Clifford Chance, the product of a merger in 1987 between Coward Chance and Clifford Turner, used to be looked down on as the new kid on the block by the more established members of the Magic Circle. Not any more. Its brand is up there with the best in the world and its policy of rapid global expansion has made it a dominant name on the international market.
CC wasn't too shy during the worldwide economic collapse, making nearly 100 London lawyers redundant. And while the firm denied any formal partnership restructuring there were rumours of partners being given the elbow on the quiet. A rumour which CC did little to dispel when it approved plans to allow for the speedier exit of under-performing partners.
The firm has massive banking and finance practices, and there was just not enough work around in those fields, hence level turnover - about £1.2 billion - for a couple of years. In 2011/12 it was re-energised, turnover rising to £1.303bn and profits per equity partner at £1.078m.
In more recent times, things have been going very well on the financial front.
In 2018/19, revenue increased just over 4% to £1.693 billion, while profit per equity partner rose a smidge, 2%, to £1.62 million.
Freshfields and Linklaters et al may consider themselves slightly grander on the corporate finance front (and they've slightly higher partner profits to boot), but there is no denying that CC is still one of the top corporate firms in the world. Along with Allen & Overy it is the top finance firm in the City, and in securitisation it is pre-eminent.
The firm has the predictable raft of high profile clients, including the usual roster of banks - Santander, BNP Paribas, Citibank, HSBC, RBS etc. It is also one of the most avant garde of the big firms. CC was the first UK firm to sign up to the LawWorks and Bar Pro Bono Unit's joint agreement which ties it into doing a certain amount of work a year for free. It was the first big firm to pull off a merger with a major New York outfit.
The hours are an inevitable downside to working for a firm the size of CC. Long hours and huge deals, however, are features of life at all large firms, and there's no suggestion that CC is anything other than completely typical. Though it rankles associates when, as one put it, the money is "crap ... compared to the US firms." And perhaps work allocation could be better, as one lawyer notes that whilst "some are overloaded ... others are deathly quiet". For those burning the midnight oil, an associate says "proper support staff" are provided "through the 24-hour Document Production Unit" as well as "excellent CC club sandwich and chips delivered to your desk".
In the 2019 RollOnFriday Firm of the Year survey, Clifford Chance was scored top of the Magic Circle for pay. And that was before they all bumped up NQ pay to £100k or thereabouts. Lawyers at CC are paid "too much to complain", said a junior solicitor.
Work-life balance did come in for a slating, however. As you would expect at a top City firm, putting in the hours is expected. "You feel the daggers of eyes as you try and sneak into the lifts before 6pm", said one solicitor. "Chasing money-hungry clients" meant catching them brought "pretty unreasonable expectations". But, said a colleague, US firms "are far worse" and "other Magic Circle firms are equally as bad". As for Silver Circle firms - they "are going belly up".
As for work colleagues, one associate says that the "dominance of the grey shoe brigade" is "living proof that the geeks shall inherit the earth". Another lawyers complains of "greedy partners" who are "totally out of touch with what is a decent lifestyle". However, others report of "nice and unpretentious" staff and that there are "fewer chippy sociopaths" than at other firms.
In the loos, "there's a sign above the flush handle saying 'depress gently'", divulged a non-fee-earner (M). "It's become a mantra for living".
The majority aren't so gloomy. Asked what kept them there, a Clifford Chance solicitor responded, "Top class work. It's awesome". Though he warned, "I have drunk too much kool aid."
"In London at least", said a senior solicitor at the firm, which came top of the Magic Circle for management, "senior management is visible, approachable and make every effort to clearly communicate the firm's strategy". "It feels like the reins on the old boys club are starting to fray", said another, citing the "Great move to give everyone xmas eve off this year".
The firm has adopted the same method of presenting its latest rises as Linklaters, wrapping up the bonus figure with the salary figure to give a total compensation figure. It makes CC and Links' numbers look very good compared to the rest of the Magic Circle, since Allen & Overy, Freshfields and Slaughter and May state bald salary figures, not inclusive of bonuses.
The offices may be in Canary Wharf, but they cost a fortune and are stunning. There's an enormous gym, with ranks of the latest equipment and plasma screen TVs, subsidised personal trainers, masseurs and beauticians on hand, several restaurants (the lychee martinis in the bar are apparently a must) and a swimming pool with views over London (although some associates grumble that they never get the chance to use it, and if they do they “run the gauntlet of more work being placed on your desk when you get back”. Plus, who wants to risk seeing their supervisor in Speedos?).
Working at a firm of this size brings the usual pros and cons. You will spend long hours as a small cog in a very big wheel, but then first class cash, support, training and work, a truly international reputation and opportunities to work abroad provide ample compensation. And, of course, there is that swimming pool... and, we are reliably informed, an impressive step instructor on Tuesdays.