The Memo: Are the hours really longer at US firms?

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Weekly Roundup: 21st November 2022: Are the hours really longer at US firms?

Nikolai Viedge - 21st November 2022

The reputation of American firms in the UK is that their associates work longer hours than the average non-US firm.  On the face of it, it’s a well-deserved reputation. According to our survey data from last year, trainees at US firms in the UK topped the average number of hours per week chart by some distance, clocking up an extra five hours per week over their nearest competitors – the magic circle firms.

But, says one training principal at a US-headquartered firm, “there are a number of factors contributing to hours. If you look at the practice mix of US firms, there are more transactional practices. Private equity, corporate and finance, for example, have been among the busiest.” The result is that US firms’ hours look higher, but that’s because their lawyers work in the practices that are busiest.

We compared responses for private equity, corporate and finance practices at US and Magic Circle and City firms, and found that those at US firms still work significantly higher hours than their peers. It’s worth noting that US-based firms typically treat their trainees as junior attorneys, rather than trainees. As one trainee from another of our Atlantic neighbours wryly notes about the NQ process at their firm: “I heard of someone who they forgot was qualifying and he just carried on and had to remind the firm to give him a new contract.”With that being the case, there is an undeniable cultural difference in the work expected of trainees in US firms. Trainees doing the work of an NQ would inevitably be working longer hours than those working in a more supervised learning environment.

While it’s clear that US firms live up to their hours-heavy reputation, there are of course exceptions. A trainee at a US firm argues that “the whole late-night thing at US firms is a myth. I have friends at Magic Circle firms working the same hours as me,” they note. The argument, by analogy, is that “when you watch a football game, both teams are playing 90 mins. If you’re working on the same transactions with other firms, then you’re both playing the same game. You’re going to be working the same times.”