The continuing evolution of Slaughter and May

What springs to mind when you think of Slaughter and May? We’ll hazard a guess that it’s a firm steeped in tradition – whether that’s due its long-term specialism as a corporate powerhouse, its strict lockstep structure, or its black tie and braces image.

In fact, for a firm that doesn’t appear to worry itself too much with branding, it could be argued that Slaughters has the strongest brand in the business. 

But, does the Slaughters of 2014 really match up to its old-school image? In some ways, yes. It has stood firm against the trend of flag-planting, while its rivals have expanded their number of partners and offices across the globe. It has also resisted the temptation to broaden its offering substantially and stuck to its strengths – largely advising top class clients on bet-the-company deals. 

But if you take a closer look at the firm’s strategic tweaks over the past few years, it could be argued that Slaughters is falling increasingly in line with the rest of the pack. 

For starters, the firm has long been known for being a one-way street. Partners enter at the bottom of the equity, and only emerge at the other end when they’re gifted their gold watch on retirement. However, a couple of Slaughters partners have slipped away over the past few years – albeit fairly under the radar. 

The departure of partner Graham Iversen, announced today (2 September 2014), to spearhead Greenberg Traurig Maher’s UK tax practice is a case in point. It marks a very rare partner exit to another firm – following in the footsteps of tax partner Richard Carson who retired in 2011 to later resurface at Taylor Wessing (14 November 2011). A couple of others popped up at Olswang and Debevoise & Plimpton in 2005 and 2007. 

However, a number of partners have left to pursue other interests over the years, including corporate partner Elizabeth Holden who left the firm in 2012, and another corporate partner Lucy Wylde who became general counsel for HM Treasury’s Asset Protection Agency in April 2011 (14 November 2011). 

When it comes to personnel, there has also been another key change at the firm – its first ever lateral partner hire, in the form of Morrison & Foerster’s China capital markets chief John Moore to its Hong Kong office (24 January 2014). 

The January 2014 hire went against the grain for Slaughters, which has always relied solely on internal promotions for organic growth. However, the firm recognised the necessity of bringing US law capability into its Hong Kong base in 2012, as a number of US firms entered and jostled for space in its increasingly saturated market (24 September 2012). 

The firm has suggested that Moore may not be its last lateral partner hire in Hong Kong – a move which would have implications for the firm’s lockstep model. Hong Kong is already home to a number of so-called ‘local partners’ or salaried partners, each of which has a stake in the Hong Kong partnership. 

Chris Saul
Chris Saul

Slaughters’ senior partner Chris Saul said that the Hong Kong partnership has an “age and stage element”, based loosely around the firm’s wider pure lockstep model. He added that bringing Moore on board “meant, of course, that we needed to recognise his expertise and experience in bringing him in to the Hong Kong partnership at the right level”. 

Closer to home, the firm has also been busy shaking up its traditional career progression structure. Until early 2013 the firm operated a pure lockstep at all levels above trainees. But, last May the firm took the major decision to throw a merit-based aspect into the mix for its more senior associates (17 January 2013). 

Now, any associate with more than four and a half year’s post-qualification experience is paid according to their appraisal results, which takes into account criteria including legal knowledge, practice management, and people skills.

Slaughters has also taken the decision to add an additional layer to its traditional progression structure – increasing the total number of special advisers at the firm from two to five over the past year (12 August 2013). These employees have specialist roles within the firm’s competition, finance and financial regulation practice streams – some purely working in a fee-earning capacity and others with a hefty business development focus. They’re remunerated on a different basis to senior associates, but don’t fall into the firm’s all-equity partnership in London. 

In many ways, Slaughters has moved away from the strictly traditional beast that it is so often painted as. While it’s not going to transform into the next Keystone Law any time soon, the firm certainly fits more easily into the wider legal landscape than it did five years ago. It is adept at mixing conservative management with a healthy dose of pragmatism – surely that’s no bad thing.