Macfarlanes LLP - True Picture

This polished silver circle firm has a gleaming reputation in the private client and corporate spheres.

Sterling silver

“I didn't want to be just another number at a slick corporate mega-firm.” A concern many of our interviewees had when searching for their perfect match. Most “wanted somewhere more personal, with a bit of character, but that also would look good on a CV.” Cue Marfarlanes, a law firm with a strong pedigree which is “a little less brash than some other firms and a little more conservative in its approach.” Macfarlanes, we feel, is a bit like the mystery house on Escape to the Country: it has many of the same characteristics as its fellow City firms, but comes with few unique features.

In this case we're not talking about a wine cellar (unfortunately), a hammerbeam roof or even a convenient granny annex. No, there are two features that make Macfarlanes distinct. First, while it's definitely a corporate firm, its top-notch private client practice puts it at odds with City competitors who shed their private client practices in the 90s. As such, Macfarlanes has the unique distinction of winning Chambers UK rankings for private client and high-end corporate work. It's also top-ranked in Chambers Global for private client. A trainee explained how this pairing makes sense: “Many of our private clients have their wealth held in businesses and complex structures, so having both practice areas means we can offer clients a holistic approach to their needs.”

“Many of our private clients have their wealth held in businesses and complex structures."

The firm's second distinctive feature is that – with the exception of a small new outpost in Brussels – it operates under one roof. 'So what?' you might say. But when you consider that the “majority of the work has an international element to it” the firm is different to many City competitors who may have in excess of 20 offices worldwide. “Our business model allows us to select the very best local firms to work with in each country,” one clued-up trainee explained.

The single-site approach certainly hasn't deterred big-name international clients like Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and Disney from turning to the firm for advice. The set-up is complemented by a “more traditional” approach to business: “We put a high premium on quality and promoting a 'trusted advisor', old-school lawyer relationship with clients,” an interviewee believed. All of this has led to the firm being labelled as 'posh', but our interviewees felt – and we'll go into this later on – that the firm has made great strides in shrugging off this image.

Big money, old money, new money

A seat in M&A is compulsory. Trainees must then pick their remaining three seats from three 'buckets' of options: litigation, financial services or investment management; private client, employment or banking; and tax, real estate, competition or derivatives. The size of the firm's intake means “graduate recruitment listens to you more as an individual," sources said. "They recognise it's your career, rather than viewing you as just a trainee to cover the workload.” As a result, few of our interviewees had issues securing their preferred seats, although they did note that seats in smaller groups such as employment are popular and harder to get.

M&A, the firm's largest department, predominantly operates in the mid-market, although Chambers UK recognises its high-end capabilities as well, which means a fair few mega-deals also come through the doors. For example, lawyers recently advised Disney on the English law aspects of its $52.4 billion acquisition of 21st Century Fox, acting opposite Allen & Overy. The team also assisted US-based Regal Entertainment Group on its $3.6 billion merger with Cineworld. And lawyers advised US law firm Womble Carlyle on its combination with UK firm Bond Dickinson.

Trainees' role on deals tends to be administrative in nature. “Trying to keep on top of everything is a baptism of fire,” one source revealed. “You can't be afraid to get on the phone to people or jump in a cab to go and get something signed by a director somewhere in London. I have even taken documents to someone at a hairdressers to be signed!” The takeaway from this is that trainees are communicating directly with clients on a regular basis. They are also kept busy reviewing documents, conducting due diligence, and running disclosure processes, “which often requires collating input from different departments.” It's not all deal management, however. Trainees also reported conducting research into corporate governance, writing advice notes to clients, and “on smaller deals, having a stab at share purchase agreements.” Hours here tend to be the longest as well as the most unpredictable in the firm. “On average I was leaving at 9pm,” one source reported, “with a few bad patches. There was one week recently where I had a couple of 3am finishes.”

“Research into succession laws in the UK, Cyprus and Spain."

In Macfarlanes' top-ranked private client team you can find clients “who are part of the landed gentry, have been with us for 70 years, and have documents dating back to the early 20th century. Equally, we have lots of young successful entrepreneurs who have made their fortune designing apps and algorithms but don't know what do with it.” Pity them! Trainees agreed the department had more of an “old-school” feel to it compared to others. “The main difference compared to a group like M&A is that ultimately everything you do is upstreamed to the partners, as their relationship with the client is seen as one of trust built over many years,” sources explained. It's also the only department that “still deals with physical paper copies of documents, as legally a lot of wills and personal documents need to be kept in their original form.”

Still, trainees reported doing a variety of creative tasks, some of them international, for instance “research into succession laws in the UK, Cyprus and Spain; looking at different charity structures in various jurisdictions for a philanthropic client, and trying to draft formulaic wills to match real life if a family is concerned about a child going off the rails, for example, you might have to consider a set-up that benefits them slowly over the years." One source concluded: "We get plenty of responsibility but anything we do has to be checked in detail and signed off by the partner.” Another typical trainee task is to attend and take notes at meetings. Sounds easy enough, but “writing everything word for word can be difficult,” a source admitted; more difficult still when “the client and partner decide to speak in French and you don't...”

The litigation group handles a range of contentious issues, including private wealth, banking, financial regulation, construction, property and commercial disputes. “The subgroups are defined more by partners' specialisms than formal groups, so trainees are free to sample work from all areas.” Some of the team's recent casework includes: acting for Newington Butts Development in a dispute over allegedly misleading advertising for a new tower block in Elephant and Castle; advising a Dutch dried egg producer as claimant in a €20 million breach of contract dispute with a US customer; and representing the British Bankers Association over alleged manipulation of Libor rates. “There is bundling,” trainees admitted, “and that can be tedious – especially in the run-up to trial. Other than that, it's very different to M&A as you don't have as much of an administrative role.”

Trainees cut their teeth drafting reports, submission documents and letters of claim, as well as conducting research on topics such as “the enforcement of foreign judgments in the UK” or “how to redact privilege, which involves a lot more than just a quick Google.” The seat bears some similarities to a stint in private client in that you're “supervised more as the work is more delicate. Partners have a phenomenal back catalogue of details and personalities that you have to consider.” Closer supervision may circumscribe client contact, but trainees praised “the support you get on how to improve your writing style.” Like those in private client, trainees in litigation can expect to be consistently getting out the door between 6.30pm and 8pm.

Made in Macfarlanes

The commercial real estate team covers everything from investment and development work to commercial lettings and mega property acquisitions. Matters often see the firm stretching its hand outside of the capital: it advised Intu Properties on the refinancing on a shopping centre in Dudley and helped Ekistics Property with the acquisition of a 435,000 square foot development in Salford Quays, Greater Manchester. Trainees have the opportunity to run smaller files independently. “Often those are subleases or licences to assign," we heard. "Your responsibility runs right up to the billing stage,including giving an undertaking for fees, liaising with surveyors, calling clients and dealing with other solicitors.” Larger acquisitions often see trainees working with the corporate department to chip in with due diligence and the drafting of reports. Here trainees might get a stab at drafting certificates of title and reports on title.

Yesterday I had training on a drafting assistant app.”

So let's grasp this bull by the horns: what of Macfarlanes' reputation for being a bit posh? Well, “there are a few posh voices floating around,” sources conceded. Not that unusual at a City law firm. “Some partners will wear waistcoats, have big umbrellas and expect trainees to know the Latin derivations of words." That is a bit more unusual. We also heard "there is a sense of hierarchy and the dress code is quite formal." But if you're worried you'll end up working in an office full of stuck-up lawyers – relax. “By and large, most of the partners are open, down-to-earth people who are happy to engage with you on your own level,” trainees agreed.

The firm has struggled with diversity in the past, like a few City firms, and minorities and women remain underrepresented in the trainee group, while Oxbridge grads and private school kids are overrepresented. But interviewees asserted that “you don't have to come from a certain socio-economic background to get a training contract here,” pointing to recent efforts made by the firm to boost diversity, such as using blind and contextual recruitment “which looks at students' grades against the average for schools and sixth-forms.” One trainee also highlighted their work with graduate recruitment “providing negotiation skills training for first-year students from poorer backgrounds.”

There are other ways Macfarlanes is keeping up to date and being progressive too. “We're very much at the frontier of new legal tech innovations,” one trainee asserted. “Yesterday I had training on a drafting assistant app and all trainees are provided with new Surface Pros which makes working more flexible.” And while it retains some sense of the traditional hierarchy, Macfarlanes is far from unreceptive to trainee concerns. As well as extensive mid-seat and end-of-seat reviews with the trainee committee, training principal and supervisor, there are also trainee 'constituency groups' which meets every few months to discuss concerns. The groups recently had success by “improving the quality of sandwiches in the training sessions.” It's the little things...

A further innovation is the new LGBT and BAME networks. "They are quite recent and it's helping to drive more talk and effort around those areas," said one interviewee. We heard of a recent talk arranged by the LGBT network and the 'Culture Club', which puts on regular cultural events (and no, it's nothing to do with Boy George). QUACC, the Quasi Articled Clerk Committee, organises regular trainee socials, including quarterly drinks to welcome each new intake. There are also monthly firm-wide drinks in the canteen, which is "good for chatting with people from all different levels."

The NQ process was just on the horizon for many of our interviewees, who were uncharacteristically relaxed about the process. “The firm bends over backwards,” one particularly self-confident source declared. Part of the reason for this is no doubt the firm's good retention record. In 2018 it ended up retaining 27 of 29 qualifiers.

The current Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, David Gauke, was a solicitor at Macfarlanes until he became an MP in 2005.


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How to get a Macfarlanes training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 31 January 2019

First-year insight day deadline (2019): 28 February 2019

Training contract deadline (2021): 31 July 2019

Vacation scheme

Macfarlanes attends "a select number of law fairs" whilealso hosting networking events, in-house presentations and a practice area open day; allowing students to explore each of the various practice areas at their offices. In addition, the firm organises skills sessions and workshops at universities around the country, so we recommend keeping a close eye on the firm's website to find out when a Macfarlanes representative may be stopping by. “We want students to have the opportunity to meet everyone from the senior partner to future trainees studying Macfarlanes’ tailored LPC,” says graduate recruitment manager Catherine Morgan-Guest.

Around 50% of trainees in a given year will have completed a vacation scheme with the firm. There are three schemes – one at Easter and two over the summer – and each lasts two weeks. There are 55 places in total: 15 at Easter and 20 on each of the summer schemes. The pay matches the London living wage.

Typical vacation scheme tasks include research, drafting and sitting in on meetings with clients or counsel. “We want students to feel what it's like to be a trainee,” says graduate recruitment. Students sit in two different practice areas but also complete a mock transaction alongside other training sessions. Recent social highlights include darts, a bowling and pizza evening and a lunch with the partners.

Vacation scheme hopefuls can apply online. The firm typically receives around 1,000 applications each year. Macfarlanes looks for a predicted 2:1 degree result or above, and doesn’t have a minimum A level requirement. The firm advises applicants to “make sure you can talk about us and what we do – in order to stand out you need to show a detailed and specific interest in Macfarlanes.”

Vacation scheme students have the chance to apply for a training contract during their placement. Those who opt to do this attend a partner interview and undertake ‘CV blind’ assessments, which include a written exercise and an in-tray exercise.


Macfarlanes receives another 800 applications from candidates gunning directly for its training contract; the application form is the same one that is used for the vac scheme.

Around 15% of direct training contract applicants are invited in for an assessment day, which lasts from 8.45am until 2pm. The day involves a partner interview, plus three ‘CV blind’ assessments. “It's intensive, and we want your all,” says graduate recruitment. The interview takes place with a partner and centres on a CV-based discussion. One of the assessments requires applicants to talk through three different case studies (which have been designed to test their commercial awareness) with a partner who hasn't seen their CV.

The day also includes a written exercise and a group task. The former often takes the form of drafting a letter. “Just like their application form, we're looking at how a candidate analyses and communicates their findings, and how they're able to tailor their voice and style to the needs of the imagined audience. It's a great way to test their spelling and grammar too,” says Catherine Morgan-Guest. Candidates have a chance to speak with partners, trainees and graduate recruitment over lunch.

It's worth noting that Macfarlanes doesn't wait until the application deadline has passed to review applications, so we suggest getting your applications in as early as possible.

Interview with graduate recruitment partner Seán Lavin and corporate partner Harry Coghill

Chambers Student: Where does Macfarlanes sit within the legal market and how do you feel about its label as a 'silver circle' firm?

Harry Coghill: I think it's different for different departments in terms of where we sit. If you put that question another way and asked us who our competitors are you would get many different answers. Interestingly you would also get different answers from different parts of the corporate department. If you asked someone from our private equity team that question, you would get a very different answer from someone like me who does mostly public M&A and capital markets work.

Seán Lavin: It's a complicated and nuanced market in terms of the speciality of work. “Silver circle” is not a term we use, or at least, we don't refer to ourselves as being a silver circle firm. It's a market description that feels quite antiquated now. It is not clear which firms are included in the group or why, so I have to ask: who is defining this? If the market needs to use the term to distinguish us from the magic circle, then fine, but it's not part of our identity.

For me, the characteristic that defines us is our independence – that is absolutely core to the firm. We have not merged and we have not gone down the route of opening multiple offices nationally or abroad. We have stuck to this strategy and we benefit more than ever now from being one of the few remaining major London based independent law firms. Being independent means we benefit from referrals from the best firms around the world and we do not have the conflicts of interests suffered by many of the global firms.

HC: In particular for me, a lot of the work I do is high-profile, high-end US inbound M&A work, and that practice is thriving precisely because top-notch US firms have fewer homes in the UK and within the London network to bring their work to. Frankly it's us and Slaughter and May – and that’s it. That's another reason why I don’t recognise the silver circle tag which implies second best and doesn’t mean anything in my line work. We are constantly up against  US firms and other magic circle firms.

SL: It's a hard message to sell to students – it's hard to understand the nuances of the legal market when you are practising it – let alone when you're an outside observer! Students see global firms and think that scale equates to quality, which is not always the case. What we are selling is something different, which is independence and access to the best quality international work from our London base. Given our size what this means for our trainees is a high degree of responsibility for quality work and the ability to work with similar independent firms like us around the world.

CS: Are there any drawbacks to this set-up? Are there any difficulties in having to always find your equivalent worldwide?

SL: Not really, because our relationships with those other independent overseas firms are very strong – we know them well and we know exactly who to call. For example, we recently hosted a symposium here for lawyers in my field of expertise on the gig economy. We invited our friends from firms in ten European jurisdictions to London. We had a great day discussing the issues we are all facing in this field through the lens of each country’s laws and then we all went out of for dinner. These are our friends who we know personally, so when we call them for help it's not anything like phoning an overseas law firm for the first time.

HC: Sometimes I think we get a better service from those law firms in other jurisdictions than global firms would get from local offices who don’t have internal competition and instead have an exclusive relationship. We know three or four of the top firms in Germany and France and they're very responsive because they also want us to pick up the phone for them when they need help – the quality of service is absolutely there. And if we need help in more esoteric jurisdictions, somewhere like Indonesia, we may know fewer firms there compared to Europe but that’s the same with all global firms - we are not at a disadvantage.

CS: What, therefore, motivated the opening of an office in Belgium?

SL: We like to think of ourselves as an entrepreneurial firm. Because of our size, we can make decisions quickly when it suits our business model. We did this successfully a few years ago when we were joined by our derivatives and trading team; we have done the same with a group of competition partners who joined us from KWM. The Brussels office has been set up as necessary support for our enhanced competition law offering. It's certainly not ‘Macfarlanes goes global’. If you look back over history, we have done this before in Brussels and also in Japan and Africa for that matter. We have opened bases where we have seen an opportunity we thought we should exploit.

CS:Do you ever see a future where the firm will merge?

SL: Macfarlanes and mergers have never been easy bed fellows. I can remember one partner debate about the concept of a merger back in the early 2000s where the idea was rejected and I don’t think it has been discussed seriously since. There is no appetite for it; it feels to us that merging is something you do when you are on the defensive. Many mergers are effectively takeovers and it is notoriously difficult to merge the cultures of two law firms. One firm is usually dominant. Our independence and our culture are prized by us so there is little appetite for merger.

In terms of the market more widely, at one end of the market there are firms that are focused on scale and global reach; others may have a business model focused on ‘commoditised’ legal work or outsourcing. We are not those firms. We see our future as much more focused on doing the very best quality work priced correctly for our clients. That might not mean exponential growth, but it means trying to be at the top of the market in all the areas of work in which we specialise. 

HC: Internally one of our challenges over recent years has actually been constraining growth. We have got bigger without trying. We don't want to get too big but we see lots of opportunities which naturally create a tension. We are doing the opposite of growing for growth’s sake. We are consciously trying to keep focused on doing the right work for the right clients. 

SL: We see this reflected also in trainee numbers – as the firm has grown the pressure is also there to increase the numbers of trainees that we hire. We worry about this because it is very important to us that we try to retain all of our trainees on qualification and offer each of them long careers at the firm. It’s a very good offering here for students, because they are looking at a firm that provides top quality work and training and which wants to offer a long term career too.

HC: We struggle to get that message out there to graduates, and this is a scale thing. We are smaller than other top firms like Linklaters and Slaughters so people come across us less.

CS: Is it fair to say the firm has a reputation for being old fashioned?

HC: There are elements of that description I would be proud of. If old-fashioned means courteous, well-mannered, treating people fairly, and an intolerance for bad behaviour in the office, then I would be proud of that. What I don't recognise is any kind of fuddy-duddy, antiquated connotations. 

SL: You don’t hear people shouting round here or angry partners lambasting trainees. It sounds like a soft point but it really is core to our culture – ‘work hard and be nice to people’ is the mantra that you will often hear repeated around the place and it’s a fair reflection of how we work.

Macfarlanes LLP

20 Cursitor Street,

  • Partners 85
  • Associates 255
  • Total trainees 59
  • UK offices London
  • Overseas offices Brussels
  • Contacts 
  • Graduate recruiter: Catherine Morgan-Guest, [email protected], 020 7831 9222
  • Training partner: Seán Lavin, [email protected]
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contracts pa: Up to 30
  • Applications pa: 800
  • Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
  • Minimum UCAS points or A levels: None
  • Vacation scheme places pa: 55
  • Dates and deadlines 
  • Training contract applications open: 1 October 2018
  • Training contract deadline 2021 start: 31 July 2019
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2018
  • Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31 January 2019
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £44,000
  • Second-year salary: £49,000
  • Post-qualification salary: £80,000
  • Holiday entitlement: 26 days
  • Sponsorship 
  • LPC fees: Yes
  • GDL fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £10,000
  • International and regional 
  • Offices with training contracts: London
  • Overseas seats: None
  • Client secondments: None

Firm profile

Macfarlanes is a distinctive London-based law firm, focused on its clients and on delivering excellence in the international legal market. The firm is known for the quality of its work; not just in dealing with the full range of corporate and commercial matters, but in advising clients on their private affairs as well.

Macfarlanes has made a deliberate choice to remain smaller than many of its peers. The cohesive nature of the firm means that clients benefit from collective experience and close-knit teams. The firm has decided against growth at the expense of quality, against size at the expense of efficiency and agility. So whilst large enough to advise on the most complex matters, the firm is also small enough to ensure that its people and work are exceptional, without fail. 

Main areas of work

Our main practice areas are: commercial; competition; corporate and M&A; derivatives and trading; employment; finance; financial services regulation; investment management; litigation and dispute resolution; pensions; private client; private equity; real estate; restructuring and insolvency and tax. 

Trainee opportunities

Woven into every aspect of life at the firm is an enduring commitment to the development of trainees. Training begins with tailored electives on the LPC and a week-long induction at the start of your training contract. During the two-year training contract you’ll be working on real cases, doing real work for real clients from day one. As a trainee you will complete four six-month seats including a compulsory corporate and M&A seat. Our seat rotation is designed with trainees in mind — we want to give you enough flexibility to shape your training contract and do seats that interest you. Support and guidance are, of course, vital and you will find your supervisor a valuable source of information and inspiration. 

Vacation scheme

The vacation scheme is designed to give you a two-week snapshot of life as a trainee. You will be given as much hands-on experience as possible, enabling you to develop a real understanding of the firms’ culture and work.

Macfarlanes offers an Easter and two summer vacation schemes. Each scheme runs for two weeks and remuneration is £330 per week. The firm welcomes applications from students who are in at least the penultimate year of their degree from any degree discipline, with a predicted 2:1 or above. Applications are online via the website.

Other benefits

Flexible benefits package including life assurance, pension scheme with company contributions, private healthcare and discretionary performance related bonus scheme. 

First-year opportunities

For first-year students the firm offers an insight day to provide an overview of a City law firm. Macfarlanes welcomes applications from candidates with either a law or non-law background with outstanding academics. Candidates need to be in either the first year of an undergraduate degree or second year of a four year undergraduate degree.

Applications are online via the website and close on 28 February 2019.

University law careers fairs 2018

BPP, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Exeter, Nottingham, Oxford, UCL and York.

Macfarlanes will also be hosting events at their London office. Further information can be found on the firm’s website.

Social media

Facebook MacfarlanesGrad

Twitter @MacfarlanesGrad

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018

Ranked Departments

    • Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 2)
    • Banking & Finance: Borrowers (Band 3)
    • Banking & Finance: Lenders (Band 4)
    • Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Structured Finance & Derivatives (Band 4)
    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 3)
    • Competition Law (Band 4)
    • Construction: Purchaser (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 1)
    • Employment: Employer (Band 3)
    • Environment (Band 5)
    • Litigation (Band 3)
    • Pensions (Band 4)
    • Real Estate Finance (Band 5)
    • Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 3)
    • Restructuring/Insolvency Recognised Practitioner
    • Tax (Band 2)
    • Employee Share Schemes & Incentives (Band 4)
    • Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 3)
    • Financial Services: Non-contentious Regulatory (Band 4)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
    • Investment Funds: Open-ended Funds (Band 2)
    • Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 3)
    • Investment Funds: Real Estate (Band 3)
    • Partnership (Band 2)
    • Partnership: Large International Structures (Band 2)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 3)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: Mid-Market (Band 1)