Our trainee sources saw a stint in Paris as “an amazing gig if you can get it,” and it's easy to see why. A seat in Paris combines all the starry glamour of working in the home of Amélie, Coco Chanel and Brigitte Bardot – although you're not as likely to bump into them in Printemps these days – with the safety blanket of the Eurostar trips home at weekends if it all gets too much. UK and US law firms have long kept up a pied-a-terre in France's capital, making it one of the most commonly offered overseas seats. Still, spots can be highly competitive. For those wanting to land the seat, “having the language skills is a real plus. Although everyone in the Paris office is bilingual, speaking French really helps you to get involved.”
The legal market in France is one of the largest in Europe, competing with the likes of the UK, Spain and Germany for a tasty piece of the commercial tarte. Most of the foreign firms in France have put down roots in Paris, which has around 40% of the country's lawyers and three-quarters of the turnover generated by legal services. More than half of the top 20 firms in the country are from the USA or UK, with stalwarts like Clifford Chance having been dominant forces for over 50 years.
Before the 2008 recession, the Paris legal scene was heavily dependent on corporate M&A and banking. However, corporations have been hit by a French economy that's been stagnant since the 2008 recession, and socialist president François Hollande scared off potential investors thanks to his campaign to raise taxes for high earners. French banks are also struggling, and real estate has been hit by the government chipping away at housing subsidies. On the plus side, regulatory law continues to do well, as does the energy sector, and there's also a growing focus on work in developing markets, with many Paris law firms starting Africa teams. Furthermore, being the centre of the ICC International Court of Arbitration, Paris also hosts plenty of major commercial disputes.
Local business culture
Trainees who end up in Paris often do a corporate seat and may also encounter asset finance, capital markets and international arbitration. Paris’ strength in arbitration impressed our sources. One said: “The quality is second to none – you have to get inside your client’s head and work out what they’re fighting for.” Another speculated that since “the French system doesn't have a trainee equivalent you are regarded more as an associate.”
Forget all you've heard about two-hour garlic-drenched lunches and 35 hour weeks; in practice, trainees find Paris “has a lot more emphasis on face time” than in London, with one interviewee reporting “working days of 13 hours minimum” and that “people never really think about leaving before 7.30pm,” meaning that “weekends are the only real time you can socialise.”
The Institut Français is notoriously strident about promoting the French language, even imposing a 40% quota for French-language music on the radio. Unsurprisingly, then, French speakers are at a massive advantage, both in the office and out of hours. Most firms will offer trainees language classes before they cross the Channel. When transactions are taking place in French, non-fluent trainees can end up with lower responsibility levels – “translation was 85% of what I did and there was no legal work at all,” moaned one grumpy source. Still, while one trainee found that they didn't get much high level work on French cases, particularly in litigation, “when big corporate transactions based in English law come in, you can have responsibility there. I was responsible for liaising with and writing advice notes for clients.”
According to our sources, trainees’ apartments scrub up very nicely. “Mine was gorgeous,” said one source, adding that “it feels like I’m in Versailles Palace here, and the Champs-Elysée is just around the corner.” Even if you’re not in the palace of your dreams, you’re guaranteed to be a hop, skip and a jump away from your office. One trainee raved that “they pay for your flat and bills and everything; mine was just three minutes walk from office, and I can see the Arc de Triomphe from my window!”