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Is a career at a City law firm for you?

updated on 03 May 2022

Joining the big business world of City law is the goal for many aspiring lawyers. But how do you know if it’s for you?

Reading time: eight minutes

If you want to work on exciting deals with high-profile clients, the City might be calling your name; however, don’t for one minute imagine that you need a certain type of background. City recruiters know it’s about how far a person can go in future, not where they’ve come from.

The legal services sector is always undergoing plenty of change – for example, it is currently adapting to the challenges brought about by coronavirus, Brexit and the introduction of the new Solicitors Qualifying Exam.

As law firms weathered the impact of the pandemic over the past two years, many newly qualified (NQ) lawyers faced cuts to their salaries. However, more recently firms have reinstated NQ pay to above pre-pandemic levels – for example, NQ lawyers in Freshfield Bruckhaus Deringer LLP’s London office will receive a 25% salary increase to £125,000 from May 2022.

Several City firms also revealed plans to reduce office space, with magic circle firm Clifford Chance among several firms reportedly assessing the amount of office space required in a post-pandemic world following the introduction of hybrid working policies

Meanwhile, the Legal Services Board (LSB) revealed its new 10-year strategy in 2021, which includes goals to reduce unmet legal needs and greater quality in outcome and experience among those using legal services.

Further, in 2019 deregulation brought about by the Legal Services Act several years ago is still shaking up how services are delivered with alternative business structures (ABS) creating opportunities for non-legal organisations to provide legal services. In 2018 Deloitte was the last of the Big Four accountancy firms to be granted an ABS licence, allowing it to offer reserved legal activities, and in 2019 Sheffield Hallam University set up a fully functioning not-for-profit law firm using the ABS structure. Meanwhile, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives can now grant ABS licenses to legal executives.

Law firm mergers also continue to agitate the City waters. BLM and Clyde & Co LLP have announced that they will merge this summer (2022). Following votes by their respective partnerships, the merger will see a total headcount of more tan 5,000 with offices in 60 cities globally. The merger is predicted to make an annual turnover of around £735 million.

In terms of international firms, global outposts in the City continue to pursue business across the world, adjusting their regional and client sector focus to suit the shifting economy. The past few years have seen yet more firms enter the Australian legal market and office openings in North Africa, Asia and the Middle East. City firms evidently understand the importance of emerging opportunities around the world and this is one of their key selling points to prospective lawyers seeking internationally-oriented, dynamic careers. And, of course, you can’t forget about Brexit which continues to have far-reaching consequences across the world of law.

High workload, high reward

The City law career path has enduring appeal, despite the reputation among many City firms for long hours, late nights, and the other demands placed on solicitors. The career is undeniably exciting: perfect for those who like to challenge themselves and want to work in a 24/7 world that bridges countries and time zones.

On occasions – and reasonably often during a busy phase of the economy or a deal – a lawyer will have to deprioritise personal and social commitments in favour of their workload. The rewards for working in a firm as ambitious as you come in the shape of an impressive salary among other benefits, with firms in the City paying their trainees and newly-qualified lawyers very – and in some cases, extremely – well.

Take a look at our training contract directory for an idea of salaries and note that high-paying firms are likely to be among the most difficult to join. Yet many City lawyers will tell you that the biggest buzz comes from the incredible career experiences, job satisfaction, and working collaboratively with talented, motivated individuals, be they clients or other lawyers.

In recent years there has been an increased awareness of wellness in the workplace, with mental health at the forefront of many notable City firms’ initiatives. In fact, more than 80% of lawyers consider flexible working to be more important than salaries when job hunting, according to a recent report. The ‘work until you burn out’ ethos is no longer the assumed norm of City life, and plenty of firms now offer flexible working policies – with all firms having had to adopt such policies as a result of the government’s enforced covid-19 lockdowns during 2020 and 2021 – as well as workshops on mindfulness and managing stress, and training for employees to become mental health ambassadors and first aiders.

That’s not to say that all City lawyers are working less and feeling more zen because there will always be clients to please and work to be done, but it does mean that it might not be long before all firms are expected to be more flexible. In fact, a number of City firms have already implemented various flexible working options in light of the pandemic. At DAC Beachcroft LLP, staff in the UK and Ireland will have the choice between three types of work: office-based, fully flexible working or hybrid working.

What City firms are looking for

The process for entering the profession is highly competitive, perhaps more so now than ever before. Yet City recruiters want applicants with the right combination of talents and attitude.

All firms expect candidates to have:

  • an excellent academic record;
  • commercial mindset;
  • an international outlook;
  • attention to detail; and
  • ambition.

Each of these traits is important, whether you lean towards transactional work or disputes. An international outlook, for example, is crucial because most of your work in a City firm will be international. English law is frequently used to govern deals that have absolutely no link to the UK, simply because companies around the world have confidence in it. Scan through the English High Court's case lists, meanwhile, and you will find litigants from almost everywhere in the world. The City's law firms are working hard to ensure it stays that way, even in a post-Brexit London landscape.

International placements are widely available; indeed, at some City firms they are mandatory. Opportunities regularly crop up in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, plus there are a few in the United States. Does that mean you must be fluent in another language? Not necessarily. However, if you do speak a foreign language, an international firm is going to find this an interesting aspect of your skill set – particularly if you know some Mandarin, Arabic or Russian. That said, the language of business in most overseas offices is English, and plenty of trainees are seconded overseas without speaking the language.

To find out more about assessing your skillset and improving the areas that need work, read our Feature on how to demonstrate the key skills for law in applications.

Get a taste for the City at LawCareersNetLIVE

If reading the above has solidified that the City is where you want to be, and you have the excellent grades and work experience to back it up, you should consider applying to LawCareersNetLIVE student careers conference in London, which takes place later in the year – more details will be available on this as applications open in June. Sign up for a free MyLCN account to stay up to date.

The event provides candidates with the opportunity to meet and network with an elite group of City firms. In 2021, we hosted two in-person and one virtual event enabling candidates to talk to representatives from firms including Baker McKenzieKirkland & Ellis International LLP and Osborne Clarke LLP, as well as the chance to take part in interactive firm-led workshops and panel discussions with partners and recruiters in an environment they felt comfortable in.

To find out more and apply to attend when applications open in June, visit the LawCareersNetLIVE site. Get an idea of what the day entails by watching what previous delegates had to say about attending LawCareersNetLIVE.