April 14, 2022, by Leah Sharpe
How to Choose the Right Law Firm For You
By Tom Robinson, qualified lawyer and co-founder of Next City Lawyer
It’s hard to meaningfully distinguish between large commercial law firms as a student. But by the time you apply for vacation schemes, law firms expect you to know the type of firm that you want to work for – even though you have not even done a vacation scheme yet.
Our team of qualified lawyers at Next City Lawyer suggests that you consider the following six key factors when shortlisting law firms to apply for:
1. Reputation of the firm
2. Quality of training
3. Culture (including working hours)
6. Your gut instinct
Reputation of the firm
Brand names matter. Universities like Nottingham have cachet because employers know that their students are typically smart, ambitious and hard-working. In the same way, the selection process that you go through to win a training contract at a top firm signals to future employers later in your career that you are a sought-after candidate.
As a starting point, it makes sense to train at the best law firm that you can. There is no shortage of excellent commercial law firms in the UK, but the Magic Circle, mainstream US firms and some Silver Circle firms are regarded as top-tier. These firms look for candidates with:
– strong academics (i.e. on track to achieve => 65% average overall in your degree)
– rounded extracurricular activities
– a commitment to working in law
This is a starting point only. There are lots of good reasons why you may choose to work for firms outside this select group, which we explain below.
Quality of training
When you assess firms’ claims to offer excellent training, you should segment their offering into structured and unstructured training:
– structured training is the myriad of classroom-based sessions, practice group updates and other learning resources
– unstructured training is the work that you do on a daily basis, the responsibilities you are given, the feedback that you get on your work and the mentorship that senior lawyers in the firm provide
90% of your development as a trainee is the result of unstructured training. As a trainee, the hands-on responsibility from unstructured training that you would get in a smaller, regional firm is likely to exceed a typical experience at a City law firm.
However, you are likely to develop into a better lawyer post-qualification at a City firm as the result of gradually taking on increased responsibility, longer hours and a structured approach to professional development.
There’s rarely such a thing as firm culture. While some firms are known for being “nice”, culture primarily depends on your practice area because it’s created by the partners who lead the group. You will be better placed to judge this on your training contract once you have spent time working in the team and are deciding where to qualify.
Hours differ by firm, but with less variation among the top firms than people think. The M&A team at Latham & Watkins is unlikely to work significantly harder than the equivalent team at Linklaters or Macfarlanes.
There’s a lot of focus on trainee salaries among candidates. But the real difference between commercial law firms emerges on qualification.
Every qualified lawyer that we know who trained at a reputable UK firm, qualified into a mainstream practice area and who wanted to move across to a higher-paying US firm was able to do so with relative ease.
As there’s limited differentiation between firms as a trainee, we suggest you deprioritise this factor when shortlisting firms.
Most commercial law firms are in London. But you can have a fulfilling career outside of it. Firms like Burges Salmon and Osborne Clarke offer excellent training in a smaller city environment. Your reduced living costs and shorter commutes may translate into a higher quality of life overall, even if compensation is less in absolute terms.
Your gut instinct
It’s helpful to consider the factors above in a structured way. But you know yourself better than anyone else.
If you are tempted by a law firm but something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably still worth applying. You can treat the interview as a two-way process and assess the firm further. But ultimately you should trust your instincts. There are plenty of fantastic law firms in the UK. You will be able to find one that’s right for you.
Find out more about careers in law.
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