Guide to Commercial Law Firms

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 size. For example, some will focus more on large international deals, while others will act for locally-based clients. Some firms have a bias towards litigation, while others handle transactional matters.

Another key factor to consider is a firms culture. Although this is more difficult to determine, a place on an open day or vacation scheme 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 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.

The Lawyer produces an annual survey, published in September, that includes all this information and much more on the UKs top 200 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 the categories with caution the list of firms in each is for guidance only and is by no means exhaustive.

The City elite: The phrase magic circle comes up a lot in the context of City law firms. It refers to 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 a global presence. Other major City firms known for their roles on high-profile deals and cases include Ashurst, Herbert Smith, Lovells, Simmons & Simmons and SJ Berwin.

National players: National firms have offices in more than one UK city and are typically headquartered outside the capital. National firm Addleshaw Goddard, for example, 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 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.

Regional giants: 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). A word of caution use the phrase regional firm with care because some firms think it has negative connotations.

International firms: US firms in London continue to make an impact and more than ever before are offering training contracts. 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. So do not be surprised if these firms have mostly English-qualified lawyers in their London offices.