When its financial year closes at the end of March, Slaughter and May will have set a record for profitability in the UK legal market. Already the only European firm among the world’s ten most profitable law firms, Slaughter and May’s top partners are set to pocket £2.5 million each this year, a jump of more than a million pounds on last year. Overall, the firm – only a minnow with 126 partners compared with Clifford Chance’s 575 – will book revenues of £400 million.
Tim Clark, the senior partner – a tall, charming, self-effacing smoker who has spent his entire career with the firm and whose father was a partner before him – refuses to comment on the numbers. That much is perhaps to be expected given the firm’s reputation as being the most closed and conservative of the so-called “magic circle” firms. But Clark, sitting in his office near the Barbican, does talk enthusiastically about the strategy behind the firm’s remarkable success.
Slaughter and May has been unique among the UK elite in shunning the global one-stop shop model of international expansion and in refusing to tinker with a partnership structure that has been in place since 1889. While other law firms rush to restructure themselves in order to present themselves as dynamic, forward-thinking businesses, Slaughter and May remains resolutely, unapologetically old-fashioned – which means Clark’s role in the firm differs from senior partners elsewhere.
“If you talk to our friends in most other major law firms, the decision-making power has moved away from the partners, and partners have become much more like employees,” Clark says. “For us, that’s a direction we would never want to go in. We don’t give significant powers to the senior partner – my role is to think about things we should be doing. I have the power to make suggestions, but my partners are perfectly able to reject them.”
Clark says there are three things that make Slaughter and May different from its rivals, the envy of the profession. First, it is ruthlessly selective about its work, doing only value-added, high-end work in preference to commoditised deals. The result is more listed clients than any rival: according to The Lawyer, it has 27 FTSE100 clients, ahead of Linklaters with 22. Last year it represented Corus on its £6.7 billion takeover by Tata Steel, RWE on its £4.8 billion sale of Thames Water, and Abbey on the £3.6 billion sale of its life insurance businesses.