CMS managed to pull off a tripartite perger with fellow City firms Nabarro and Olswang on 1st May 2017. Many commentators (including ROF) thought it would be difficult to get such a complicated deal over the finishing line, so fair play to them. Because they may enlighten you, the profiles for the other firms are included beneath this one.
The firm is an unusual beast. 'CMS' refers to its global network, now expanded to 60 offices in over 30 countries across the world with over 5000 staff. However when you hear 'CMS Cameron McKenna' that refers to the firm's UK and Eastern European network. Slightly confusing messaging? As one London lawyer puts it, "Are we CMS? CMS Cameron McKenna? No one really knows". Following the merger, its unwieldy title is now CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang. Or CMSCMNO. Or, as we'll call it, CMS.
The firm has long since recovered from the unsettling days of the credit crunch, when it made 43 fee-earners redundant and deferred its NQ start dates. In order to prevent further redundancies, a flexible working scheme was introduced in 2010, involving the vast majority of staff either working shorter weeks or taking unpaid leave. In 2014 it acquired sickly Scottish firm Dundas & Wilson.
Then it abandoned an element of performance-related pay for partners in favour of pure lockstep, waving goodbye to its practice of sharing out around 5% of profits amongst star partners every year. The firm claimed performance-based pay was divisive and costly to administer, and unmodified lockstep certainly fits in with the egalitarian partnership ethos.
The results for the combined firm are slightly opaque. While revenue increased 5% to £545.8 million for 2018/19, UK profits were been disclosed. Operating profit (profit before interest andd taxes) for 2017/18 was £160 million, though, which was up 30% on the total profits of the three firms pre-merger.
CMS has traditionally fallen somewhat between two stools: despite sound financials it's not been considered big enough to enjoy the reputation and profits of the Magic Circle or the chasing pack. And whilst insiders report that staff are a “genuinely decent bunch of down to earth people" and praise of "good work, good colleagues [and] an open and unpretentious environment", it can't offer the collegiality of smaller corporate firms like Travers Smith. The merger with Nabarro and Olswang may see it acquire sufficient heft to go the other way.
The firm just squeezed into the top half of the table in the 2018 and 2019 RollOnFriday Firm of the Year survey, with an overall score on 67% and 64% respectively (39th out of 65 firms). There was still relief at having left the "Orwellian granite block” of Mitre House (its London office) for "fabulous", "fancy" open plan offices in Cannon Street in 2015. However, one lawyer said the office entrance was "trying too hard to be an airport lounge" and another said "the new offices are nice, if you like working in a call centre".
Partners were described as "generally good leaders and active mentors" and the firm seems very encouraging of flexible working which one lawyer said was "not just lip service...the firm does seek to be ahead of the game with working mothers". Another agreed, saying they were "encouraged by senior management to work flexibly during tube strikes" and over the Christmas period "and given the tools to do so", with the provision of Microsoft Surface Pros.
Overall staff seemed happy to come into work with people who were "supportive, knowledgeable, friendly" and 'the social life and general attitude of most partners and associates make it a nice place to work". The firm's award winning CSR and pro bono team also received praise with one insider commenting that the "general charity work is outstanding."
There were a couple of grumbles that it is "Relatively unknown outside legal circles, despite its size compared to equivalent-sized firms", with "Terrible branding/slogans which are hard to explain/justify to clients".
As for the merger, the verdict from inside is mixed to positive. A senior solicitor complained of an "unpleasant post merger" atmosphere, but that's not unusual given the turbulence a join-up creates. Others were more open-minded. A junior lawyer said the firm was "a weird mish-mash following the merger". "It's a disparate bunch", said a senior solicitor, "with Cameroons, McKennites, Nabarroles and Olswangers, but somehow it fits together". A senior solicitor said it was clear CMS was "working really hard to build a positive culture post-merger".
It in now "a behemoth on biblical levels", said one lawyer, whose management, a partner said, was "largely unseen apart from generic firmwide emails or pleas to bill". "'We're the 6th largest law firm by office space globally in Europe' - genuinely a quote on a poster in the office", said another.
Partners were praised for taking their pastoral role seriously. At CMS, "There are a number of partners I really enjoy working with", said a solicitor, whom "I feel are supporting my career and my progression", said one junior.
Overall, CMS seems to be staffed with an above average number of nice people and to offer a decent work-life balance, though it may suffer from an unclear offering. As one insider comments, "overall a great firm that probably deserves more credit."
NB The salaries stated in the ROF table are for London - they are less in the regions. By way of example, NQs in Bristol get £50,000, Manchester £42,000, Sheffield £41,000, and in Scotland £40,000.
Nabarro is a bigger firm than you might think: it now has 300 lawyers and 109 partners. The partners made an average profit of £576,000 in 2014/15, up from £475,000 in 20013/14, which was up 10% on the year before, which in turn was up 10% on 2011/12. So nothing to scoff at. And the firm has a reputation for promoting from within wherever possible, so the chances for ambitious assistants are as good as they get for this sort of mid-market practice.
The firm's gold standard has always been its property department which is extremely strong (recent deals of note include work on the 2012 Olympic park and the excitingly newsworthy redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks - whether Prince Charles likes it or not). Real estate clients in 2016 include big players like Land Securities, Hammerson, Great Portland Estates and Lend Lease.
In the last few years, however, Nabarro has sought to be seen as more of a corporate firm, with an aim to be "the top commercial law firm serving the UK mid-market". Besides property, it has stated that it is focussing on the healthcare & life sciences, infrastructure and technology sectors and now has three practice divisions: Real Estate, Business Advisory and Dispute Resolution. So now you know.
It seems to be making a decent stab of it. Things may not be quite back to the levels of 2006/2007, when the market was booming and the firm's corporate group was very busy - but it can boast of scoring work from Lloyds bank, Santander, UBS and Aviva, as well as high profile clients including Google, Twitter, IBM, Aston Martin and GlaxoSmithKline.
A couple of years ago there were a few reports suggesting that things were a bit slow. There were a few nasty rumours of people leaving not necessarily of their own free will. The firm was definitely doing some cost-cutting - it shaved 13 fee-earners and 10 other staff from its headcount in 2011/12. But if recent figures are anything to go by, things are indeed looking up. As well as those PEP increases, turnover in 2014/15 increased by 8% to £126m.
And it seems like a relatively pleasant place to work, with lots and lots of correspondents telling us that it is "extremely friendly" and has partners who are "open", with "only a few arsey" ones. Which is always nice.
If you fancy a training contract (and going through the quirky six-seat rotation), it's pretty much a given that you'll need to have done a vacation scheme. The six seats you'll face are the standard set - plenty of corporate and banking and pensions - with a hefty chunk of real estate thrown in (which, if nothing else, probably means you'll get to run small matters pretty much all on your own). Plus there's a good-sized disputes team who get instructed on sizeable matters (including mopping up Lehman Brothers and Northern Rock). And if you're in Sheffield, you can do a few months of work on vibration white finger. The social scene oop north is recommended, though - with "even partners coming along to embarrass themselves". Generally, trainees vouch for the Nabarro experience. Several responding to the RollOnFrday Firm of the Year 2016 survey said the training was "excellent", with "lots of opportunity to get involved outside the department/beyond day to day work e.g. pro bono/volunteering/socials".
As of 2016 the firm has a flexible working policy as part of the firm's popular wellbeing programme, which allows working from home one day per week. It drew a lot of praise in the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year 2016 survey. An "excellent" initiative, said one. There is now a "big focus on flexible working and workplace culture", said a senior lawyer, which "seems to be making everyone much happier". There is, said a junior lawyer, "a genuine desire for people to have a good work-life balance".
On the negative side, the pay is generally viewed as a bit cruddy. It would be OK on the basis that the hours are meant to fall short of the top tier. But several lawyers tell RollOnFriday they don't: "Salaries reflect mid-market", said one, "but working hours in certain departments are more like Magic Circle/American law firm hours". Others said that "generally" the hours are fine, and it appears to depend on your department and office: an associate said there was a "great work/life balance" in Sheffield. As far as bonuses go, the firm's line is that in 2014/15 associates were rewarded with in excess of £1m in bonuses and can (hypothetically) earn up to 20% of their salaries by winning them.
Those looking for experience overseas may be underwhelmed by Nabarro's list of out-of-London offices: Brussels (for competition law), Singapore (mainly construction and engineering work) and, of course, Sheffield. Although in 2014 it did add Dubai to the mix (and, slightly less exotically, Manchester). And at least the London Wall offices have been completely refurbished. They're now "amazing" and have "incredible panoramic views" across London, even if does sometimes feel "like living in a conservatory with sliding glass doors".
Also good: free evening meals for anyone working late, which has proved very popular. That initiative falls under the firm's wellbeing programme, which seeks to encourage a healthy lifestyle. It's "great", according to several staff.
Olswang is one of the sexier firms in the City, combining a high-profile media (and new media) practice with a successful corporate department. Success has come at a certain price - the firm has moved on from the brash media boutique of the 1990s to adopt a more mature imagine and working style - but it's also brought in a greater variety of eye-catching work.
International expansion has been very much on the menu. The firm opened a Singapore office at the start of 2012, which has no doubt increased the praise the firm receives for its "amazing secondment opportunities." And Olswang bulked up in Europe too, with offices in Munich, Paris and Madrid added to its network in the last few years.
Its smart offices in Holborn (all Starbucks and plasma screens) hint at a youthful firm with little City baggage to drag it down. Perhaps this is why Magic Circle lawyers used to sniff at Olswang's corporate work, until they realised the young pretender was there to stay. Turnover rose by a whopping 17% in 2011/12 to £108.1m, a more modest 3% in 2012/13 to £111.3m, by 7% in 2013/14 to £117.6m, and by almost 8% to £126.7m in 2014/15. However, in 2015/16 it dropped to £113m.
And behind the scenes, there have been some tumultous times of late. The rampant expansion may not have been such a great strategy. Profit per equity partner has remained flat at £490k since 2013. In 2014, the firm took out its own CEO. In 2015, its entire Berlin office walked out.
Despite other meritorious projects - real estate and the like - media remains the firm's stronghold (no matter how many press releases about other stuff they fire out). Top-drawer clients include the Guardian, FIFA, the BBC, ITV and a host of other similarly exciting-sounding clients. In fact, when it comes to film and TV, this place is pretty untouchable. Add to the above Channel 4, DreamWorks and HBO and you'll see how Olswang pretty much controls the board. As an extra added bonus, assistants have previously reported that the whole firm is frequently invited along to a free screening of the films it has worked on.
Plus the firm was appointed by News International in the wake of the phone hacking scandal to help draw up a code of conduct. Although it was subsequently shunted off in favour of Linklaters. It also acted for Elisabeth Murdoch and others on the £293m sale of the entire issued share capital of her production company Shine to dad's News Corporation.
The firm insist on a group target policy, not individual. You might wonder if this is a touch invidious - if you take a longer lunch than you should, or leave the office before your workmates then you have to deal with the guilt of letting your mates down. Perhaps so, but people working at the firm enthused about how well the lawyers and support staff got along with each other - "relaxed, open and friendly. It makes the working day enjoyable". And if you do feel hard done by, there's always the prospect of one of those departmental ski weekends on the horizon.
One associate commented, "A lot of the older lawyers reminisce about the 'good old days' when Olswang was still young and cool - there's a general feeling that everything has become a bit more corporate and boring". Although, said an NQ, "We've also somehow clung on to our image as a cool firm, inspiring envy in my friends at more 'traditional' firms with our wacky tech-loving, non-tie-wearing, bee-keeping ways"
In the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year 2016 survey, Olswangers complained, a lot, about the "confused" management of the firm in recent times. "Following the recent exits of foreign offices and certain key partners throughout the firm there doesn't yet appear to be a clear plan for the future or any sign of lateral hire replacements", said a 4PQE. The firm "does seem to be in a state of flux" said an NQ, "but I'm optimistic about the future (perhaps wrongly; time will tell)".
"The new management have no strategy apart from cutting costs", said a 2PQE, "and there is a feeling that the firm has lost its direction. Morale is low. The Madrid office is being quietly closed down. Berlin is gone".
Others said there has been a "high turnover of associates without any obvious investigation as to why this is happening". Some teams "are under-resourced leading to immense pressure, particularly on juniors". A 4PQE said, "Almost 1 on 1 gearing is not uncommon in certain teams".
But, said another 4PQ, "despite a relatively high number of associates leaving the Corporate Group the atmosphere and team dynamics remain strong". And "it's generally a fun place to work where everyone pitches in equally (partners are at their desks as late as associates are)".
Plus, said a 2PQE, in most teams, "there is no rigid "hierarchy" or elitism by partners and senior lawyers. Everyone is treated equally and juniors are given the credit and respect they deserve". Citing a "fantastic peer culture and a strong support network among associates", they said "Most people are genuinely lovely (save for a few bad apples)".
Trainee retention is very up and down at Olswang, with only 50% of the autumn 2015 qualifiers staying on (according to one, "boasting how great the half year results are and then only taking on four NQs the week later isn't cool").
Despite all that, Olswang is a great place for those looking for a first class grounding in new media law. If this is your area, if you are ambitious, hard working and have a strong personality, then you can probably do no better. And - whatever the truth behind the brand - everyone will think you're cool (for a lawyer, anyway).