Different types of law firm


There are nearly 11,000 private practice firms in England and Wales. All offer a very different experience. The following will help you drill down.

London: magic circle


The membership of this club traditionally extends to Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May. To those for whom bigger is better (bigger deals, bigger money, bigger staff numbers), this is the place to be. Corporate and finance work dominates these firms, as do international big-bucks business clients. By organising their training on a massive scale, these firms can offer seemingly unlimited office facilities, great perks, overseas postings and excellent formal training sessions.

Although these five giants top many lists, not least for revenue and partner profits, consider carefully whether they’d top yours. Training in a magic circle firm is CV gold but not suited to everyone. One factor to consider is the requirement to work really long hours to keep profits fat and international clients happy. A great camaraderie develops among trainees, but be prepared to not see your other friends too often…

You might want to read up on...
Allen & Overy; Clifford Chance; Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; Linklaters; Slaughter and May

London: large commercial


The top ten City of London firms (including the magic circle) offer roughly 800 traineeships between them each year, representing approximately 16% of all new training contracts registered with the SRA. In terms of day-to-day trainee experiences, there’s not such a huge difference between the magic circle and the so-called ‘silver circle’ firms such as Ashurst, Herbert Smith Freehills and a few others.

Training contracts at these chasing-pack firms are strongly flavoured with corporate and finance deals and, again, international work. The salaries match those paid by the magic circle, which is only fair given that many of the lawyers work equally hard.

Many of these firms have recently enlarged further thanks to mergers with large US, Canadian and Australian firms: Norton Rose Fulbright (formerly Norton Rose) and Hogan Lovells (formerly Lovells) are just two examples.

You might want to read up on...
Ashurst; CMSBerwin Leighton Paisner; Dentons; Herbert Smith Freehills; Hogan Lovells; Norton Rose Fulbright

London: American firms


Since the 1970s, there has been a steady stream of US firms crossing the Atlantic to take their place in the UK market. Currently around 40 of them offer training contracts to would-be UK solicitors, with new schemes popping up all the time. We’d suggest staying eagle-eyed if you’ve a thing for stars and stripes.

At the risk of over-generalising, these firms are characterised by international work (usually corporate or finance-led), small offices, more intimate training programmes and very long hours. On the other hand they usually give trainees a good amount of responsibility. Famously, many of them pay phenomenally high salaries. Lawyers at the hotshot US firms frequently work opposite magic circle lawyers on deals; indeed many of them were previously magic circle and top-ten firm partners or associates. We've also noticed that since these firms' training contracts are often small, many don't look much further than Oxbridge and London for their trainees: they can afford to be selective.

As we've already mentioned, UK and US firms are increasingly merging with each other, and with Aussie and Canadian firms, further blurring the definition of which are 'American' and which are not. Some firms are quite happy to be labelled as American; others prefer to be described as 'international'. Look at their websites to get an idea of which term to use.

You might want to read up on...
Arnold & Porter; Bingham McCutchen; Cleary Gottlieb; Covington & Burling; Curtis Mallet-Prevost; Davis PolkDechert; Edwards Wildman Palmer; Kirkland & Ellis; Mayer Brown; Morgan LewisShearman & Sterling; Skadden; Vinson & Elkins; Weil Gotshal; White & Case

London: mid-sized commercial


Just like their bigger cousins, these firms are mostly dedicated to business law and business clients. Generally, they don’t require trainees to spend quite so many hours in the office; however, some of the most successful mid-sizers – eg Macfarlanes and Travers Smith– give the big boys a run for their money in terms of profitability.

Generally, the size of deals and cases in these firms means trainees can do much more than just administrative tasks. The atmosphere is a bit more intimate than at the giants of the City, with the greater likelihood of working for partners directly and, arguably, more scope to stand out within the trainee group. You shouldn’t expect such an international emphasis to all the work.

You might want to read up on...
Bird & Bird; Charles Russell; Lawrence GrahamMacfarlanes; Olswang; RPC; Speechly BirchamStephenson HarwoodTravers Smith; Watson, Farley & Williams

London: smaller commercial


For those who don’t mind taking home a slightly more modest pay cheque in exchange for better hours, these firms are a great choice. After all, money isn’t everything.

There are dozens of small commercial firms dotted around London: Wedlake Bell and Boodle Hatfield are just two examples. Usually these firms will be ‘full-service’, although some may have developed on the back of one or two particularly strong practice areas or via a reputation in certain industries. Real estate is commonly a big deal at these firms. Along with commercial work, a good number offer private client services to wealthier people. At firms like these you usually get great exposure to partners and there’s less risk of losing contact with the outside world.

You might want to read up on...
Bates Wells Braithwaite; Bircham Dyson Bell; Boodle Hatfield; Collyer Bristow; Davenport Lyons; Maclay Murray & SpensMemery Crystal; Mishcon de ReyaPenningtons ManchesPeters & Peters; Wedlake Bell

Niche firms


London is awash with firms specialising in areas as diverse as aviation, media, insurance, shipping, family, intellectual property, sport… you name it, there’s a firm for it. Niche firms have also sprouted in areas of the country with high demand for a particular service. How about marine law in Plymouth? If you are absolutely certain that you want to specialise in a particular field – especially if you have already worked in a relevant industry – a niche firm is an excellent choice. You need to be able to back up your passion with hard evidence of your commitment, however. Many of these firms also cover other practice areas, but if any try to woo you by talking at length about their other areas of work, ask some searching questions.

You might want to read up on...
Capsticks; Harbottle & Lewis; Kingsley Napley; Peters & Peters; Sheridans; Taylor Wessing; Thomas Cooper

Regional firms


Many of you will agree that there is more to life than the Big Smoke. There are some very fine regional firms acting for top-notch clients on cases and deals the City firms would snap up in a heartbeat. There is also international work going on outside the capital.

The race for training contracts in the biggest of these firms is just as competitive as in the City. Some regional firms are even more discerning than their London counterparts in that applicants may have to demonstrate a long-term commitment to living in the area. Understandable, as they hardly want to shell out for training only to see their qualifiers flit off to the capital.

Smaller regional firms tend to focus on the needs of regional clients and would therefore suit anyone who wants to become an integral part of their local business community. Salaries are lower outside London, in some cases significantly so, but so is the cost of living. There’s a perception that working outside London means a chummier atmosphere and more time for the gym/pub/family, but do bear in mind that the biggest and most ambitious regional players will expect hours that aren’t so dissimilar to firms with an EC postcode.

You might want to read up on...
AshfordsBPE SolicitorsBurges Salmon; Foot Anstey; Michelmores; Osborne Clarke; TLT (Bristol/South West)
BP Collins; Cripps Harries Hall; Penningtons ManchesStevens & Bolton; Trethowans; Wilsons (South East)
Browne Jacobson; Freeth Cartwright; Higgs & Sons; SGH MartineauWragge & Co (Midlands)
Gordons; Muckle; Walker Morris; Ward Hadaway (Newcastle/Leeds)
BrabnersForbes; Gateley; Hill Dickinson (Manchester/Liverpool/North West)  

National and multi-site firms


Multi-site firms are necessarily massive operations, some of them with office networks spanning the length and breadth of the country and overseas. To give you just two examples, Eversheds has nine branches in England and Wales plus many overseas; DLA Piper has six in England and many more overseas. These firms attract students who want to do bigger-ticket work outside London – a sometimes unwelcome consequence of which is doing London levels of work for a lower salary.

Some of the multi-site firms allow trainees to stay in one office, whereas others expect them to move around. Make sure you know the firm’s policy or you could end up having a long-distance relationship with friends, family and your significant other while you move to a new town for a few months or are saddled with a punishing commute. The work on offer is mostly commercial, although some private client experience may be available.

You might want to read up on...
Addleshaw GoddardBond Dickinson; DLA Piper; DWFEversheds; Irwin Mitchell; Kennedys; Pinsent Masons; Shoosmiths; Squire Sanders

General practice/small firms


If you're put off by the corporate jargon, City-slicking lifestyle and big-business attitude of some of the firms in this guide, then the small firm might be just what you're after. If you want to grow up fast as a lawyer and see how the law actually affects individuals and the community in which you practise, then a high-street firm may be the best option for you. We go into much more detail here.

Larger firms may take up to half a dozen or so trainees a year; the smallest will recruit on an occasional basis. It is in this part of the profession where salaries are the lowest. The SRA's minimum required salary for trainees is to be scrapped as of 1 August 2014. From that date, employers will only have to adhere to the national minimum wage, currently £6.31 per hour.

Many high-street firms depend on legal aid funding and anyone thinking of entering this sector should be aware of the dramatic cuts being made to public funding of legal services. We discuss this in considerable detail here.

You might want to read...
- Our newsletter article on three high street firms: Wilsons, Hanne & Co, Osbornes
- Our feature about training on the high street

Keep reading...


- What is a training contract?
- Trends affecting the recruitment market
- Some other careers options