The forebodingly named Sacker and Partners was founded forty years ago, but since 1990 has concentrated solely on pensions, advising both trustees and employers. It’s now considered to be one of the leading practices in that field, and it's the sort of work which - whilst it might not be too glamorous - isn't going out of fashion any time soon. And doubly so when you rule the roost.
The majority of the firm’s work is ongoing general advisory work to pension schemes but there are also dedicated dispute resolution, investment, transactional, employment and public sector units. Another element of Sackers’ practice is the work that it does for other law firms without specialist pension lawyers: a large US firm can instruct Sackers on the pensions aspect of a deal safe in the knowledge that it’s not going to be nicking its clients’ corporate work.
One of the upsides is that you’ll be working on deals in a smaller more collegiate atmosphere than you would find at the Magic Circle. Apparently the fact that the corporate support work is for other firms means that deadlines are generally more reasonable than can sometimes be the case with internal referrals. Another upside is the depth of the practice; Sackers has 50 pensions lawyers making it the largest specialist pensions practice in the UK. This means that there is always someone on hand who can give advice on an unfamiliar issue.
There are downsides too, of course. On the transactional side, you can find yourself drafted in at the last minute to work on a deal that you've no prior knowledge of, for people who aren't at the end of a corridor to glare at when they've set you an impossibly tight deadline. And by its very nature a specialist firm is going to be a very different beast to a full service practice. Not every pensions lawyer is going to want to spend most of his or her waking life entirely surrounded by other pensions lawyers.
But, if you do, this would seem to be the place to do it. The work at Sackers is high quality and the support is excellent: insiders give glowing reports of the firm's know how function. The money's also good - there’s a nicely communist bonus paid to everyone across the firm on top of the salaries to the right. Work / life balance really does seem to be taken seriously: nearly a third of its solicitors work either part or flexi-time. Because it’s a small outfit – only 50 fee-earners, half of whom are partners – you’ll get very involved very quickly, and it clearly has significant room to grow.
And when it does grow, it’ll be interesting to see whether the firm will be able to retain its current partner/assistant ratio of 1:1. This kind of leverage flies in the face of the traditional City pyramid structure, and as firms continue to chase ever increasing profits it’s hard to see how Sackers can keep to this. The firm seems to think that it can, and claims that it offers real prospects to ambitious assistants. But it seems only one or (if you're lucky) two associates make the grade each year, so take with a fistful of sodium chloride. But at least there is a clear promotion structure from assistant to associate to salaried partner to equity partner and associates say that if you’re not going to make it then you’re told pretty early on.
The firm doesn’t take on trainees, and says that most of the lawyers it hires come from large City firms. Hours aren’t horrific but they’re certainly not a doss – although a target of 1,400 a year is hardly up there on those demanded by the biggest City firms, it’s still no walk in the park. Particularly when your clients are law firms who are going to query every minute you put on the clock. Expect a long-ish day, but very little by way of really late evenings and all-nighters. One Sacker-ite told us "when they say they value work life balance they actually mean it. Of course you can't always leave at 5.30pm, but the partners notice when you're working hard and go out of their way to make you feel that it's appreciated." And another associate says "the firm makes a genuine effort to reach that holy grail of a work-life balance but with some of the highest quality work pensions in the City" also that fee earners are expected to bill 6.5 hours a day, but "it is rare to see more than a couple of lawyers in the office after 7 though" and "partners will check on you if they think you are working too hard". Sounds pretty good.
Plus you'll be able to gorge on "heart-attack heavy bacon butties and sausages [which] come as standard for client/fee earner breakfasts".