How to find the right law firm for your career
The path to becoming a lawyer can be a difficult one, with hard work required for the grades and some interview skills needed to get that all important training contract. But how exactly do you decide who you want to work for?
Barrister vs Solicitor
In many countries around the world, lawyers both represent people in court and perform legal work outside of the courtroom, but in the UK these two tasks are generally separated between barristers (in court) and solicitors (outside). Now, there are various parts that overlap in terms of workload, but if you want to spend most of your time arguing in court and wearing a wig and gown in front of a judge then you want to be a barrister, while if you want to spend more time behind the scenes advising clients and drafting contracts rather than headbutting in court then the solicitor is your choice.
Whilst you need an undergraduate degree in law, or a GDL conversion, to become either a barrister or solicitor, the paths of solicitors and barristers then diverge. Solicitors study for the year-long LPC and then need to find a two-year training contract with a law firm, before hopefully landing a job with that firm. Meanwhile, barristers take the BPTC before being ‘called to bar’ at one of the four Inns, where they do a year’s ‘pupillage’ shadowing a senior barrister and carrying out some court work.
Types of law firms
If you have decided to be a solicitor, you need to work out what sort of firm you want to work for, and which will accept your application based on your grades, aptitude, and personal history. In the UK, there are generally
There are five firms in this exclusive club that dominate the corporate and finance legal world, but whilst they do generally offer higher salaries they also expect very long hours, which some trainees find intolerable. Nonetheless, when people think of high profile solicitors and lawyers of distinction, many will come form these firms.
Large commercial firms
These top 10 or so London-based firms (including the Magic Circle) together offer about 12% of all new training contracts registered with the SRA, and are mostly corporate or financial services-based. The difference between these firms outside and inside the Magic Circle is large name recognition and cachet.
There are around 50 US firms offering training contracts in the UK, with an increasing number now merging with UK firms to make larger international brands. US firms have traditionally been international finance and corporate focused, and have a reputation of working their trainees extremely hard but for rich rewards.
Mid-sized commercial firms
The mid-sized firms tend to focus more on business law than global financial services, and generally give their trainees a better work-life balance, but also pay them less. The atmosphere is also a little more friendly and trainees are more likely to work directly with partners, making it easier for their work to stand out as lawyer of distinction.
Smaller commercial firms
These firms tend to still be “full-service”, but will generally focus on one or two specialities that their partners have earned a reputation in, such as real estate. Alongside commercial work, these firms will also do a large amount of private client work with high net worth individuals.
Whether you want to focus on media law, intellectual property, real estate, or anything else there will be a firm dedicated to that intricate little niche of the law. If you have already decided on exactly what corner of the law you want work in, and enjoy the geeky weeds, then the partners at these firms are who you want to work with.
As the UK’s centre of power and money, London is where the majority of large firms are based, but that does not mean there are not fantastic opportunities in other cities across the UK. If you don’t want to live in the ‘Big Smoke’ with its extortionate rent and endless concrete, then look around for firms based in cities like Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, and beyond.
There are around 20 legal practice areas or specialities for trainee solicitors to choose from, with each subdividing into further specialisations:
- Civil litigation
- Company commercial
- Consumer, debt, and insolvency
- Criminal justice
- Dispute resolution
- Family and children
- Human rights
- Intellectual Property (IP) and Information Technology (IT)
- Personal injury
- Private client
- Property – commercial
- Property – residential
- Social welfare and housing
Photograph by William Cho