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Husnara Begum, owner & careers consultant

Law firms in the commercial arena come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from two partner niche players to those with several hundred partners based in offices scattered all around the globe. When determining which firms to apply to, as well as size, it’s worth looking into other differentiators, including location of headquarters and geographic spread of other offices, core practice areas and / or sectors, rankings in the legal directories, typical clients and indeed culture. Much of this can be gleaned by desk-based research but to get a proper sense of a firm’s culture I’d recommend meeting its people by participating in an open day or vacation scheme.

Avoid the scatter gun

Rather than a scatter gun approach, start by deciding what kind of firm you want to train with and then apply to others in the same peer group. For instance, if your heart is set on training with a magic circle firm it makes sense making approaches to all five. Meanwhile, if you want to join a US firm with a strong reputation in private equity then your short-list should include Kirkland & Ellis, Latham & Watkins, Sidley Austin and White & Case to name but a few.

I also want to note here that for some of you it might be more realistic to apply to lower ranking firms and then to move up the food chain once you’ve gained some post qualified experience. Loads of lawyers in my network started their legal careers in smaller firms, or indeed, outside London before progressing onto the City elite. In other words, it’s unlikely that you’ll spend the entire duration of your legal career working for the same law firm!

Size isn’t everything

The easiest way to categorise law firms is based on their size. But size can be measured in several different ways including by turnover, partner profit, headcount, number of offices, size of typical deals and not to mention the number of training contract and vacation scheme vacancies. Other numerical measures include trainee solicitor and NQ salaries, chargeable hours targets and NQ retention rates.

For more data on your short-listed law firms and other key differentiators check out and for their annual surveys on the financial health of the UK’s top commercial law firms, which include rankings based on turnover and partner profit. But remember size isn’t everything and contrary to what I thought bigger doesn’t necessarily equate to better.

To help you out I’ve put firms in the following broad categories but as you’ll soon discover some straddle more than one.

The magic circle & international firms

The phrase magic circle comes up a lot in the context of City law firms so it’s worth noting from the outset that this has nothing to do with Darren brown or his ilk. The magic circle is the group of firms considered to comprise the elite bound together by their size and global reach. It comprises Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May.

Away from the magic circle, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to group commercial law firms. That’s because many that existed when I was practising as a lawyer and during my stint as a legal journalist have merged or been swallowed up by non-London headquartered outfits. Global giants that have been created via tie-ups between UK and non-UK based firms include DLA Piper; Herbert Smith Freehills; Hogan Lovells; Jones Day; Norton Rose Fulbright; Reed Smith; SNR Dentons; and Squire Patton Boggs.

That being said, not all City law firms have opted for international expansion. The most notable examples being Macfarlanes and Travers Smith. Whilst others, including Charles Russell Speechlys; Clyde & Co; CMS; and DAC Beachcroft have completed domestic mergers.

National and Regional Firms

Not all aspiring commercial lawyers need to follow in the footsteps of Dick Whittington and head to London. There are plenty of reputable law firms operating out of other major UK cities, including Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, and Newcastle. What’s more, some have also grown via overseas mergers – the most notable examples being Gowling WLG and Eversheds Sutherland.

A health-warning: avoid using ‘national’ and ‘regional’ when describing law firms because some are a bit sensitive about being given such a label as they believe this downplays their strengths in the international arena. Similarly, some US headquartered firms see themselves as ‘international’ and don’t take warmly to being described as US. Confusing I know, so if in doubt mimic the language each individual firm uses to describe itself.

US firms

These days the City is awash with US law firms but much like their UK counterparts these too vary greatly in size and make-up. Most, however, are typically categorised by the location of their head office (New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington DC or the West Coast). Such firms tend to differ in terms of the size of their London office, culture, client base and key practice areas when compared against those created by transatlantic mergers. That being said, some US firms have achieved a sizeable presence in London through organic growth and in turn offer as many training contract places as mid-sized City law firms.