Simmons & Simmons
Simmons' traditional problem has been that it was rarely principal adviser to top companies and found it difficult to cream off the best work as a result. Although it has plenty of major clients such as JP Morgan, Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse, when the big deal comes along it is consistently overlooked. A few years back the firm underwent a strategic review with the aim, amongst other things, of addressing this and focussing on the type of client for whom it wanted to act. It is now concentrating on five key sectors: Asset Management & Investment Funds, Energy & Infrastructure, Financial Institutions, Life Sciences and Technology, Media and Telecommunications. The ambition is that whilst it can't compete with the biggest firms on everything, it should be in the running on any deal that falls within these areas.
Given the rise in profits this has clearly started to pay dividends. Although it used to be fair to say that the firm's financial performance lagged behind some of its competitors, the breadth of the firm's practice meant that it managed to hedge somewhat against the downturn, whilst other firms who focused exclusively on big ticket corporate work found that they had a lot of salaries to pay and precious little work coming through the door.
Simmons also benefits from a stellar reputation in some niche areas of the market. Its employment team is without a doubt one of the the best in the City, with anyone who's anyone gracing the client books. It's also one of the best firms for IP and life sciences work, acting for clients such as GlaxoSmithKline and Bacardi. The IT team has got the Indian outsourcing market pretty much sewn up, the projects group is excellent, and litigation has been consistently busy and profitable. High profile sexy clients include HMV and Virgin Media.
It even seems to be making progress in its achilles heal of international expansion. And with over 20 offices worldwide, trainees can expect a trip out to any number of exotic and glamorous locations. Or Dubai (where, to be fair, it's supposedly a great laugh - though there were redundancies in 2012).
On top of that, Simmons is widely considered one of the more laid back firms at which to work and its got pretty swanky offices at City Point (complete with Damien Hirst art and a neon sign saying "trust me" outside the lecture hall). Assistants comment that "the work is really interesting and big ticket, and the hours are relatively civilised", and "everyone has a friendly and approachable attitude". How very jolly. Well, almost. There are gripes that there are "imposed daily time recording targets for all fee earners with angry email alerts if 10 seconds are missing!" And, while "the firm is a great place to work", the "feeling at the moment in the associate ranks is that the firm wants to work associates harder, with little prospect of increased remuneration to reflect that". The good reports also don't change the fact that associate attrition is rumoured to be high - especially with pay being nothing special and the bonus metric incomprehensible.
A job lot of trainees were deferred in 2009 when the firm simply didn't have the capacity to employ them - but at least they got to do a special MBA (and received a generous stipend for doing so). The firm's now dumped the MBA.
Here's what staff had to say in the RollOnFriday Firm of the Year surveys in 2019 and 2020:
The wedge was "Good at my level, provided you are performing", said a junior partner. It's "crap if you aren't (rightly so...)"
Pay "is ok", said a junior solicitor, "but what made it great last year was the personal bonus scheme which was based entirely on your chargeable hours and grading within the team".
Unfortunately, the bonus "has now been made entirely discretionary with measures against things like recovery and pro-bono taken into account". A lawyer complained that "recovery is not my problem if a partner cannot scope a matter properly, and most associates don't have time to take on pro-bono as they are constantly getting beasted in poorly structured teams." As a result, "They have done a good job at disincentivising juniors".
The discretionary nature of the bonus "means if you bust your gut doing 2200 hours, you risk getting the same as someone who did 1000".
Other agreed. "Salaries are slightly under those for similar sized firms", said a senior solicitor. "This used to be acceptable when Simmons had one of the best hours-related bonuses in the city. However, the bonus structure is (as of this year) entirely discretionary, which is a fairly clear ploy to ensure that partners can blow smoke up their favourites' backsides and screw everyone else over. Now that the bonus structure no longer guarantees a proper pinning of hours worked to pay deserved unless one is also either (i) a member of the glorified fintech or life science teams, or (ii) willing to kiss a hell of a lot of ass, salaries really need to improve".
"With the hours I do I worked out I get paid 11.00 pounds an hour which is below the recommended living wage", reckoned a junior solicitor. "But don't worry, I'm told, I'm paid competitively and apparently elsewhere I'd be doing the same hours so #winning". But bear in mind another junior solicitor said the pay was "very good for the hours expected".
As for career development, gearing was a concern. "In the corporate team there are 19 partners and after a flurry of resignations, 12 associates", said a respondent. "The upside down pyramid is a complete farce and makes our future look very bleak indeed. Even before the resignations it was a 1:1 partner:associate ratio".
Consequently, "If you're unlucky enough to be staffed in one of the leaner teams you are constantly taking on new matters with no breaks between deals and firefighting matters with a wide variety of demanding and unreasonable partners."
"Massive autonomy provided to partners to develop their business as they see fit", said one of their number, but there were disparities between teams according to a lawyer further down the ladder. "Seems you get promoted as standard in some departments at 3.5 PQE; others you have to grovel and bill 1800 hours and then you might make it at 5 years PQE if you're lucky".
Lawyers said that "generally, work life balance is good and the firm's approach to flexible and agile working is excellent".
However, "the firm's massive drive for equality in respect of working parents and does sometimes lead to those of us not lucky, rich or stupid enough to have procreated being saddled with the most complex and hours-intensive deals. Apparently hobbies, personal relationships and health are not as important as small children's nativity plays and school pick up times".
"Flexible working is great, and the firm supports it massively", said a respondent pre-covid (as all these responses were) in early 2020. "It's not terrible", conceded a junior solicitor. "Most people here understand you have a life".
"Ha, what life?" countered a peer. "Work is life, no? I'm told you're not meant to have a life if you want to work at a 'city' firm. I get 4 hours sleep on a regular basis and love having to work on the weekends and told to check my phone regularly whilst on holiday. Simmons is my life now".
A partner disagreed. "I think that everyone (from secretaries to partners) understand that work/life balance is key for this firm", she said.
Partners were, perhaps predictably, mostly positive on the way the firm was handled. "They know what they are doing. They are strong, courageous and drive the big boat as if it was a vedette (which is not!)", said one. "The direction is right. Needs more arse kicking of those partners that hide in underperforming teams", said another, eyeing up the equity above him.
"Management focus on hours and flashy acquisitions without understanding people are leaving because pay isn't market rates whilst hours remain at market (i.e. Silver Circle) hours", said a solicitor.
"Associates and trainees are all great and very supportive; but the partners genuinely don't understand the concept of mental health", said a junior solicitor. Actually, insisted a partner, "We all strive to adhere to the firm's values. They aren't just words on a piece of paper".
"Toxic culture with lots of backstabbing", commented a paralegal. "Nobody really talks to each other and would rather ignore others than simply make eye contact and say hello". Ouch. Another less than happy lawyer said that Simmons was "trapped in the sinking mud that is a firm with a not very good work life balance and a good, but not great, salary".
Balancing that, a partner maintained that Simmons boasts a "wonderful culture. There are, she said, "very very few assholes, less than anywhere else, it is quite impressive".
A trainee described the Simmons culture as "Non-hierarchical, open, friendly, supportive", with "active encouragement to get involved in pro-bono and CSR initiatives"
Office and Amenities
The big issue appeared to be the canteen. Apparently the evening dinner, while "free past 8pm", is "awful".
"I was chastised for ordering Deliveroo every night for 4 weeks rather than using the firm's canteen for late-working dinners", said a solicitor. "But I continued, because I'll be damned if I'm eating that slop every night for a month".
At least the new office in Bristol "is a breath of fresh air" and "excellent", according to staff.
NB: stated salaries on the table are for the London office. In Bristol, first year trainees are paid £38,000, second years £39,000, and NQs £51,000.