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Freshfields has come top of the Magic Circle in the RollOnFriday Best Law Firms to Work At 2022, while Slaughter and May bombed.

Freshfields triumphed after its lawyers rated themselves more satisfied with pay, management, and career development than their peers, although there wasn't much daylight between Freshfields' 62% overall score and Clifford Chance's 60%.

top magic circle firms

'Pay has risen astronomically'

Satisfaction with pay gave Freshfields its highest score, largely because it moved early and high in the salary war.

"Beats the other Magic Circle firms by a mile", said a senior Freshfields solicitor. And not just at NQ level, where rises across the sector made headlines. Junior Freshfields solicitors "received a significant pay hike this year" as well, with 1PQEs bumped up to £130,000.

At Clifford Chance, "pay has risen astronomically over the last few years", said a senior associate, but "it can be galling to see junior colleagues run off to US firms and suddenly be earning c.50% more than you when they have little idea of what they are doing".

The Magic Circle-wide pay hikes were well received at Linklaters, too. "It was good to see they increased pay rates across the board quite a lot rather than just myopically focussing on NQ salaries", said a Links lawyer. Several said the rises helped "to stem some of the allure of US firms and certainly in-house roles". 

"Can’t really gripe about the decent payrises we all just received", said a senior Allen & Overy solicitor, "although not sure they are going to do much to stem the tide of people leaving to seek proper fortunes at US outfits".

Pay wasn't the only factor keeping lawyers from US firms. "I have been at both types, and there are fewer psychos wandering the corridors here, and a culturally different attitude to weekends/holidays brought about, in part, by not working exclusively for US funds/PE houses", said a senior Linklaters solicitor.

The salary war was a a horrible mistake according to a junior Links solicitor, since more money translated into higher expectations: "I wish it would stop going up as we're expected to be available more unreasonably to justify the pay", they said.

Slaughter and May's tardiness on raises was a major source of resentment and landed it bottom of the Magic Circle for pay. "It’s demoralising how Slaughters always seems to be the last of the MC firms to raise salaries and only matches the bare minimum", said one lawyer at the firm. "Always below market. Always the last to raise. Always given begrudgingly", said a junior solicitor.

'The culture suffers a lot while everyone is WFH'

Clifford Chance's people were the most satisfied of the Magic Circle with culture, although the pandemic has taken a toll. "Naturally we've lost the 'work hard, play hard' spirit with the Budgie (the office bar) being shut and everyone working remotely for long periods", said a Clifford Chance senior solicitor.

"We've also lost a large number of seniors (rethinking their life choices due to COVID) who actually did all the pastoral/team building work", he added, and "no one wants to go for drinks/dinner/cake with a stale old partner who can only talk shop".

The culture at Freshfields has "come on leaps and bounds" in the last few years, said one of its solicitors. "It's not uncommon for the partners to send you a box of cookies at the end of a busy week. Not a huge deal, but we are getting better at the small gestures that make people feel valued". Baby steps.

Slaughters' people were harsh in their scores for culture, but the comments acknowledged the role of the pandemic. "Despite best efforts to reintroduce team socials, WFH has largely made our culture a dead duck", said a lawyer.

When the Slaughters culture is there, "the stereotype is relatively fair - words like academic, hierarchical, perfectionist, dignified etc. all spring to mind. Some people will hate that, other people love it", said a junior solicitor. "Culture seems very academic and not the most 'fun'", said another trainee, who clearly hadn't read the brochure.

'Descending into a swamp of bland management speak'

Freshfields came top for management, too. Its new team headed by Claire Wills "rocks", said a senior solicitor. Wills "has been an excellent leader of the firm and under her management, communication and firm engagement has notably improved", said another solicitor.

The consensus was that an "Open, honest, cohesive and female-led management team" has "brought a breath of fresh air to Freshfields' London office", although a junior lawyer warned that the firm "is slowly descending into a swamp of bland management speak, vision and mission statements", whereas "a lot of lawyers became lawyers specifically because they disliked the consultancy rubbish".

Clifford Chance "is run really well", said a senior solicitor, "and they have handled the pandemic, especially remote working and employee wellbeing during this time, excellently". "Go on Batesy lad", said a junior solicitor.

"Communication has actually been very good over the last two years", said a Linklater lawyer. Charlie Jacobs and Gideon Moore "introduced the weekly, slightly cringey, management videos", and successors Aedamar Comiskey and Paul Lewis "have carried them on. Despite being a bit like watching your dad dance at a wedding, the effort to be visible across the firm is definitely appreciated".

There was less satisfaction at Allen & Overy, where some respondents didn't buy A&O's line that it wanted to save the planet. "Being told we are moving offices for environmental/climate reasons is insulting. We all know about the open plan/hotdesking trials, and dressing this up as climate action is a joke", said one cynic.

At Slaughter and May, the introduction of new leadership roles at Slaughter and May left several lawyers reeling. "The firm is getting more and more bureaucratic and business services heavy", said a senior solicitor. "We now have hundreds of business services people, and the firm has gone whole hog and hired a non-lawyer COO to manage them".

'They'll tease you with the carrot of partnership'

Freshfields came top for career development in the Magic Circle. Its "previous refusal to admit there's anything after senior associate" has been replaced with "actual discussions" on progression into partnership or counsel roles, said a solicitor. "Still a massive black box, but now there's a small light at the end of the tunnel".

As a junior at Linklaters, "your career development is very structured and clear", but after that, "figuring out if you have real partnership prospects or if you're being strung along (whilst the existing partners suck as much blood from you as possible) seems to require a mixture of clairvoyance, the political skills of Machiavelli, and as much luck as Tsutomu Yamaguchi", said a Links lawyer.

At Slaughter and May it was a case of "Up, up, up and... out. They'll milk you for as long as possible and tease you with the carrot of partnership until they quietly second you out at 7 PQE", said a lawyer at the firm.

The accelerated responsibility was an eye-opener for juniors. "The NQ learning curve isn’t just steep, it’s essentially vertical", said a Slaughters solicitor, "but in a very short space of time, sub-2PQE associates are operating at a level comparable to other firms’ senior associates". 

'There's too much work and too few associates'

The work/life balance isn't keeping many Magic Circle lawyers at their firms, but "It is the deal with the devil I struck when I joined", said a Clifford Chance lawyer, which came top for work/life balance in the Magic Circle. 

The pandemic hasn't helped, and work/life balance earned the lowest scores across the board within the Magic Circle. "Working from home has destroyed the concept of balance. Partners are very willing to put calls in diaries at 7am despite knowing you're churning through documents at 3am the previous night, because there's 'no commute'", said a CC lawyer. "Billed 300+ hours in October and have been told 'that’s why we’re paid so much'," said a senior solicitor.

At Freshfields, there were concerns that policies on offer were not really on offer. "Request for flex working met with hostility", said a senior solicitor. "Attitude at top seemed to be - 'flex working was not there for us so why should it be for those coming after us? Toughen up'".        

"The workload is frankly crushing - partly to due with how busy we got during the pandemic, but also partly because we haven't been able to recruit laterals in the same way to replace the usual attrition", said a junior solicitor. "There's too much work and too few associates", agreed another. "My team averages over 2,200 hours a year", said a colleague.

At Linklaters, "It's pretty hardcore, and my friends in more chilled firms/in house laugh at me... but there are worse places to be. At least people say sorry and thank you when they've shafted you", said a junior solicitor.

An explosion of work and a lack of bodies drove down the score at Slaughter and May as well. "There’s not enough lawyers after a mass exodus and too much work to go around with skeleton teams", said a junior associate. Some Slaughters lawyers felt less squeezed. "The lack of hours targets or face-time culture mean that my time is generally my own", said a senior lawyer. "True", conceded a colleague, "But the workload they pile on associates is more than anyone could keep up with".

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Comments

Donald 28 January 22 09:46

ROFL at the S&M junior solicitor claiming they are better than senior sols at other firms. That is the sort of arrogance that can only ever be seen in someone with a history degree from Oxford who wears a waist coat to work. 

Freshfields Pheonix 28 January 22 09:46

Beyond vote rigging, past survey results suggest Freshfields’ management changes is a major factor. In 2013 and 2014 Freshfields topped the Magic Circle table. Then new leadership came in and in 2015 the firm was one off the bottom, and worst for openness. From 2016 to 2021 the firm was the bottom of the MC. In 2018 RoF singled out management’s dismal showing, citing PA redundancies, changes to associate expenses, short term profit focus and new ‘initiatives’ every other week to plaster over the unhappiness. In 2020 the firm narrowly missed the Golden Turd. Last year the comments were damning: psychopathy, resurgent elitism, bullying and racism; narcissism; preening in front of senior staff; and crying. Then a new leadership team takes over and in just one year these deep seated problems are seemingly addressed and the firm is back to the top of the MC. Slaughters looks like the new Freshfields, bottom for the second year.

It is hard to get your head round how Freshfields’ seeming personality transplant has happened without giving credit (or blame) to the leaders.

 

FBD Associate 28 January 22 09:48

Keen to indicate that the survey has been manipulated in a PR push.  The attempts to silence targeted minorities have clearly worked.

Anon 28 January 22 09:52

Donald 28 January 22 09:46: you seem a bit chippy, Donald. Does your degree from Warwick still hurt?

 

Slaughters goes the whole hog 28 January 22 09:57

That isn't just any non-lawyer COO you've got there Slaughters. You've managed to land Freshfields' COO from 2015-2021. Well done and good luck improving your results next year.

Anon 28 January 22 10:06

“but in a very short space of time, sub-2PQE associates are operating at a level comparable to other firms’ senior associates".

Absolute nonsense.  This is merely a self-delusional and self justifying trope.  If it was true, there would be no need for any senior associates at Slaughters - what are they supposed to be doing whilst NQs run deals?   Fact is, like at all large firms, junior solicitors don’t get near clients or run deals.  That is not the model.  The model is to bill them out doing long review exercises, and document management tasks overseeing paralegals and trainees, not to let them loose on clients.  They haven’t had the experience, don’t know what they are doing and the clients would wonder what the senior associates and partners were doing.
 

No one is saying that the juniors aren’t very capable and hard working but can we please move on from this outdated myth that somehow Slaughters’ juniors are better and more special than any other firm’s.  This is like our grandparents talking about the Second World War. It’s time to move on and get with the 21st century.   The reality is that any junior associate at a top firm could work at any other top firm.   The roles are virtually the same.  And given the number of lateral hires made at junior associate level at Slaughters from a range of different firms, this is clearly true. 
 

A&nonymous 28 January 22 10:08

The only mention of A&O is about the office move because the current lease is running out?? Damn

The reign of error at Freshfields 28 January 22 10:31

I reported to a member of the 2015-20 Freshfields management. It was Game of Thrones, with plenty of 'one rule for me, one rule for everyone else' going on. They are a scheming bully and woe betide anyone who is in their sights. They broke people though the firm didn't give a toss. They are most definitely not missed and it is obvious to everyone here why the culture has improved.

Ex Freshfields HR 28 January 22 11:20

Here's my story of how Freshfields changed for the worse. The team I worked in in HR was moved to Manchester so there was a year when we knew our jobs were going before we were made redundant. Not once in that entire year did the HR Head of our team show her face or deign to send an email about us losing our jobs. Not when we were put at risk of redundancy. Not when redundancy was confirmed. Not when we worked extra hours to keep the service going while making sure Manchester was set up properly. Not at any of the farewell tea and cakes. That was the point when 'leadership' sacrificed common decency at the alter of self-advancement.

Anon 28 January 22 11:21

I wonder why Freshfields has been struggling to recruit laterals, and whether that feeds into the wave of rigged feedback this year.

Steady 28 January 22 11:27

"Fact is, like at all large firms, junior solicitors don’t get near clients or run deals.  That is not the model". 

I'm certainly not going to suggest that I, as a junior at Slaughters, am operating at a similar level to seniors elsewhere. That would be madness. However, I most definitely "get near [to] clients", in that I'm regularly leading calls, work essentially autonomously on a whole raft of deliverables (plenty of those verging on being on the 'complex' end of the scale) and frequently input into pitches, quotes and the like. 

I've always been under the impression that the same is true for any half decent junior working within a City firm. Am I mistaken? If so, then yes, we're given more responsibility than our peers elsewhere, but I really would be surprised if that's the case (and this would perhaps indicate you don't really know what you're talking about...). 

Anonymous 28 January 22 11:56

@Steady

We have a pitch team mate, use them. They're literally PAID to do pitches and only that. It grates me endlessly that our juniors still do most of the work themselves when we hire people for that specific job but they never seem to do it.

Anon 28 January 22 11:59

Real change may be happening at Freshfields. They brought in the Being Freshfields code of conduct in 2019. Soon after there were press reports of partners leaving, allegedly after investigation. New leadership comes in. Very quickly changes happen at senior levels, who knows at whose instigation? The Senior Partner says Being Freshfields and accountability are the heart of her leadership term. There may be no connection between these things at all of course, but if there is then it looks like she means it.

Paper cuts 28 January 22 12:01

In the 90s, in my time as a trainee in the sq mile, my understanding (from talking to Slaughters trainees and comparing war stories) was that Slaughters certainly encouraged a broader training and exposure; whereas other firms saw you primarily as a resource.  That is, once competent in a narrow area they'd prefer to keep you on that particular legal sandbank.  In my era, Slaughters certainly took a distinctive (and, in my view, admirable) approach to training its newbies. Sad to hear about the encroachment of fluffy hand-holding culture b/s into firms generally though.  Do the work, get yelled at, get paid (lots).  That is, or ought to be, the deal. It's never personal.  Anyone who "loves their job" has mental health issues.  It's healthy to dislike your job to some extent.  

Freshfields due diligence 28 January 22 13:38

Freshfields Pheonix @09:46 - thanks - you have sped up the work of recruiters looking at former Freshfields management CVs claiming a 'record of outstandingly consistent and impactful results over a long period of time'. 

Buzzkill3 28 January 22 13:53

"work essentially autonomously on a whole raft of deliverables (plenty of those verging on being on the 'complex' end of the scale) and frequently input into pitches, quotes and the like"

lol, working semi-autonomously on deliverables ...

Anon 28 January 22 14:34

Can anyone comment on the issues of sexual misconduct/harassment at FF and CC . Over the past few years all the shocking reports , but has this improved ? 

Anon 28 January 22 19:26

@ Anon at 14:34

Yes, but they are trying to put it behind them, are FFs or CC's HR or work at the SRA.

@The Reign of Error is equally likely to have been referring to the Being Freshfields 'no jerks' rule being applied to a male or a female bully. Unfortunately I can assure you that the firm is still a safe haven for jerks. Some US partners are unbelievable.

Sad state of affairs 28 January 22 19:53

If you won’t let your staff eat in the same place as you, and pay associates a factor of c. 30x less than your senior earners, people will leave. Might’ve worked in the old days but doesn’t when there is a sustained boom with record demand for the young guys. 

Stunning work 28 January 22 20:40

by Freshfields Pheonix. Really nails it. Little extra detail worth noting - Freshfelds management came bottom of the MC in 2016.

Anon 28 January 22 20:43

ROFL at the S&M junior solicitor claiming they are better than senior sols at other firms. That is the sort of arrogance that can only ever be seen in someone with a sociology degree from Warwick who wears a cheap suit to work. 

Anon 29 January 22 00:11

@Anon 19:86

Please could you elaborate more on the “some US partners are unbelievable” . We don’t see as many sexual misconduct/ harassment stories posted about US firms (except Jones D) compared to that of MC firms ... is the culture better for Women at firms such as Latham/Kirkland/Weil? 

Toby Greengage, Feelin' Fruity 02 February 22 08:31

Happiest lawyer in the Magic Circle is like most fragrant turd in the sewer.

It's not something to aspire to.

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