Even if you’ve got your heart set on becoming a solicitor, choosing the type of law firm you want to work for can be difficult. Factors you’ll need to weigh up include location, size, range of practice areas (e.g. the type of work a firm specialises in), and salary.
You might not even want to work in a law firm; it is possible to train as a solicitor without working in one. Certain companies offer what are known as ‘in-house’ training contracts, though there is a very small number of these available.
Law firm location…
Firstly, location is a major factor. 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. Whilst 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.
Working in a firm’s London office also means being amongst the highest paid trainee solicitors in the country. Trainee solicitors in London are likely to pocket between £35,000 and £43,000, and possibly more if the firm is an American one.
Of course, London isn’t the only place you can work as a solicitor in England. The main “regional” locations include Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Oxford, but almost all British cities play host to some (small) law firms.
Some regional firms are headquartered in London with offices all over the world (e.g. DLA Piper, Pinsent Masons, Eversheds). Working somewhere of this nature makes it possible to be involved in international and high profile domestic work whilst having the opportunity to live outside of London. Whilst many other regional firms have offices in London, their main service area is elsewhere. For example, a firm like Browne Jacobson primarily serves the Midlands and somewhere like Dickinson Dees’ main focus is the Northeast. Salaries will vary from firm to firm, but somewhere in the region of £22,000-£30,000 annually can be expected as a regional trainee.
Practice areas of law…
Once you have an idea of where you wish to work, 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 which would offer you the best prospects for that discipline.
If you are yet to decide which areas of law really tickle your fancy (which is fine at this early stage), it is still advisable to find out as much as you can about the specialist areas of the firms you’re interested in. For example, a number of the top twenty firms in the City have their strength in corporate and finance practice. Whilst you could still train at one of these firms and qualify into pretty much any department, it is important to find out as much as you can about the main practice areas, especially if you attend an interview there.
Within the last couple of decades, a number of international – mainly American – law firms have set up shop in London. The main differences between American and English law firms is that trainees receive slightly higher salaries (above the £40k mark at most International firms) and newly qualified lawyers enjoy significantly higher pay (anywhere between £70k and £99k). The trainee intake tends to be smaller than UK firms. Whilst this means you’re likely to have less peers to socialise with, some argue that this results in trainees getting more attention from senior colleagues.
The main difference between training at a solicitors’ firm and in-house at a company is that with the latter you will be acting for one client the whole time: the company you’re training at.
As such, the work you do 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 like 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.
It’s worth remembering that you don’t have to train in-house if you wish to experience in-house law later on in your career. Indeed, a number of in-house solicitors trained at full service firms and made the move after a few years. If you would like a taste of this style of working without fully committing to in-house training, a number of City firms offer what are known as client secondments during a training contract. This typically means spending anywhere between three and six months with the legal team at a firm’s client.