to Singapore, be aware that "exiting the toilet requires you to swipe your security pass" and also "enter a four digit pin" past a certain hour.
Decent efforts seem to 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. That said, one lawyer comments 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", 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. Although, not everyone is happy, as one associate complains that there is "inconsistency between work load of individuals even within the same group". Whilst another NQ says "as a junior it's not uncommon to be left without senior support or strategic direction". Another lawyer says that there is "apathy from partnership towards associate career progression".
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 offices are ace - especially the roof terraces in summer" croons one associate. One lawyer puts 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. One joyous transactional lawyer says "corporate is booming" and enjoys "the endless socials and weekly team champers". Although there are a few grumbling voices in other parts of the office. One lawyer says,"the other associates are nice, although this could just be because we have bonded over ineffectual management". Another staffer says there is a divide in the London office of posh toffs v chavs as it's the "21st century version of Downton Abbey". Whilst an associate says "people are either so busy that they don't have time to socialise or too scared to admit that they do".
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...). One lawyer reports that "promotions at every level are getting tougher with the passing year." A 5QE lawyer says "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 Firm of the Year 2019 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.