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Biggest isn’t always best: how mid-sized City firms are drawing legal talent away from BigLaw

updated on 11 October 2023

Reading time: five minutes

The impact of the pandemic on how we view and think about work has proven to be long lasting. In the legal sector, MLA’s recent generation Z (gen Z) survey revealed that 69% of gen Z lawyers believed that the pandemic influenced what they value in an employer.

In the wake of the pandemic, the legal sector experienced a frenzy of hiring activity with many associates entering the world of BigLaw. Now, however, we’re seeing a large number of associates rethinking their priorities and their decisions, as the enduring interest in a well-balanced, sustainable, and varied career path leads them to consider whether BigLaw is truly right for them. Mid-sized City firms are readily taking advantage of this trend.

While unable to go toe to toe with large and international firms on salaries, mid-City firms have established a presence as an alternative option that can offer lawyers greater variety and a more sustainable career. This shouldn’t be misconstrued as being an easy ride, as mid-City firms can still offer the challenging and complex work that lawyers typically enjoy and thrive on. However, the different opportunities and working conditions that they can offer are increasingly drawing the attention of associates who are questioning whether a short and potentially exhausting run at a larger firm is for them.

Flexibility and stability

The conversation around flexible working arrangements continues to be a key sticking point in the world of work, with MLA’s gen Z survey finding that 60% of respondents would trade a portion of their compensation for a flexible work schedule. Mid-City firms have tuned in to this and many consider it a key factor that distinguishes them from their larger counterparts. While many large firms are starting to push to more days in the office, mid-City firms are prioritising a focus on providing sustainability and longevity with regard to a career path, factoring in how flexible working policies can support this.

 Another issue that has become a widespread concern for associates is the possibility of redundancies, which have increased across larger law firms in recent times. When looking to expand headcount, mid-City firms put a strong emphasis on utilisation rates to ensure that there’s a substantial workload for new hires to be involved with, minimising the possibility that a new joiner will soon find themselves with little to be working on. This use of utilisation rates is also helping mid-City firms keep track of working hours and ensuring that people’s workloads remain balanced and manageable.

Leadership opportunities

Another opportunity that many candidates are drawn to is the chance to play a greater leadership role within a firm itself at an earlier stage in their career. In many BigLaw firms, these opportunities are scarce, and the path to partnership is often highly competitive and selective. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a trend of mid-City firms increasingly offering first-step partnership opportunities to senior associates, which for those who want to step up sooner is a highly attractive offer.

Mid-City firms are also typically better positioned to offer their people opportunities to have a say in the running of the firm itself. Because they’re typically headquartered in London, important decisions about the firm and its future aren’t made in faraway boardrooms or by senior leadership overseas. This often serves to empower lawyers to weigh in on the running of the firm, its culture, and its future, in many cases inspiring a greater sense of ownership and loyalty.

In terms of client work, lawyers who’ve made the move to mid-City firms are often provided with a greater platform to manage high-level client relationships as well. In many cases, associates can serve as advisors to CEOs and business owners directly on high-level matters, almost acting as an extension of the business’ in-house legal team. Whereas at larger firms, it’s often the exclusive remit of a senior level partner to liaise with business owners, mid-City firms often work with founders from the early stages of a business, allowing associates greater exposure to their clients’ senior leadership.

Training opportunities

Our recent millennial survey found that 66% of millennial lawyers consider the role of an informal mentor significant or crucial, and a significant aspect of this is the informal training and development opportunities available to lawyers, which is increasingly a priority for legal talent looking for a new firm.

Mid-City firms, owing to a culture of more balanced working hours, are often able to supplement this informal training with a more organised approach to formal learning, training and development. This goes a step further to fulfilling the increasing desire for development opportunities that’s growing among lawyers, especially as many start to question the quality of training they have had at large law firms amid a busy few years.  

Mid-City firms are also better positioned to allow and even encourage associates to be involved with business development at an earlier stage in their careers. The greater emphasis on balanced working hours is proving key to facilitating this, and mid-City firms have shown a willingness to award associates in following their sense of entrepreneurialism and interest in learning about business development with bonuses available for junior lawyers who can play a role in winning new business.

There are many aspects to a career at a mid-sized City firm that are turning the heads of legal talent who’ve come to doubt their decision to enter into the world of BigLaw. Mid-City firms are becoming increasingly aware of these factors and are successfully tailoring their offering to capitalise on this. Associates are increasingly realising that when it comes to choosing a firm, bigger isn’t always better.

Ria Karnik is a managing director at Major, Lindsey & Africa.