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Are US law firms really so different from UK ones?

Are US law firms really so different from UK ones?

Juliet

11/10/2019

Towards the beginning of my first year of university, I attended a careers dinner with a major law firm. Keen to show off almost the only piece of information I’d learned about this firm in advance – namely, the fact that it was headquartered in the United States – I asked a partner attending the dinner about the differences between US and UK firms. As politely as possible, the partner laughed off my question. As he saw it, it is impossible to generalise about the differences between working in the UK office of a US firm and working in the UK office of a domestic firm.

However, having looked into the subject a little more thoroughly than I had before that day, I can’t help but notice that even people who have experienced both insist that, in many cases, differences exists. In this article, I’ve chosen three of the differences most often talked about, and tried to separate the facts from the fiction.

Training contracts

Inevitably, firms for which a UK office is one of many regional centres will, on average, have fewer London-based lawyers, and therefore a smaller trainee intake in the United Kingdom compared with firms whose UK office is their headquarters. Latham & Watkins offer 24 training contracts, Kirkland & Ellis approximately 10 training contracts and Shearman and Sterling 12 to 15 training contracts. White & Case buck the trend somewhat by recruiting approximately 50 trainees each year, but even this number is smaller than the number recruited by Clifford Chance, Herbert Smith Freehills and Pinsent Masons (ie, 80, 60 and 71, respectively). This can mean that there is a less rigid division in US firms between the kind of work undertaken by trainees and that which is assigned to associates, simply because the number of trainees in each team is so small. As a result, trainees may have more frequent direct contact with clients. On the other hand, some budding lawyers might be hesitant about joining a firm with fewer people of a similar age to them.

Training programmes

Smaller trainee intakes make it less cost effective to run formal training programmes. Therefore, on-the-job training is likely to be even more important in the UK offices of US-based firms than in domestic firms’ offices. However, this isn’t universally true. Latham & Watkins, for instance, allows trainees to sit on committees, giving them the potential to influence the style of training they receive.

Salaries

The rumour that US law firms tend to pay more is to some extent backed up by the figures. Whereas UK-based Magic Circle firms pay newly qualified associates between £80,000 and £90,000 (excluding any bonuses), White & Case and Jones Day both pay £105,000 and Kirkland & Ellis pays $190,000. However, this doesn’t take into account any differences in the size or likelihood of bonuses, and for almost all budding lawyers, salary will play a minor part in influencing their decision as to which firm to apply to.