There's a big difference between the way in which lawyers are regarded in Japan and the US. Slaughter and May finance partner Andrew McClean tells us that in Japan, “lawyers are hugely revered and respectedâ€ because only a tiny proportion of those who sit law school exams pass them and qualify. It's a different matter in America, as Andrew found out: “I remember very clearly arriving at JFK, where the customs guy asked me what I did and then said: “Why do you want to come here? - we've got a million lawyers already.â€ It was an interesting contrast!â€
Why is the work of City lawyers at firms like Slaughter and May so international? Many of their clients are large corporate entities which have operations and interests all around the world. In addition, English law (along with New York law) has become a standard governing law for complex multinational corporate and finance transactions, meaning that English-qualified lawyers are needed anywhere these deals are concluded.
Andrew has had the opportunity to practice all around the world over the course of his legal career, spent entirely at Slaughter and May. Andrew joined the firm in 1989, rotated round various departments during his two-year training contract, and chose on qualification to focus on corporate and finance work. After two years as a qualified lawyer, he was given the opportunity to spend some time in Tokyo. The firm had decided in the late 1980s to set up an office there to provide English law expertise to corporate clients engaged in international capital markets transactions in what was then a booming Japan. However, by the mid-1990s, the slowdown in the Japanese economy meant that considerably less of this kind of work was available. Andrew therefore packed his bags, and got on a long flight to New York. He then spent 18 months working mainly on the English law aspects of transactions governed by New York law - “for example, where we had English parties involved in the deal, or security rights were being taken over UK assetsâ€. Next came two more years back in London, at the end of which Andrew was offered partnership, having then been at the firm for just under nine years.
Best way forward
Although Andrew's time in Tokyo and New York was spent in the offices the firm then had in these cities, Slaughter and May now prefers to work internationally through its “best friendsâ€, highly-regarded local firms with whom it nurtures a close co-operative relationship. In contrast to its nearest competitors who have large international networks of their own offices, Slaughter and May now only has outposts in Brussels, Hong Kong and Beijing. Andrew explains why the firm has taken this distinctive approach: “We felt it was never going to be possible for one firm to be the very best in all disciplines in every jurisdiction. We decided to focus on being one of the best law firms in London doing English law work, while intensifying our strong relations with the best independent firms in other jurisdictions.â€
What are the advantages of Slaughter and May's way of doing things? “Franklyâ€, says Andrew, “I think we work more closely with our best friends than if we had merged with them into one firm. I'm not sure if there's a marriage analogy here, but I think offices in the same firm can tend to take each other for granted!â€ Slaughter and May, however, puts a lot of effort into getting to know its best friends very well - which is why Andrew has spent a large amount of his time since becoming a partner on secondment to Hengeler Mueller in Frankfurt and Bredin Prat in Paris.
Another advantage to the arrangement is that being best friends doesn't mean being each other's only friends: “We have flexibility. We might think that our best friends are the outstanding commercial law firms in their countries, but - and they would all say so themselves - that doesn't mean they're the best lawyers to refer our clients to for every single job there. A piece of work might not be big enough to be worth their while financially, or it might be a particularly specialised transaction that they don't have the expertise to advise on. We never want to be in the position of having to force onto a client what we think is the second best set of foreign lawyers for a job just because they're part of the same firm as us.â€
Andrew is at pains to point out that, as his own career shows, there are just as many opportunities for Slaughter and May lawyers to work abroad as there are for the firm's competitors with more overseas offices: “We have secondments available to our best friend firms (and our own offices) all around the world - in Germany, France, Scandinavia, the US, Asia and Australia.â€ And Andrew argues that lawyers get more out of their time abroad if they've worked at an independent foreign firm rather than at an outpost of a City mothership: “I recently had a debrief meeting with a trainee who had just come back from six months in Paris. And he said what I believe to be generally true: he thought he'd had a much richer, more rewarding, and more culturally authentic experience at Bredin Prat than he would have done at the Paris office of a UK firm. He'd had a real insight into the uniquely French way of doing things.â€
Andrew encourages students interested in becoming City lawyers to consider following in his own footsteps and going abroad as part of their career: “A secondment to another country can be very enriching. It's certainly challenging, because this job is complicated enough and by going to work abroad you're adding further complications with the language, culture, and interaction with a different legal system, but I've always found the experience very worthwhile. And when you get back to London, you'll have a much rounder perspective on your work.â€
Whether or not they choose to spend time overseas, Andrew thinks that an awareness of what's going on in the rest of the world is crucial in his field: “It's key to what we do, whether we're talking political events in South America, the current importance of Australia, or the significance of commodities to the Canadian economy. In particular, right now we're very much aware that the balance of economic power is shifting eastwards. For instance, one of our clients, Indian conglomerate Tata Group, is now the single most important manufacturing employer in the UK.â€ It's because of this growing significance of Asia that Slaughter and May feels it's necessary to retain its Hong Kong and Beijing offices.
We find our allotted time is up, and Andrew has plenty of work to get back to. On his plate at the moment is the acquisition of an American chemicals company by a Swiss biotech giant, and some work for the British government in relation to the 2008 Icelandic banking collapse. He may be based in London at the moment, but we think more stamps in his passport are an inevitability.