There is a number of different types of law firm in the commercial arena, ranging from two-partner niche players to those with several hundred partners based in offices all
around the world.
There is a number of different types of law firm in the commercial arena, ranging from two-partner niche players to those with several hundred partners based in offices all around the world.
The types of firms you apply to will depend on location, practice areas available and indeed size. For instance, some will focus more on very large international deals, while others will only act for locally based clients. Meanwhile, some firms have more of a bias towards litigation, while others handle transactional matters.
Another key factor for you to consider is a firms culture. And although this is more difficult to determine, a place on an open day or vacation placement should give an idea of what your future colleagues might be like.
Rather than applying to hundreds of firms we advise that you decide on what kind of firm you want to train with and then apply to those in the same peer group. For instance, there is no point in applying to a magic circle firm if your heart is set on working outside the capital.
The UKs top 200 firms
The easiest way to categorise firms is by their size. But size can be measured in a number of different ways, including by turnover, partner profit, number of staff or number of offices.
Thankfully The Lawyer produces an annual survey that includes all this information and much more. In 2007 the survey was extended to include the UKs top 200 firms according to turnover. Go to the Law Firm Guide for a write-up on the financial performance of each of the top 200 firms and top 30 international law firms. To help you out we have put firms in the following categories. But as you will see, some firms straddle more than one. Also, please use our categories with caution, because the list of firms in each is for guidance only and is by no means exhaustive.
The City elite
The phrase magic circle will come up a lot in the context of City law firms, so it is worth noting from the outset that this has nothing to do with Derren Brown or his ilk. The magic circle is the group of firms considered to comprise the elite, bound together by their size and global reach. Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters comprise the magic circle and boast the four largest global turnovers. Some people include Slaughter and May in the magic circle, but we exclude it because, although there is no denying that it is an elite outfit, it lacks global presence.
National firms have offices in more than one UK City and are typically headquartered outside the capital. National firm Addleshaw Goddard, for instance, has offices in London, Manchester and Leeds. Other national firms include Eversheds, Hammonds and Pinsent Masons.
The perennial anomaly in this category is DLA Piper, which was created following the tie-up between legacy national firm DLA and US outfit Piper Rudnick, which in turn merged with Palo Alto-based Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich. The result was the creation of a top 10 global firm boasting almost 3,000 lawyers. DLA Piper, as it is now called, has remained loyal to its UK offices in cities including Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester, but at the same time has enjoyed a period of massive overseas expansion.
As previously discussed, there are plenty of reputable firms in the commercial arena that are headquartered outside London and which have very limited presences, if any at all, outside their home Cities.
Such firms include Dickinson Dees (Newcastle), Walker Morris (Leeds) and Wragge & Co (Birmingham). Another word of caution use the phrase regional firm with care, because some firms think it is has negative connotations.
US firms in London continue to make an impact and more than ever before are offering training contracts. As is the case with regional firms, some US firms prefer to be referred to as international.
US firms are usually categorised by the location of their head offices, including New York, Washington DC or the West Coast.
Many of these firms came about as a result of transatlantic mergers, including the likes of Dechert, Jones Day, Mayer Brown and most recently Reed Smith Richards Butler. So do not be surprised if these firms mostly have English-qualified lawyers in their London offices.
The key is to keep an eye on the legal press, as this will help you to find out which firms are merging or are launching new offices etc.
Structure of law firms
Law firms are structured as partnerships and should therefore never be referred to as companies. Most law firms are made up of equity partners (those at the top levels of partnership whose pay is made up entirely of profit) and salaried partners (those on the lower rung of partnership ladders whose pay is made up of a salary plus a share of the years profit). The average profit per equity partner figure is essentially the average amount paid to each equity partner.