Let’s start at the top with the cream of the crop: the Magic Circle represents London’s five most prestigious law firms: Heavily weighed in favour of their corporate and finance practices and focused on lucrative international deals, these firms all top the £1 billion mark in turnover (with the exception of the ever so distinctive Slaughter and May). The Big Five recruit legions of trainees to maintain their legal empires, but only hire the very best. Competition is fierce, but once you’ve joined their ranks, expect very competitive pay, excellent training, great perks, high profile clients and the biggest deals around. All in all, these are stellar names to have on your CV, although the price to pay is long and unpredictable hours… so don’t expect to keep your dinner plans.
Very well regarded in the City, the Silver Circle firms are the next best thing to the Magic Circle and compete with the Big Five for the top clients, often successfully. Overall, large corporate and finance practices and important international transactions mirror the characteristics of Magic Circle firms. Pay is generally comparable to Big Five rates: fair enough as the hours and work are just as demanding. Encompassing a large number of the UK’s leading law firms, they include both internationally-minded and more UK focused law firms, the latter of which still attract top drawer clients but tend to reel in deals that are more UK focused. Promotion prospects are more realistic, and in most cases pay is not much below Magic Circle levels.
Trailing the Silver Circle firms, mid-sized law firms tend to be slightly smaller (both in terms of revenue and head count). But size doesn’t always matter and the majority boast an especially strong practice or two, or have a good reputation in a particular industry. All this without compromising their full service practice. The benefits of working for these firms include a more relaxed atmosphere, competitive rates of pay and high quality work. Trainees at these firms can expect a lot of hands-on experience and good mentoring opportunities with lots of partner contact. Overall, mid size firms can be a good base for a fast track in law.
Biting at the heels of City firms are UK regional firms. By offering more competitive billing rates, in part due to lower costs, regional firms are giving London firms a run for their money. City lawyers are increasingly drawn to firms in Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Reading, Leeds, Cardiff, and Liverpool. The majority work with top-notch clients on top-notch deals within the UK, at the envy of some of their City counterparts. A few of these Northern Stars take on international work as well, and boast a few international offices, while others are content to focus on regional clients. While the pay may be lower, the benefits include fewer hours, lower cost of living, and a better work/life balance. Additionally you may find greater responsibility and recognition for your work as there are fewer solicitors than at City firms. Not to mention that you won’t have to fight the crowds on the tube on your way to work.
American law firms have been flooding The Big Smoke and the UK legal market ever since the mid-1990s, and show no signs of slowing down. While a few of the English firms might harbour ambitions to set up shop across the pond, their expansionist appetite pales in comparison to the Yankees’ as the number of US firms doing business in the City now tops 100. The top 50 of these employ more than 3,000 solicitors in London alone, two thirds of which are UK qualified. It’s no secret that the American firms have a comparative advantage: big bucks to throw around. However, high American pay comes with long American hours. US firms typically focus on large corporate and finance deals across the globe. Smaller offices (most American firms still have less than 100 solicitors in the UK) can mean greater responsibility earlier on, but can also mean less resources and hand holding. Although the training schemes may be less developed, they can be more intimate, and the work certainly just as challenging. All of this means that for a talented London solicitor American firms can offer a viable and rather lucrative alternative as a place to begin a career in law.