Chris Saul interview: Slaughter and May purrs like a Porsche but that doesn’t mean we’re run by Buffy and Bertie

The James Ashton Interview: Slaughter and May is set apart from other City firms because, like the car, it is ‘progressively evolved and high-performance’ – says senior partner who is driving business

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The Independent Online

Chris Saul doesn’t do cut-price similes. Trying to explain what sets Slaughter and May apart from other City law firms, the car fanatic alights on the Porsche 911.

“When it was first made in 1963, it was an unusual car because it had the engine in the back, which even then was the wrong place,” Saul purrs as if he was behind the wheel. “It swings on its axis. Everybody said they will stop making that car. Well 50-odd years later, it is still there, progressively evolved, high-performance and beautifully made.”

And does the analogy extend to Slaughter and May charging the sort of prices a Porsche dealer might? Saul smiles and concedes: “Also quite expensive, it’s true.”

Welcome to the most magical of Magic Circle law firms. Slaughter and May has somehow kept up its unique lustre, despite predictions that it must change to stay on top.

London, headquarters to the global legal industry, has been flooded with American firms throwing cash around to hire rising stars. And while lesser rivals race to merge with overseas peers, or open offices in far-flung locations, Saul and his colleagues make everything happen from a single stronghold in London, barring a handful of partners in Hong Kong and a couple of satellite offices.

It is not the only aspect of the 126-year-old firm that feels as though it belongs in the world before the Big Bang, when deregulation sparked a wave of takeovers of long-established City names. Saul, the firm’s senior partner, thinks Slaughters can carry on thriving, despite its quaint, collegiate view of life. It might even draw back its discreet veil a little to persuade the next generation that it remains relevant to the times.

“There remains out there in university land something of an impression about Slaughter and May: that it is all terribly stuffy and Buffy and Bertie,” Saul says in a rare interview. “But when vacation students come here and we ask what they made of the place, they say the people were normal and approachable and that is a very precious thing.”

What newcomers also find is a close-knit firm with a seat at most FTSE-100 boardroom tables when there are multi-billion pound deals to be done. Slaughter and May’s must-have reputation, plus the lower cost of running just one main office, explains why it can turn over less than half of its four Magic Circle rivals – Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy, Linklaters and Freshfields – but consistently pays its partners up to 50 per cent more. Outsiders guess last year that this added up to an average of £1.8m for each partner as investigation work, competition and regulatory advice remained strong and mergers and acquisitions returned after a hiatus. They must guess, because Slaughters never tells. Saul launches into a very polite explanation.

“What we would worry about in terms of publicising the numbers is it drives short-termism,” he says. For evidence that Slaughter and May thinks for the long term, consider that 100 of its 119 partners have spent their whole career at Slaughter and May. For 57 per cent, that means service of 20 years or more. It can’t just be about the money. Adding to the feel of an exclusive club, no partner has ever been appointed from outside. A fifth of them are women.

Saul says: “The sense of growing up together and understanding everybody’s foibles is strangely important. The flipside is we haven’t had additions to the gene pool. To some extent, there is cost-benefit analysis in there, but we think that preserving what is a close and co-operative culture is very important.”

It helps that when they are not seeing clients, they all lunch together in the dining room upstairs at the Bunhill Row building in the heart of the City. Partners each have a pigeon hole for their napkin. “We are refreshing the bond every day.”

Set up by two young solicitors, by the 1920s Slaughter and May acted for blue-chip merchant banks including Schroders, Barings, and Rothschild. The 1980s saw it heavily involved in the big privatisations such as British Gas and British Steel. It was in the thick of the action again when the banks went bust.

For his part, Saul, 59, arrived in 1977, devouring the same “big diet” of training which means the firm’s lawyers are more broad-based than most. He learned from one of the first partners he sat with that “through the use of irony and a twinkle in the eye you could make more progress than with a thump on the table”.

You can’t imagine him spoiling for an argument. Saul would be impish if he wasn’t so slick and mannered in his sharp suit and rimless specs. He’s as at home dining with clients in Mayfair’s swish fish restaurant Scott’s as he is cutting a rug at the dozen or so gigs he attends every year. Robert Plant at the Camden Roundhouse the other week was “sensational” but not typical; usually Saul goes for newer acts, such as electronic group Clean Bandit. And most days he takes the Tube to the office from his home in Notting Hill.

But as plugged in to London’s corporate scene as he is, Saul still knows how to switch off. The family – his French wife, Ann, his son and daughter – tend to make the most of the two-week Christmas break. They went to Vietnam last year; Saul has booked Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador this time. His son, Edouard, works for the brasserie chain Côte and can’t get away; his daughter, Laura, who has just started a training contract with another City law firm, Ashurst, can.

Since being chosen as senior partner six years ago, he says that “my job is to celebrate and support the success of the firm, to be a figurehead, put things on the agenda and say, hey everybody, what do you think?” That is because everyone gets a say in how Slaughter and May is run. For such a crucible of capitalism, it is also an unlikely believer in the benefits of democracy. On top of a monthly board meeting, partners gather four times a year to choose new partners and debate big decisions – not something that larger firms with 400 or so partners can do anymore.

“In addition, what we sweetly call the drop-in breakfast with partners [takes place] every two or three months, just to keep people updated,” he says.

The election of the senior partner sounds wonderfully old-school, too. Unlike firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, where partners campaign to be elected as boss and prepare a manifesto, Slaughter and May has a series of cosy chats.

If you want to be nominated “you would somehow let it subtly be known”, and finally there’s a secret ballot and some papal white smoke.

Before Saul’s term runs out in 2016, he reports “cautious optimism” for next year, even with economic weakness in the eurozone and strife in the Ukraine. “There is a lot of money around, debt is cheap, chief executives have confidence back and will want to do strategic things,” he says.

English law is exported to half of the world, and Slaughter and May lawyers anchor the disputes they are handling mainly back in London after some smaller offices, including New York, were closed down. It also partners with “best friend” firms in a number of markets.

“The power and malleability of English law is that it does what it says on the tin and that is very soothing to many counterparties,” Saul explains. As soothing for clients as Slaughter and May itself, which somehow keeps up with the times without being changed by them.

CV: Chris Saul

Education: Born in Carlisle, Saul was educated at a string of schools in Shropshire, Birmingham and Kingston-upon-Thames as his father had a bank job that meant the family moved around. “As you can imagine, it was quite a buffeting experience. On the other hand, you always had to cope, had to make up ground.” He read law at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.

Career so far: Joined Slaughter and May in 1977, became a partner in 1986, head of corporate department in 2004 and was elected senior partner in 2008.

Personal: Married to Ann, with a grown-up son, Edouard, and a daughter, Laura. Relaxes by going to gigs, travelling and “reading car magazines, driving cars and thinking about cars”.