Interview with Christopher Saul
How quality and acting as trusted advisor leads to client satisfaction
Christopher Saul, Senior Partner at Slaughter and May, talks about the factors determining quality and driving client satisfaction when providing legal advice. He addresses the role of acting as trusted advisor, the challenge of recruiting associates and the reasons for preferring a net of “best friends”.
Christopher, one of the qualities your firm is highly praised for is client satisfaction. What are the relevant factors driving client satisfaction?
There are two key components to client satisfaction: the quality of the lawyering and the lawyer's responsiveness. In relation to quality lawyering, it is not sufficient just to be a good lawyer in certain fields of law. As clients and their problems are not siloed, we strive to be able to give advice in a broader, more textured, way by ensuring that our lawyers are trained to handle a wide range of legal areas. In corporate, for example, our lawyers will typically deal with M&A, corporate restructurings, private equity and equity securities' issuance. We like to call this our "multi-specialist-approach". This allows us not only to form a key relationship with the General Counsel but also, as and when appropriate, to be trusted advisors to our clients' CEOs and chairmen of the board. This can, of course, be a very delicate issue. However, most General Counsels appreciate us being trusted by their CEOs and chairmen when giving a critical judgment on the matters we are involved in. This intimacy and closeness of relationship of course flows from a deep and often long-standing relationship with our clients. In order to build and foster such a special relationship we are always available when clients need to talk to us and so this leads to the responsiveness component in client satisfaction.
Responsiveness is a matter of pride for our partners and derives from a soundly established culture of quality shared by all of us. Calls must be returned promptly and with courtesy. And legal work must be delivered quickly and respond to the practical concerns of our clients. This is the first thing which young associates learn when they join us.
At first sight there seems to be a great challenge in bringing together the role of trusted advisor on the one hand and the client's desire to keep legal spending down by disaggregating projects and therefore have the work done by more than one law firm on the other hand.
This can be a concern. In large transactions our clients frequently ask us to work together with other firms, which we gladly do. In these cases, however, we are fortunate in that our clients will often trust us with the more mission-critical elements of the transaction. This frequently enables us to maintain close contact with our clients and advise on the central issues in the transaction.
How do you breed Slaughter and May's culture of quality?
The first element is our partnership lockstep. Lockstep provides the partners with a mutual interest in the firm's ambitions and success. However, this is something we have in common with a number of other law firms in the premium sector of the market. Thus, the second and equally important driver of our culture is the fact that we are organically grown. We have never hired a partner direct into the partnership, not one in the long history of this firm. Most of our partners joined the firm as trainees; some were associates for three to four years before they were promoted to partner. So, Slaughter and May is completely home grown. Thus, we do not have differences in our partners' understanding of the importance and the peculiarities of our culture and we can move "as one". This mutual commitment to our way of doing things is supported by a very careful process in the appointment of new partners. One day we may recruit one or more partners laterally but the essence of the firm is an organically grown tight-knit partnership.
Is there a way you can make sure that young people joining the firm as trainees or associates share your values from the very beginning of their careers with Slaughter and May?
We do not have an overly formal way of recruiting our trainees. In fact, it is a rather simple interview process. Applicants with excellent grades fill in a form and send us their CV together with a letter where they explain why they are interested in joining the firm. We then invite the candidates to visit us. They are interviewed by two partners. In order to get the discussion going, and provide some benchmarking, we hand them an article. We are interested in how the candidates understand the topic of the article and how they comment on it and identify the key issues. The aim of the interview more broadly is not only to find out about the intellectual capabilities of the applicant but about their special abilities in other fields of interest as well. We strive to look for young colleagues who are not only bright, with good communication skills, but also who bring "something special" to the table. So, among the 80 or so hires we make per year we see a lot of outstanding talent in many areas, not only in law. Remember, the point we discussed earlier? This helps us very much in achieving our aim to maintain a broad "multi-specialist" approach to the work we do for our clients.
Is the firm's special culture also visible when a partner comes to the end of his or her career?
For any partner, deciding when to retire from the firm is difficult and emotional. I have annual feedback sessions with all of our partners. We call them "paterfamilias"-sessions. From time to time we need to discuss, in these sessions, whether a partner feels able to carry on making the level of contribution which is implicit in a lock-step system. If not, then the partner may conclude that the time has come to consider leaving. By the way: this is not a matter of age. Two of our most successful partners are well beyond 60 years of age!
Out of the group of "Magic Circle" firms you are the only one who has decided to not founding offices in the various markets you are in but to use a net of "best friends" law firms. What is the rationale for this decision?
In the mid 90's all the other "Magic Circle" firms went global. At that time we asked ourselves the critical question of what was going to be best for our clients. The answer we came up with was (1) best possible legal advice in each jurisdiction and (2) choice. So, we developed close cooperation with like-minded firms in other jurisdictions. In Europe we linked arms with a "gang" of extremely capable firms, consisting of Hengeler Mueller in Germany, Bonelli Erede Pappalardo in Italy, Bredin Prat in France, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek in the Netherlands, and Uría Menéndez in Spain. All of them share our values. We meet regularly, share and develop cutting edge knowledge, form working groups on topics of mutual interest, and offer mutual secondments. In the rest of the world, collaboration is more informal but also working well. This scheme has proved to be very beneficial, not only for the firm but also for our clients. Thus, we can maintain our culture through being a manageable size and, at the same time, work with the "best in class"!
Christopher Saul is Senior Partner at Slaughter and May. He specializes in general corporate work, private equity and securities. Very typical for the firm's partners, Christopher has spent his entire career with Slaughter and May. The firm ranks among the very best in the U.K. It is a member of the so called "Magic Circle", the group of most distinguished premium law firms with headquarters in the city of London. Over the years Slaughter and May has been awarded many prizes in various fields of its activities. The firm serves a higher percentage of the UK top 100 corporations than any other law firm. Christopher was interviewed by Leo Staub.
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