Lawyers at London’s top legal firms are earning an average of more than £700,000 a year despite the most prolonged bear market in a generation. But tough conditions make it a “bill it or bye bye” life. Tough.

While bankers, brokers and dealers have seen earnings slashed and thousands of colleagues made redundant, latest figures show that the City’s corporate lawyers are still earning huge amounts.

Of the six-strong ‘magic circle’ of top firms, only Slaughter & May – a specialist in mergers & acquisitions work – reported a fall in turnover, and then by only a couple of percentage points.
According to figures published today by Legal Business magazine, Slaughters reported the biggest fall in profits per equity partner, though at £886,000 apiece on average it still made its partners the best-paid lawyers in the City’s traditional firms.

Best performer was Linklaters, whose 334 equity partners shared profits of £245m. That, says Legal Business, is a result of a tough regime instituted by managing partner Tony Angel, focusing on increasing billings.

‘Every partner had to face a new reality: bill high or byebye,’ says editor Tom Freeman. ‘The message is simple: you’re either with it or you’re not. The pressure will increase substantially – that’s why so many de-equitisations [ partner departures] take place.’

But while London’s major firms have shrugged off the recession in financial services, a new breed of US legal eagles – American firms scarcely heard of outside of the Square Mile – is cleaning up. Heading the pack is Cadwaladers.

Legal Business reports that Wall Street hotshots and rainmakers are running the London ends of companies such as Sullivan & Cromwell; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Davis Polk & Wardwell; and Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, are all being paid well over £1m apiece.

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