Back in the mists of time around the millennium, Fieldfisher was seen as a slightly crusty mid-sized firm. Since then it has managed to develop a slightly more sexy image: it’s now increased its capacity in technology, IP and European regulatory work. It also takes legal geek levels to new heights – in 2007 it was the first (and only?) UK law firm to open a virtual office in the online community Second Life. In 2014 it shrugged off a name from its letterhead Field Fisher Waterhouse to a more streamlined Fieldfisher.
But despite the gimmicks, the firm set itself some very tough goals, with mixed success. In 2005, when its revenue was just over £52m, its target was to hit £75m by 2008. Turnover for that year actually reached an impressive £88m. It was aiming for £200m by 2012, but it was a tough time for everyone and the firm only managed £97.6m. In 2012/13, its revenues dropped to £95m, and average profit per equity partner fell 2% to £402k. Turnover rose to £101.6m in 2013/14, and to £113.9 in 2014/15. Profits rose 40% in 2014/15, equating to £310,000 when avergaed out across the 137 partners.
Fieldfisher struggled during the boom when staff had to work hard to cope with the influx of work, salaries didn't keep pace with the rest of the City and FF found it difficult to recruit. Underpaid and overworked assistants do not make for a happy ship, and the firm accepts that "salary was a huge concern". And it didn't win points when, just after posting a massive 30% rise in turnover, it made some 15 of its real estate lawyers redundant.
The firm was inevitably affected by the credit crunch, too, with 42 redundancies in the 2008/09 period. It did then gear itself up for a period of serious expansion, announcing a three-year growth plan focusing on corporate, IP/IT and regulatory. The plan was named the "virtuous triangle" - a (much mocked) moniker that FF thought so inspired, it had the term trademarked. Its headcount dropped by four partners and one other fee-earner in 2012/13, and it suffered a failed merger with Osborne Clarke at the end of 2013 (following an earlier doomed attempt with Lawrence Graham).
Pay has remained a bone of contention for the firm's staff, although things have improved. Pay is at least now a bit more reasonable (if still not fantastic) - back in 2007 it transpired that newly qualified assistants at Weil Gotshal made more money than newly made up partners at FF…
Lower salaries may have helped cause FF's woeful performance in the Firm of the Year Survey 2011, where it scraped second to last position, narrowly avoiding Golden Turd status. It flapped about the bottom of the table in 2012 and 2013, but then suddenly rocketed up to fifth place in 2014. An awful lot of very positive responses came from partners praising new Managing Partner Michael Chissick. Hmmm.
In 2016 there was just the one fan (being vocal, anyway), explaining that, "With Captain Chissick at the helm, there has been substantial investment in new offices, proper IT and an evident commitment to increasing diversity".
The goodwill wasn't quite unanimous amongst staffers. In the 2016 survey, more than one lawyer complained that pay was "still not quite up to scratch".
But the "seriously plush and well-located" new London office at Riverbank House, which staff moved into in 2015, is "great". Lawyers were almost uniformly scathing of their old place at the arse end of the City, which was "reminiscent of 1970s Stalingrad".
The partnership is relatively young and diverse. One lawyer says that a "big diversity drive makes it feel like they're trying to actually do something about issues such as the gender divide in partnership, which is very encouraging".
At the more junior end FF claims that it takes a serious interest in the development of junior lawyers - there's a pretty comprehensive training scheme (which you would expect) and many assistants have their own marketing budgets (which you might not). And the firm has done fairly well on trainee retention. It takes on around 12 trainees in one cohort per year. In 2013 it managed 12 out of 17. In 2014, with a smaller intake of 11, it was able to retain 100%, while in 2015 it kept on 10 out of 13 as NQs, 77%.
In the 2016 survey, the firm performed poorly, particularly for pay (48%). It's best score was for work/life balance. Awarding it 76%, staff said that for "large parts of the firm", w/l balance was "brilliant", and that "even in the areas with longer hours it's a pretty sociable place to work and there's certainly no culture of presenteeism to blight the quieter days".
FF has made an about-turn on its vision of the future. It's tightened up its financial management - including billing and collection. It has also keenly pursuing a merger, although so far it's struggled. Talks were held with LG, but they fell apart fairly acrimoniously, with FF being less than kind about LG's financials and LG suggesting FF's partnership was not as united as it might be. FF dusted itself off and set its sights on Osborne Clarke, but OB also gave it the cold shoulder. In a (minor) victory it inked a deal to swallow up eight partner Manchester firm Heatons.
In the 2018 survey, staff handed the firm a decent 74%. Managing Partner Michael Chissick was praised for turning the firm around in the last five years, although pay got a walloping precisely because of the stellar financials. As did the buggy new time recording system. One lawyer recalled a colleague "recording over 7000 (yes, thousand) hours" when "they left their timer running over the weekend unknowingly".
Pay for Fieldfisher partners was "great for those in the inner circle" said a partner. "Everyone else is palmed off with peanuts and promises". A junior associate said that "Despite pushing out numerous articles to the press about the firm's success and pay for the top of equity", pay rises for the rest of the firm "were derisory". The "constant emails to all staff about how well the firm is doing", she said, "only seek to reinforce the resentment". Another said the pay was "embarrassing" and that associates "are leaving in droves" as a result.
In terms of career development, Fieldfisher's strategy, said a junior solicitor, was "to laterally hire white, male partners". Another said that "unless you kiss arse to the most unlikable partners you can forget it!" But others were more positive. "Well", said a respondent, "I joined as an NQ many years ago and am now a partner".
As for culture, a partner at Fieldfisher said that when he joined many years ago, "I quickly found that the wider firm culture was disjointed, inward-looking and riven with partnerial gridlock". But "how times have changed!" Ten years on, "the Fieldfisher of 2017 is friendly, nurturing, united and ambitious all in equal measure". Underlings mostly agreed. "The vast majority of people are normal, approachable human beings", said a junior solicitor.