There's more to choosing a law firm than picking those with six-figure salaries and high-profile clients. Discover how to find a firm that matches your interests, skills and motivations
To ensure that your legal career gets off to the best possible start you need to choose the right law firm. But with so much to consider and so may firms to choose from how do you identify the most suitable place for you?
Start by asking yourself what you want from your legal career and then research firms that line up with your goals. Take the following factors into consideration when making your choice.
Training contracts are designed to give you experience in several different areas of law but it's a good idea to decide which areas interest you before applying.
Practice areas cover everything from banking and finance, criminal law, family and children and the environment to intellectual property, personal injury and commercial. You may even have ambitions to specialise in a niche area such as shipping, sports or media law.
If you're struggling to narrow down your options think about the topics that you enjoy at university as a starting point. Take into consideration any legal work experience that you've done, including vacation schemes, and reflect on the projects and cases you found most interesting. Use trade press and social media to read up on the challenges facing the different areas of law and the types of clients involved with each.
The practice area you choose will determine which firms you can apply to, making the pool of options a little more manageable.
For a more in depth look at practice areas see areas of law.
Size of firm
Another thing to consider is whether you'd like to work for a small or large firm. There is no right or wrong choice; it all comes down to what kind of company you'd like to work for. Bear in mind that as well as affecting the clients you deal with and the work you do, the size of the firm will also impact on trainee numbers.
Typically larger firms tend to be commercial, city practices who advise major organisations. High-street firms are among the smallest and advise members of the public.
Ask yourself, would you rather be the only trainee with one-to-one mentoring or one of 20 trainees with a strong support network?
Practices can be categorised into:
- Magic Circle firms - Made up of Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance LLP, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP, Linklaters LLP and Slaughter and May. These are the biggest firms in the UK legal industry and only the best trainees will be considered.
- City firms - Deal with complex commercial cases and high-value transactions. Firms often employ large numbers of staff and are better placed to offer more traineeships. While salaries are high working hours are long and competition for training contracts is fierce.
- National firms - With a mix of commercial work and general practice national firms have a well-developed network of offices across the UK. They offer a decent salary and a good work/life balance.
- International firms - Benefits include frequent travel opportunities and having the chance to experience different legal systems from around the globe. Knowledge of a second language, or multiple languages, will make you an attractive candidate to international firms.
- High street firms - Small to medium-sized practices whose primary business is to provide legal services to household clients. Serving a range of clients means diverse work and a greater responsibility early on for trainees.
- USA-based firms - With an increasing number of off-shoot offices opening up across the UK they offer high salaries but only take on a small number of trainees each year for top-end corporate work.
Many firms have offices across the UK so location may not be an issue; nevertheless you need to take this into account as your base could affect the types of firms you can apply to.
If you have no home ties, are happy to relocate and have ambitions to travel the world international or city firms provide opportunities for secondments abroad. With their extensive network of offices national firms also provide the scope for travel and relocation throughout the UK.
If you're attracted to high salaries and big city living then city, Magic Circle and US-based firms may tick all your boxes.
If you'd prefer to stay closer to home and deal with local clients, then regional or high-street firms may be the best choice. While opportunities to travel are rare and salaries can't compete with the big city firms, working hours are shorter, the commute is less hectic and you'll benefit from a healthier work/life balance.
Traditionally trainees complete four six-month seats in different departments although this structure can vary between firms.
Some firms may offer six four-month seats allowing you to experience more areas of law but in arguably less depth. Other firms can impose mandatory seats, especially if they are known for their work in a particular area. This is where your research is important, find out what your preferred firm offers and check that it matches your requirements.
Your research should go beyond their websites. You need to take a look at their social media pages, read up on cases they've been involved in via the press and industry journals and find out their stance on corporate social responsibility.
As well as the structure of your training contract you may also want to consider what, if any, optional extras your shortlist of law firms provide. Some may give you the chance to go on secondment to a client, carry out pro bono work, or spend a seat overseas. These aren't the most important considerations but they may sway your decision between two firms.
Search for training contracts.
Understanding a company's ethos is essential to your success as a solicitor. You need to know how a firm operates, its reputation in the community and what the working culture is like. Researching these factors will give you a good idea if you'll fit in.
Use law fairs and open days to talk to current trainees. Ask them what the office atmosphere is like; are the people friendly and willing to help? Is there a clear hierarchy in the firm or are partners happy to socialise with the team? What is the work/life balance like?
Deciding what type of relationship you'd like to have with clients may also help to narrow down your options. In large firms you may get the chance to work with high-profile clients, but rarely with senior members of these organisations. If you'd prefer to have long-term, in depth relationships with senior members of a company smaller firms may suit you best.
Each law firm will have a personality of its own; all you need to do is find the right one to get along with.
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