Back in the nineties Ashurst was seen as pretty much the best firm at which to work in the City. The cliché was that it punched above its weight, with Magic Circle quality but mid-sized training. Its crown may have slipped since then, but it remains a well-regarded firm in the City.
Like all chasing pack firms Ashurst had to make some tough decisions over its future, and there have been concerns that it hasn't been entirely focused in this. Its previous strategy was to grow organically into the leading European law firm, but it hasn’t been shy of pursuing mergers. Clifford Chance and Latham & Watkins were both rejected as suitable targets, as was Fried Frank.
The firm's ex-senior partner, Charlie Geffen, made it clear at the end of 2008 that he wanted the firm to invest further in Asia and the Middle East. Ashurst entered into an association with Hong Kong firm Jason Woo & Associates and opened an Abu Dhabi office. Then in September 2011 the firm confirmed that it would be merging with Aussie Big Six firm Blake Dawson. It went live in 2013, and BD took Ashurst's name.
So it abandoned the previous commitment to organic growth, but has the new strategy worked to make Ashurst a truly global firm? It may have lost valuable ground to its competitors whilst it was dithering, but its reputation and profits are strong and the merger with Blakes means that it will have to be taken seriously as a global competitor.
The credit crunch took its toll on the firm - especially given Ashurst's exposure to private equity and finance - and turnover for 2009/10 fell just under the £300m barrier at £293m. But things improved: the figures for 2010/11 showed a 3% increase in turnover to £303 million. In the first integrated results with Blakes, for 2013/14, it posted revenue of £568m and PEP of £801k. In 2014/15, PEP dropped to £747,000, while revenue also dropped, to £561m. Then-Managing Partner James Collis blamed the fall on "a year of consolidation and significant investment", in which it had management consultants Bain & Co conduct a review of its business. Like many other firms, one of the results was the mass north-shoring of support staff, with lots of redundancies in London and a low cost centre opening in Glasgow. The Scottish outpost employed over 150 people, including legal analysts.
In 2016 Ashurst installed a legacy Blake Dawson partner, Paul Jenkins, as its new MP. His appointment came as the firm reported poor financials. Profits per equity partner dropped 19% to £603k, and revenue fell 10% to £505m. Jenkins said the results were “not what I wanted them to be”, attributing them to investments to improve efficiency, a downturn in oil, gas and mining, a slowdown in China and “ongoing geopolitical uncertainty”. In 2016/17 they recovered slightly, with revenue increasing 7% to £541m and PEP rising to £672k.
Ashurst is predominantly a corporate and finance firm and it boasts a corporate department pretty much as good as any in the Magic Circle. Other departments are also highly regarded, particularly property, tax litigation and its international finance team.
As for the staff's views, in 2015 a senior associate decried the, "endless rounds of management consultant-driven 'strategy' navel gazing". On the other hand, "partners (in my department at least) are people I enjoy going for beers with, which is a huge plus". As for mums and dads, said an associate, "like all the other city firms, the firm is pretty clueless about how to integrate flexible working practices for fee-earners, especially new parents".
In the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year 2017 survey Ashurst managed 60% overall. Staff observed that the London office had "seen better days" and would not be refurbished in advance of the move to swanky new premises in 2019. Management was on people's minds, with one raising the"uncertain direction of the firm over the last 2/3 years". But there were signs it may have turned a corner. This from an associate, whose score of 'average' for management "covers being pretty terrible for a while, but seeming to improve quite significantly in the last few months, particularly in London with the appointment of Simon Beddow as the Office Managing Partner".
A solicitor said that pay "whilst average compared to the market, is good in light of work life balance", although of course the average length of the working day varied between departments. Others praised the "great people", with one admitting "I love my colleagues. Which is lucky as I spend more time with them than family".
Ashurst performed pretty poorly in the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year 2018 survey, with staff voting themselves 58% satisfied, largely thanks to pay. There was some optimism: "Signs are better than before", said a trainee: they "needed to be". There were, said another lawyer, "lots of notable losses this year which is changing [the] dynamic of the teams, and felt across the firm". But Beddow, said another "is great and has reversed the decline in the London office".
The combination of top-drawer clients and the fact it is relatively small in size means that Ashurst is an excellent place to train. As in any top firm - especially such a corporate-driven one - lawyers will have to work silly hours a lot of the time, but at least it's doing big ticket work. Promotion prospects have generally been seen as reasonable.
A note of caution for interested parties, however: in the canteen, “trying to eat with the "compostable" cutlery (which melts in even tepid food) is an exercise in ritualised humiliation”.