Loyalty, laughter, lockstep…and napkin pigeonholes. An interview with Slaughter and May

Slaughter and May’s recently retired senior partner Chris Saul shares his insights with the BDLN… 

When we called Chris Saul we didn’t expect to get straight through. In trying to interview the soon-to-retire senior partner of Slaughter and May, we thought we’d have to jump through a hoop or two first. We were wrong. Within seconds we were talking to the man himself, and his carefully chosen words, delivered in his trademark urbane style (if it hadn’t been Slaughter and May it would surely have been Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service) assured us of his eagerness to meet up.

Due to its standing and history – the firm was founded 127 years ago – Slaughter and May has legendary status in the world of professional services. It has something of the feel of a magical old castle up on the hill, hewn from granite and British oak, with its own ways of doing things, standing firm against the tides of change. We were keen to dig deeper into this perception. What’s the reality? And what about the things that have made and continue to make Slaughter and May so successful? Could we nail them down?


The interview

Slaughter and May gets its air of exclusivity because very few people choose to leave. It is also yet to laterally hire a UK partner from another firm. Of its 119 partners, 100 have spent their whole careers there. This firm breeds intense loyalty. Tempting as it is to believe this is down to some bizarre initiation ceremony, the reality is rather different.

Slaughter and May gets its air of exclusivity because very few people choose to leave

“There’s a wonderfully collegiate and supportive culture here,” says Chris. “There’s a sense of individuality and fun, too. The vacation students I speak to tell me they arrive thinking Slaughter and May is a bit aloof, clubby and posh, but leave thinking we’re a normal bunch who are interesting and driven. And fun. There’s a lot of laughter here. People are also attracted by our fantastic clients and the fascinating work on offer.”

Yes there are traditions at Slaughter and May that have more in common with public school than 21st century business – partners lunch together after collecting their napkins from personal pigeonholes, for example – but there’s nothing odd about that, says Chris. “That’s a physical expression of the collegiate nature of the partners,” he explains. “This is a very pure partnership, a ‘lockstep’ partnership, which means that subject to age we all earn the same amount. But however old we are, we all have a say – a vote – on everything, so this is a genuine democracy. And we probably have the shortest partnership track among City firms – around seven or eight years.”

There are traditions at Slaughter and May that have more in common with public school than 21st century business

Many firms reject lockstep partnership because it rewards length of service alone, ignoring other factors such as effort put in and clients won. But Chris sees lockstep as a strength. “Every partner buys into the notion that the privilege of lockstep is that we all give our best all the time,” he says. “All the partners have different skills so everyone gives in different ways. Peer pressure is a significant force, too. All the partners want to do their best for the firm and for each other.”

With tradition such an important part of Slaughter and May, it could be argued that it is putting itself in danger of being left behind as more agile, younger firms, steely eyes locked on the future rather than the past, power their way up the food chain. But Chris does not agree, suggesting that tradition is not a weight but an advantage. He also points to the bigger picture.

“We live in fascinating and changing times,” he says. “This is an incredibly important year for the world. But when you think about it, the last 20 years have been difficult and challenging, too. And the previous 20 years before them. Over the next 10 years there will unquestionably be many more shocks and changes.

“What has always been important for Slaughter and May – and this is not particularly sexy – is sticking to our core values and beliefs: quality of advice, the profound importance of relationships, our distinctive model, constantly being on your ‘A-game’ and making sure you adapt to change. James Ashton of the Independent wrote that Slaughter and May ‘somehow manages to move with the times without being changed by them’. That is the heart of what we do. All the tradition is nice, but we’re not remotely old fashioned. We’re embracing new sectors like FinTech and we’re very focused on diversity and inclusion. Nothing else matters to us except the calibre and talents of the individuals who make up this firm.”

At 3am when a CEO calls and says ‘shall we do this?’ (and they do!) they want a clear view

As the conversation moves towards the strengths and attitudes that make Slaughter and May so successful, the most striking thing is simplicity: the lack of gimmicks, the lack of aggressive talk, the lack of complex tactics and the underpinning ambition of wanting to be the very best at looking after clients.

“We try to provide commercially-aware, market-sensitive advice, and we aim to be very responsive. Clients want, expect and need responsiveness,” says Chris. “The other element is judgement – often people come to us for a judgement on the best thing to do in both legal and wider business terms. So at 3am when a CEO calls and says ‘shall we do this?’ (and they do!) they want a clear view. Therefore you have to build enough trust so they feel like they have no choice but to call at 3am to hear your opinion.

“Building that trust requires emotional intelligence. It also requires us to have a deep understanding of clients’ businesses and to care about those businesses. A lot of what we do is building up the relationship and the trust, sometimes over many years, so that you do get those 3am phone calls.

He continues: “One of Slaughter and May’s unique characteristics is multi-specialism. When young trainees join they are given a very broad diet of legal tasks because we’re trying to create dexterous lawyers who are not fazed by new things. It’s like going to the gym everyday. Critically, we’re trying to grow advisers, not technicians.”

And on the subject of young lawyers, those with an ambition to join Slaughter and May need to think about more than technical skills. And macho egos should definitely be left at the door.

If you’re going to be an effective adviser, you have to be a worldly being. You need a view on Brexit, on economics, on sporting things

“Obviously we want hard workers and people who have built a consistent track record of academic achievement. But we’re also seeking breadth. Cheesy as it sounds, we’re looking for interesting people. People who enjoy English literature, for example, and people who take an interest in current affairs. Because if you’re going to be an effective adviser, you have to be a worldly being. You need a view on Brexit, on economics, on sporting things. A lot of bonding and engaging with clients comes from caring about the world out there. Good communication skills and emotional intelligence are central to that, too.

“It’s also a question of vulnerability, because we’re all vulnerable. We look for people who realise they are vulnerable and use that as a driver. It’s an attractive quality to know you are vulnerable but to turn that into a strength and share it in a subtle way. Insecurity is a big driver for everyone, and it’s important to use it as a driving force.”

But perhaps the most fascinating part of our interview with Chris Saul comes when we ask him what he’s learned over the years.

Perhaps the absolutely essential characteristic is enthusiasm

“Perhaps the absolutely essential characteristic is enthusiasm,” he says. “Because as a leader if you manage to communicate the enthusiasm you have for the business and its people, that helps everyone to give it their best. When I talk to the young trainees, I give three pieces of advice.

“Firstly, be positive, not crazily so, but say yes whenever you can and communicate a sense of ‘leaning in’ because positivity breeds positivity.

“Secondly, bring your ‘A-game’ to everything you do. There is a novel called We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. One of the characters, Ezra, is a janitor who says: ‘The secret of a good life is to bring your A-game to everything you do, even if all you’re doing is taking out the garbage.’ That’s a very important message.

“Thirdly, read The Economist every week. It’s simply remarkable – an extraordinary compendium of fascinating stuff. When you read it, I promise you, you will feel cleverer. Better informed. It broadens your knowledge and helps you to engage with others, including clients.”

Firstly, be positive…Secondly, bring your ‘A-game’ to everything you do…Thirdly, read The Economist every week…

final tip is exercise. “Every Saturday and Sunday morning I go to the Porchester Baths and swim 40 lengths. It’s good for my physical well-being but here’s the interesting thing: lengths one to 10 are a bit dull, but during lengths 20-40 your mind wanders free. Usually I get out the pool with at least three new ideas.”

As we wrap up the interview we’re left with a sharper, more accurate picture of Slaughter and May than the preconceived image we had built up in our heads. Yes, it’s a legal powerhouse and a British institution with its own quirks. Yes, it’s a magic circle firm run by a loyal inner circle who do not recruit partners from other firms. But it is also approachable, passionate about what it does, takes the long view and is founded on timeless, common sense values. Just like its retiring senior partner.


Chris retired from the firm in April 2016 at the end of his term as Senior Partner. He plans to launch a new consultancy, Christopher Saul Associates, in the Autumn. Chris explains: “My new venture will be a consultancy to moderate difficult situations such as joint venture disagreements, boardroom clashes and generational change in family businesses. I aim to help bridge differences and find consensus.”


Written and edited by the BDLN