Slaughter and May is on the right track

Slaughter and May seems to have changed dramatically in the five years since I left. Then, there was only one partner who wore a double-breasted, chalk-stripe suit. Perhaps fashion is going backwards there. If so, I suspect it is one of the few things that is.

The numbers speak for themselves. You only make money by delivering what your customers want. Slaughters holds its position by listening to its clients. That may belie its reputation for arrogance but it is self-evidently true.

Having an office in every major capital is a strategy that has worked well for investment banks, just as having an office in every major city has worked well for the accountants in this country. However, as I would venture the success of my own firm demonstrates, what works for one market is by no means essential for another.

Money has an international language. Law does not. You cannot switch lawyers around international offices in the same way you can investment bankers. A top US banker can quickly be just as effective in France. No matter what they say, the same is self-evidently not true for lawyers.

Even the best integrated global firms face huge problems of integration, quality control and management and they are not able to deal with them in the way that most other multinational businesses can. Those businesses move people to and from the centre to unify the culture and deliver the best service. It is of course a lot easier if you have 95 per cent of your people in the same office, but not even Slaughters can manage that.

The more Slaughters' rivals spend on their foreign offices, the more they must want Slaughters to fail. Much of what they say is at best wishful thinking and at worst crude caricature. To pick just one example, the links for training and secondment that Slaughters had five years ago with foreign law firms are probably closer than many firms now have with their own foreign offices.

As to arrogance, no doubt there are a few junior clerks there who think they walk on water – I know I used to – but that soon gets knocked out of them. That said, you cannot help being confident if you keep getting it right.

There is no magic to Slaughters' success. Its lawyers are not necessarily intrinsically better than anyone else's, but they are backed by knowledge exchange systems that five years ago were light years ahead of any others I know of, and had been so for a good 10 years before that.

Of course they have their problems. It is all very well saying that your marketing strategy is to have no marketing strategy, but some of the partners probably believe it.

Plus, those rather horrid offices are long past their date with the demolition ball. That will not help in recruiting trainees, nor will not being able to promise them six months on the beach in Dubai as an intrinsic part of their learning process.

Neither will stop them though. But these criticisms could also be thrown at my own firm, Wragge's, but the Chambers Directory described Wragge's trainees as "the happiest in the country" and on one view we can only offer them the Grand Union Canal. Fortunately, we also have a first-class law firm which values its trainees and provides top-quality work and training with a successful career to follow. Ultimately, that is what gets them through the door. We can do that easily enough and I doubt Slaughters has insurmountable difficulties.

The real comparator for Slaughters is not drawn from the magic circle or even the larger US firms.

For Slaughter & May, read Cravath, Swaine and Moore, or Wachtel Lipton. They are the elite of the US. They too have no large foreign office network. And Wachtel has certainly claimed it does no marketing.

Its core market is US corporate work. It can handle the largest international deals. Just as one example, Wachtel is advising AT&T on its $10bn joint venture with BT. It does not need a large London office to help with English law. Wragge & Co is working with them for that.

The message is clear. The very best law firms in major jurisdictions do not merge. They concentrate their energies on maintaining excellence without their management racking up air miles to do so.

Concentrate on what the client wants and what you are good at. Integrate where you have to, just far enough behind the point of delivery, but leave all the tedious stuff of day-to-day management to those best placed to handle it.

Jonathan Chamberlain is a partner at Wragge & Co.