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Is a career at a City law firm for you?

updated on 11 July 2023

Joining the big business world of City law is the goal for many aspiring lawyers. But how do you know if it’s right 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. City recruiters are always on the look out for exciting, new talent who are enthusiastic about working for a City law firm. However, working out whether a career in the City is the right path for you isn’t easy. Read our insights below and find out how attending LawCareersNetLIVE London can support your decision.

The legal services sector is always undergoing plenty of change – for example, it’s currently adapting to the challenges brought about AI, climate-related goals and the  Solicitors Qualifying Exam.

As law firms weathered the impact of the pandemic, many newly-qualified (NQ) lawyers faced cuts to their salaries. However, as the pandemic eased, firms began to reinstate NQ salaries with a pay war taking off as firms battled it out to secure the best future talent. Earlier this year, both Linklaters LLP and Allen & Overy LLP increased their NQ lawyer salaries to £125,000 to match magic circle counterparts Clifford Chance and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP.

In a similar vein, as many employees continue to work from home in some capacity, there are questions about the confidential data at risk, productivity and more. That said, hybrid working does seem set to stay with many City firms still trying to work out the best solution for themselves, employees and clients.

Firms are also under pressure to address the climate crisis, with City law firms Clyde & Co LLP and Taylor Wessing among six others to have launched Legal Charter 1.5 – an initiative designed to help firms’ commitment to fighting climate change. The charter outlines eight core principles, including reducing internal emissions, reducing global emissions and education across the legal profession, which are underpinned by corresponding projects to focus firms’ efforts and ensure targets are met.

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. In fact, in May 2023 magic circle law firm Allen & Overy revealed that plans are underway for it to merge with New York-based Shearman & Sterling LLP in a deal that’ll establish a legal practice with a combined revenue of around $3.4 billion.

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 its reputation for long hours, late nights, and the other demands placed on its 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 NQ 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’s been an increased awareness of wellness in the workplace, with mental health at the forefront of many notable City firms’ initiatives and a key factor in aspiring lawyers’ research into firms. In fact, generation Z lawyers are more likely to prioritise greater work/life balance over big firms, according to a report carried out by leading recruitment firm Major, Lindsey & Africa. When researching firms, aspiring lawyers are taking more into consideration than just the size of the firm and the opportunities it might offer, with 80% of respondents saying that they believe a “sexist culture” exists within the profession and 65% saying they take a firm’s racial, ethnic and gender makeup into consideration when making applications.

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, 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’ll 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.

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;
  • an analytical mind; 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’ll 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’re mandatory. Opportunities regularly crop up in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, plus there are a few in the US. 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 or Arabic. 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 skill set 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 our LawCareersNetLIVE student careers conference in London, which this year will be taking place on Friday 1 December at County Hall – applications are now open and will close on Thursday 26 October. That said, we encourage applicants to apply early because offers are made on a rolling basis. 

Sign up for a free MyLCN account to stay up to date and read our five tips for flawless LawCareersNetLIVE applications to give yourself the best chance of success.

The event provides candidates with the opportunity to meet and network with an elite group of City firms. In 2022, we hosted two in-person and one virtual event enabling candidates to talk to representatives from firms, including Baker McKenzieRopes & Gray 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 about the event and how to apply, visit the LawCareersNetLIVE site. Get an idea of what the day entails by watching what previous delegates had to say about attending LawCareersNetLIVE.