How we do our research

 

About the True Picture

Every firm will tell you it is different from all the others because of its friendly culture in which everybody is down-to-earth and where approachable partners operate an open-door policy. If you're feeling bamboozled by brochure-speak we have the antidote: the True Picture.

If you have any questions about the True Picture or you work for a firm which you would like to see featured in the True Picture please contact the editors:

Antony Cooke     editor 020 7778 1676     email    
Sam Morris deputy editor   020 7778 1618 email 
Paul Rance deputy editor     020 7778 1465 email

 

How we do our research

Every year we spend many months compiling the True Picture reports on law firms in England and Wales, ranging from the international giants to small regional practices. Our purpose is to get to the heart of what you need to know about a prospective employer – what it can really offer you in terms of work and working environment. You’ll want to know how many hours a day you’ll be chained to your desk, the tasks that will keep you occupied and who you’ll be working with. Importantly, you’ll want to know about a firm’s culture and whether colleagues will turn into party animals or party poopers come Friday night.

Most of our chosen firms handle commercial law, although many also offer private client experience. There are also a few firms which handle publicly funded or public interest work. To take part in the True Picture a firm must provide a complete list of its trainees. After checking the list is complete, we randomly select a sample of individuals for telephone interviews. Our sources are guaranteed anonymity to give them the confidence to speak frankly. The True Picture is not shown to the law firms prior to publication; they see it for the first time when this book is published.

Our sources are guaranteed anonymity to give them the confidence to speak frankly. The True Picture is not shown to the law firms prior to publication.

If you’ll allow us to blow our own trumpet for a minute, we’re the only publication that conducts our research in this way. By chatting to trainees rather than sending them formulaic questionnaires, we can follow up on leads, delve deeper into what makes firms tick and what challenges they face. We think that leads to better, more detailed information for our readers. 

Trainees tell us why they chose their firm and why others might want to. We put on our serious faces and talk about seat allocation, the character and work of different departments, the level of supervision and what happens to people on qualification. And we flirt shamelessly to get the gossip on firm politics, office oddities and after-hours fun. We look for the things trainees agree upon, and if they don’t agree we present both sides of the argument. 

Your choice of firm should be based on location, size and the practice areas available. Once you're settled on those, it's all about chemistry: some firms are stuffier, some are more industrious and some are very brand-aware, involving trainees heavily in marketing activities. Some work in modern open-plan offices; others occupy buildings with a more traditional set-up. Some focus on international business; others are at the heart of their local business communities. Some concentrate on contentious work; others transactional. The combinations of these variables are endless. 

 

Our findings this year

At the corporate end of the market things are looking bright. Many firms are posting increased revenues, corporate clients are lending and spending again, and salaries are on the up. This is not to say the profession as a whole is out of the woods though: government cuts are biting, the Eurozone crisis is lurching to goodness knows what conclusion, and markets from Russia to China remain volatile – all of these factors could potentially have adverse effects on law firms. Read more about all this in our feature on Trends affecting the legal profession.

A word on law firm mergers and closures. Mergers are an increasingly regular occurrence in the profession. This is partly due to challenging economic conditions – strength in numbers, and all that. However, it is also a result of globalisation. Firms with big ambitions seem to feel that unless they have a sizeable international office network, they will loose out. When firms merge, trainees’ contracts are honoured, though of course it does mean that new recruits find themselves in a different firm to the one they signed up to. Closures are rarer, but as we’ve seen with the cases of Dewey & LeBoeuf in 2012, Cobbetts in 2013 and Davenport Lyons in 2014, they do happen and trainees can find themselves caught on the hop. 

In 2015 the firms featured in the Student Guide retained 80.7% of their trainees on qualification. 

Since the recession many firms are announcing their qualification job offers extremely late – this trend continued in 2015 when several major City and national outfits took till mid-August to confirm the fate of trainees completing their contracts in September. There's good news on retention though: after a dodgy couple of years, average trainee retention rates have now topped 80% for two years running, bringing them back up to pre-recession levels. (Note that the absolute number of trainees firms are retaining is lower, with downsizing especially noticeable at the biggest firms.) The average retention rate for firms featured in the Student Guide this year is 80.7%. Elsewhere on this website you can find full analysis of retention as well as statistics for each firm going back to 2001.

If you intend to use retention rates as a determining factor in your choice of firm, do be wary of the statistics being bandied around. Law firms make their own rules on how to calculate retention rates – you may not be getting a full picture from them. We collect our own statistics and include them in each law firm feature.

 

Things we hear every year...

 

  • Some seats are more popular than others and there are no guarantees of getting a specific seat. Employment and intellectual property are perennial favourites.
  • Levels of responsibility vary between departments. In property you might have your own small files. In corporate you will generally work in a very junior capacity as part of a team.
  • The experience in litigation depends entirely on the type of cases your firm handles; usually a trainee’s responsibility is inversely proportionate to the value and complexity of a case.
  • Working in corporate and finance seats means putting in long hours, commonly climaxing in all-nighters. The size and complexity of a deal will determine your role, but corporate and finance usually require the most teamwork.
  • Most firms offer four six-month seats; some offer six four-month seats and others operate their own unique systems. Trainees switch departments and supervisors for each seat. Some share a room and work with a partner or senior assistant; others sit in an open-plan office, either with the rest of the team or with other trainees.
  • All firms conduct appraisals: a minimum of one at the conclusion of each seat, and usually halfway through as well.
  • Client secondments help you learn to understand clients’ needs. They can be the highlight of a training contract.
  • The Solicitors Regulation Authority requires all trainees to experience both litigation and transactional matters. Additionally, some firms have certain seats they require or prefer trainees to try.

 

Use the True Picture to help you decide which firms to target. No matter how easy or hard securing a training contract is for you, you’ll want to end up with the right one.