Changing of the guard at Slaughters

Slaughter and May has seen 10 partners retire over the last 12 months. Reporter Natalie Stanton asks what that means for career progression at the firm.

News of Ruth Fox’s retirement is a big deal for Slaughter and May. Not only did she break the glass ceiling for women at the firm – becoming its first-ever female partner back in 1986 – but she established its soaring financial regulation group. 

However, perhaps more worrisome for Slaughters is the fact that Fox’s retirement on 31 December topped off a flurry of partners throwing in the towel in 2013. The firm handed the proverbial gold watch to 10 partners over the past 12 months – a total equal to 9 per cent of its current partner total of 111. 

Every retiring partner had longstanding ties to the firm – with the newest of the bunch spending more than 28 years on Bunhill Row. These include corporate and commercial partners Kathryn Davis (who joined in 1987) and Charles Randell (1982), as well as finance partners Ian Hodgson (1984), Simon Robinson (1986) and James Cripps (1978). 

Real estate partner Dermot Rice (1985) packed his bags, alongside environmental partner Edward Keeble (1986), former Hong Kong senior partner Richard Thornhill (1977) and former executive partner Graham White (1982). 

Unsurprisingly, sources suggest there are more retirements on the cards for 2014. 

The numbers are striking, but perhaps even more so is the firm’s decision not to top up partner numbers from the other end of the spectrum. In both 2012 and 2013, the firm made up only two partners apiece. Last year, the pair were plucked from its disputes and competition teams. The year before, one City-based finance associate made the grade alongside a disputes specialist in Hong Kong. 

That may be in part due to the firm’s recent decision to add a third tier to its career progression structure. In a momentous move for the traditional firm, it announced plans to expand its use of special advisers – a variable role that includes employees ranging from fee-earners to business development staff. 

Last August Slaughters had two special advisers on its books. Since then, the number has doubled. As Paul Olney told The Lawyer last summer,  “It’s an interesting area in general, whether the traditional partnership model will continue to operate as it has in the past to promote senior associates to partner, or whether there are a range of different roles which can suit both the individual and the firm, and if so, how that would work.” 

A cynic might suggest that the firm is trying to ring-fence its all-equity partnership. That would, after all, up its profit per equity partner (PEP) from its estimated £1.9m figure recorded during the 2012/13 financial year. 

But, Olney denies that the firm has any sort of “gating approach to numbers”. Rather, he suggests, the problem is one of demographics. The firm made up a disproportionate number of new partners in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who are increasingly creeping towards retirement age. 

“At the same time,” he adds, “I’m quite disappointed we’ve not seen more good candidates coming up through the ranks in the last few years. We’ve not seen as many being promoted, but we have a pretty good pipeline for the future.” 

As Slaughters’ old guard marches towards retirement, it will need to ensure that the next generation is instilled with an equal sense of ownership to keep the firm’s momentum moving along the same succesful path.