The Leader Column

As quotes go, it was pretty juicy. Jean Eaglesham's piece in the Financial Times last Thursday on salary freezes for assistants caused sharp intakes of breath all round the City. Not because of the comment from Herbert Smith's Iain Rothnie, who confided that his firm was “not even considering” redundancies. (Well, that's a relief, then.) No, the quote which really got the lines buzzing was one from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer chief executive Alan Peck, who said: “The little darlings still get socking great pay rises, so don't weep for them.”
Whoops. The normally sure-footed Peck slipped up a bit on this one. But then, Peck – posh, laconic and very amusing – is eminently quotable. With Bill Tudor John gone from Allen & Overy, Peck is now the only senior law firm partner who eschews the bland. Many a legal journalist has played 'spot the Peck comment'; it's usually the interesting one in any piece.
The reaction among the little darlings was, er, mixed. One posting on the rollonfriday website was acid: “Clearly, when you have underlings to negotiate 150-page documents for you, you may be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. When you happen to be said underling sitting at your desk at 3am wondering who really gives a flying fart whether clause 12(3)(viii)(a) has the word 'proper' in it or not, you start wondering whether you're paid enough for this ****e.”
Anyway, Peck moved quickly to defuse the situation. He fired off an email around the firm, saying that the comment was a “light-hearted remark made in the course of a long and wide-ranging conversation… I apologise to anyone who has been offended.”
Given the downturn, it would have been extraordinary if law firms had hiked pay any further. But don't assume that the war for talent has played itself out. Lawyer 2B, our sister magazine for law students, has just revealed that Baker & McKenzie is now offering a golden hello of £3,000 for trainees, and £2,000 or a new laptop to Legal Practice Course students, which takes the recruitment package well past the £10,000 mark. With other law firms due to announce their student packages shortly, we'll see whether Baker & McKenzie has jump-started the market.
And, of course, if Freshfields happens to post higher profits per partner this year, its little darlings will need a lot of convincing that their pay freezes were justified. Now that will be an internal PR exercise to watch.