Things to consider
First of all, it’s useful to consider what sort of law you’d like to experience. You don’t have to decide on the exact area you want to qualify in, as training contracts are designed to provide you with experience in at least three or four different areas. If you do, however, have an interest in a specific practice area, it makes sense to apply to firms that would offer you the best prospects for that discipline. Find out as much as you can about the specialist areas of the firms you’re interested in.
Your second area of research should be location, salary and lifestyle. Depending on the type of law firm you pick (more on that later), these three elements can differ vastly. It’s also a good idea to look at training-contract structure at your firms of interest. While the standard training contract will see you complete four seats over the course of two years, with each seat lasting six months, the structure at some firms may be slightly different. Without further ado, here are the various types of law firm you could end up working at.
London is host to a large number of law firms, generally known as ‘City law firms’. As London is considered a financial and cultural hub (home to the main offices of many banks and international organisations), many City firms boast a number of FTSE 100-listed companies as clients.
These firms are likely to have a number of offices abroad and engage in many international projects. While the majority of City firms offer a full range of services to all sorts of business sectors, some firms are known for specialising in certain practice areas, such as media law or medical law. If commercial law and clients that are big businesses and household names take your fancy, City firms are ideal for you.
These firms are the most attractive and in-demand places to begin your career. Your career with a City firm is likely to involve long working hours, good pay-scales and full funding and living expenses while you’re doing your Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and Legal Practice Course (LPC). The competition is extremely fierce, so you need to show outstanding potential and capabilities to get a foot in the door.
As the name suggests, these are firms primarily based in the US with offshoots opening in the UK and other EU countries. Some UK-based offices of US firms come into being via mergers; other offices open as a result of transatlantic expansion. This means you could be working for a firm that's been established in the UK for a long time, or a firm that's just expanded here.
The highest remuneration packages make these a very attractive destination for trainee solicitors, though the annual intake of new candidates is very small and exclusive. This reflects the smaller office sizes of UK offices of US firms: you can expect to be working with 100 people or fewer.
The kind of work available is mostly high-end corporate and commercial practice, as well as finance law. You'll be expected to put in long hours, but compared to other top firms in London, the workload isn't significantly more.
Some firms are transatlantic, like Womble Bond Dickinson, but their headquarters are actually based in the UK.
National law firms
These firms have a very well-developed network of offices in various regions in the UK and preferred-partner tie-ups overseas. The work available is a mix of commercial and general practice. The advantages of working for a national firm are reasonably good salary packages and a good work-life balance.
National law firms are also ideal for those who don't wish to work in London. Thanks to national law firms, there’s scope to work in a fairly large office in Bristol, Exeter, Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham, Manchester and more.
A regional firm’s expertise and business is confined to one or two regional hubs. The work is a mixture of domestic general practice and commercial work for locally-based companies and individual clients. If you want to serve individuals and smaller businesses such as start-ups and specialise in family or private-client law, regional firms may be for you. This could also be a good option if you’re content to stay on in the UK and insist on a good quality of life. Unlike a national firm, regional firms are unlikely to have a spread across the entire country, but they may have offices in selective international locations. Working somewhere of this nature makes it possible to be involved in international and high-profile domestic work while having the opportunity to live outside of London.
Within the last couple of decades, a number of international law firms have set up shop in London, either by expansion or via mergers. These are firms with multiple offices across all jurisdictions, and training with such a firm will give you a huge sense of how law works on a global scale. There's a lot of transnational work available if you work for one of these firms, with frequent travel being a significant highlight, as well as the chance to work for huge multi-national companies. You could even be in with the chance of going on international secondment to a different jurisdiction. You'll also get the opportunity to familiarise yourself with legal systems across the world. Knowledge of languages other than English is a definite advantage.
Doing a training contract at an international firm will give you exposure to a variety of different practice areas. From an early stage, you’ll be expected to be flexible, working with colleagues in different time zones and acclimatising to different cultures.
Niche boutique firms
These are firms that specialise in a few selected areas of practice, such as sports and media or IT and telecommunications law. Only people interested in the particular work areas in which these firms specialise should apply. Candidates with other-industry experience will usually find it easier here.
In-house legal departments
The work you do in an in-house legal department will be in line with the company’s day-to-day business. For example, if you were to work at a financial institution such as Barclays Capital, you can expect to do more work in areas such as finance, corporate and tax than real estate and IP. Also, you would be part of a small legal team within a large organisation, rather than simply being one of a few hundred lawyers in a large law firm.
Not many training contracts will be available in the in-house legal departments of large companies; it’s more likely that you can find a work placement here as part of your training contract with the City law firms.
This is more of an avenue for solicitors who’ve gathered some experience at law firms and now wish to concentrate on areas specific to the companies’ interests. The quality of work-life balance and good income prospects are the two major factors in deciding to work as an in-house lawyer.
These are local firms, usually operating out of a single office, and the practice is normally a mix of family, criminal, private client and taxation law. The salaries are less generous than other kinds of firms, but trainees will be able to gather expertise and contacts much quicker. The working hours are normally much shorter than would be expected at one of the bigger firms.
A few training contracts are available each year in this sector, typically with local legal councils, the Government Legal Service and other public bodies such as the Crown Prosecution Service.
Next article: Finding your feet: the first month as a trainee