The Magic Circle generally fared relatively well in this year's Firm of the Year survey, with three of the five bettering their 2012 overall satisfaction scores and beating the average overall score for all firms (65%). Only Allen & Overy and Linklaters bucked this positive trend. But despite rising scores overall, the Magic Circle firms are still very much under-performing in comparison to their US rivals.

Overall scores

As the main legal advisor for the London Olympics (meaning free tickets for staff plus the chance to hobnob with sports stars), Freshfields had a pretty special 2012 and that's translated into soaring staff satisfaction levels. One lawyer gushed "any Freshies who complain about the firm after the year we've just had need their mouths rinsed out with soap".

The firm plumped top spot with an overall score of 71% (up from last year's 65%), placing it 13th overall. Freshfields received particular praise for pay (87%) and career prospects (75%).

At the less spectacular end of the table, however, last year's top Magic Circle firm Allen & Overy dropped down to fourth place, with an overall satisfaction score of 64%. The firm took a bit of a pummelling for poor work-life balance (46%) and lacklustre career prospects (65%).


Most of the Magic Circle firms scored well for pay, although Freshfields significantly outperformed the rest with an impressive 87% (fifth place overall in this category). Lawyers lauded the firm for "great pay" generally and for dishing out London rates in its overseas offices. Given the similarity of salaries amongst the Magic Circle firms, Freshfield's stellar score shows that satisfaction with pay depends on how a lawyer feels about the firm's working environment. Respondents praised the firm for being an "awesome place" and, importantly, having very "few weasels amongst the other associates". Even if one or two grumbled that "pay should match the US firms."

This wage disparity between Magic Circle and US firms was a recurring theme. Lawyers at Linklaters (62%) complained of "low pay" and bad bonuses, with one grumbling "if you're going to work us this hard, pay us American rates". Meanwhile at Clifford Chance (72%) -  where respondents couldn't remember the last pay rise - one lawyer suggested that the MC should rebrand to "the Magically Tight Circle firms".

Work-life balance

The scores for work life balance amongst Magic Circle firms make for some pretty gruesome reading, with four of the five in the bottom ten overall. At Linklaters (43%), which came rock bottom overall, lawyers complained of being "flogged to death". And Poor A&O (46%) staffers have "no time for fun or social events" as it's all "billables, billables, billables". One wag suggested the firm "should change its name to Annoying & Overtime!
It was a similar tale at Freshfields (49%) where lawyers work "on weekends, holidays, sick days, paternity leave, maternity leave, annual leave, you name it!". Meanwhile CC (49%), which is "obsessed by billable hours", has partners who merrily advocate a better work-life balance "right before leaving you with a pile of new work".

Only Slaughters (62%) escaped the bottom ten. Whilst the hours can be "relentless", the firm was praised for "fairly flexible working" and for the organised lawyer "there's every chance of making your evening plans".

Career Prospects

The MC firms were fairly close when it came to career development. Freshfields (75%) came out top with praise for "outstanding" work, "great support" and partners who make an "effort to mentor and give regular feedback". Slaughter and May (75%) also scored well for quality work, excellent training and great client opportunities. Although there were dissenters: one lawyer quipped, "becoming a partner is like winning the lottery. Every year."

At Clifford Chance (68%), despite "top notch training" and the chance to work on "amazing deals", lawyers complained "partners openly admit partnership is pretty much impossible if you want a family". And there was much grumbling from the trainee contingent about the "diabolical" graduate development team, with the qualification process described by one as "transparent as a lump of coal".

A&O (65%) where "making partner is impossible unless you're willing to give up everything else in life" came bottom of the MC firms together with Linklaters, where lawyers complain of "no real support " and bleak partnership prospects "for anyone outside the current hot departments".


Freshfields triumphed over its peers again when it came to communication with staff, scoring 65%. Partners give "regular feedback" and the firm is praised for its "enlightened senior management".

And although Clifford Chance (60%) respondents complain of "a distinct lack of communication from partners re plans" at least "staff are encouraged to think, to have and (God forbid) share their opinions" on firm matters.

But it seems a lack of openness is a problem at both Slaughters (53%) - "more akin to a dictatorial mental institution than a workplace" - and Linklaters (44%), where "there is a lot of office politics, lots of cliques and gossip".

Biscuits, bathrooms and bogs

Clifford Chance won the biscuits category with a score of 92%. One excitable trainee claimed, "smarties cookies rock my world". Slaughters, where "the chocolate brownies give you a "big fat kiss on the lips", also did well scoring 81%. And Linklaters (78%) posted its top mark for biscuits, which may be down to "the pastry chef, Franck" (who one lawyer claims, forlornly, is the only good thing about the firm). At the more disappointing end of the biscuit scale, A&O respondents complained, horrifyingly, of "deteriorating biscuit quality" - even at client meetings.

To the toilets and whilst Clifford Chance scored well with 84%, most comments revolved around over-worked lawyers' ability to sleep in them. One respondent was unhappy at the lack of loo seats which would "improve comfort levels when sleeping and/or crying in the loos". Although another claimed that at least the loos are "usually clean enough to sleep in".

Which could have been useful for the CC trainee who complained of being "hungover after a work social and having my secretary email "vomcano?"" With banter like that it's surprising the firm only managed 68% for social life, scoring worse than Allen & Overy (69%), where there are "no social events, no treats, nothing fun left". Although one A&O respondent did refer to "champagne trolleys on a Friday evening", which doesn't sound too bad. And Slaughters, where "there is very little socialising within or across departments", came bottom of the pile with 64%.

For a better social scene head to "buzzy" Links (71%) where the "weekly drinks trolley is good" or "very social" Freshfields (82%) where staff get "champagne for celebrations".

Work-Life Openness
Social life
Slaughter and May
72 75 62
Clifford Chance
Allen &Overy
44 78

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