Slaughters bucks tradition with female corporate head

The Women’s Liberation Movement has come a long way since Millicent Fawcett’s campaigning days – so much so that barely an eyebrow is raised when a top boardroom job is filled by a woman.

That said, when Slaughter and May, the traditionalist’s traditionalist, elects a woman to head its flagship practice group, it is something of an event.

From the firm’s point of view, the fact that Frances Murphy, who will succeed Chris Saul to become the first female corporate head on 1 May, is a woman is irrelevant.

Practice partner-in-waiting Paul Olney says: “It’s not important. We operate a meritocracy. Frances is an outstanding lawyer and has been elected on her merits.”

Graham White, who becomes executive partner on 1 May, adds: “The fact that Frances is a woman is not an issue. She really was a pretty obvious choice because she’s an outstanding lawyer with fantastic client-getting and organisational skills. It’s been obvious since she was quite a junior partner that she was outstanding.”

Murphy herself says: “We’re a very collegiate partnership and it’s a meritocracy. I never felt that being a woman or not was a help or a hindrance.”

But this misses the point: of course Murphy has been elected on her talents – the briefest of glances at her client list will confirm this. But in the same way that Margaret Thatcher’s election as prime minister was significant, the fact she is a woman cannot be ignored.

Look at the top 10 UK firms: how many of them have female heads of corporate? None. How many of Slaughters’ incoming practice heads are female? One – Murphy (true, Elizabeth Barrett and Susie Middlemiss are outgoing disputes and IP heads respectively, but arguably corporate is more of a ‘man’s world’ than these practice areas). And how many members of Slaughters’ 11-strong incoming partnership board are female? One – Murphy.

And if Murphy’s womanhood is really no big deal, why hasn’t a woman ever led the corporate team before?Senior partner-in-waiting Chris Saul says: “The world, thankfully, has changed a lot over the last 30 years. For most law firms the first female partners have joined in the last three decades. It’s a highly desirable sign of the times that, as time has passed, women are forming a greater numerical part of ours and other City businesses.”

So what of Murphy herself? Her track record on the deals front would be enough to keep an entire practice afloat, with names such as Abbey, BAE Systems, Burberry, General Electric (GE) and Umeco among her many clients.

“She has a formidable list of clients and that will bring a considerable strength to her position as head of corporate,” Olney says.

For Murphy, who is as comfortable in the Emirates Stadium as she is around a deals table, working for lesser-known clients provides just as much excitement as acting for huge household names.

That said, demutualisation work has provided some of her career highlights. Having joined the firm as a trainee in 1981, Murphy acted on the 1989 demutualisation and float of Abbey National, a deal she describes as “fascinating”. “These are great deals to do because there’s no road map to follow,” she adds.

Murphy is also proud of her work on GE’s 2004 acquisition of Amersham, which was financed using the buyer’s own paper.

As a Slaughters lifer Murphy may have made history by ascending to her new role, but she is well versed in the firm’s ways. “I’m sure there are ways the practice could be run more efficiently, but I have no plans to change anything at the moment,” she says.

There may have been a mini-revolution in the boardrom, but ultimately it is going to be business as usual.