Author: Hemant Chauhan
A packed-out venue emerged on Thanksgiving, Thursday 23 November, at Barbri International’s London office, held by Legal Cheek. I travelled on a wintery, cold, evening for this event, as an ambitious postgraduate law student. Several ambitious law students of all backgrounds crowded to Legal Cheek’s event entitled ‘Why US law firms are thriving in London’. A panel of four experienced lawyers were present to instigate the question-style structure to explore the realms of American law and their imminent presence in England’s capital. Speakers included the following:
- Competition law and graduate recruitment partner James Webber of Shearman & Sterling, one of the longest established US firms in London;
- Restructuring partner Daniel Martin of Ropes & Gray, which now offers seven training contracts annually in London;
- Shearman & Sterling trainee, Michael Poolton
- Vivian Ji, a US and Chinese qualified attorney who manages Barbri International’s legal education programme having previously worked for Baker McKenzie and practised in-house at United Technologies.
The key themes that were discussed were the culture of US-based firms v UK-based law firms. Further, they explored why US firms have been doing so well during recent years. The implications of Brexit; efficiency, technology and the future, and advice for training contract applications. Over the last few years US-based international law firms have poured resources into London, boosting their office sizes, developing trainee programmes and raiding UK rivals for some of their best talent. With newly qualified solicitor salaries at these firms considerably higher than the rates paid by magic circle rivals — and recently rising further — the dynamics of legal graduate recruitment are shifting. What’s more, the training infrastructure at many US firms’ increasingly chunky London offices is now as well developed as many UK outfits, while the route to partnership is ever more well-defined.
One key factor discussed was remuneration. Many of the leading US firms have higher remuneration rates than the UK firms in London. This is a significant factor, perhaps, as to why they are thriving. When starting salaries for junior lawyers in New York were bumped up to $180,000 in 2016, a round of hefty pay rises followed in London thrusting a whole whack of NQs onto £100,000-plus pay. They have smaller trainee intakes, and generally provide far greater autonomy to trainee solicitors and junior associates. Trainees are almost treated as associates from the outset. They are awarded far greater trust and responsibility. This, in turn, allows junior lawyers to mould their own path and develop their career at an early stage. For further economic strengths, please see this excellent article written by Robert Millard. https://www.mollercentre.co.uk/insights/colonising-london-the-us-law-firms-that-are-conquering-the-london-legal-market/
Part and parcel of the distinction is within the American culture that is innate within the London offices of the US giants. There is an embedded flat structure, and smaller teams. One of the panel members commented that the contrast with the UK City firms is the larger numbers which are discombobulated with production-line style tasks in a pyramid structure. Tasks in the US firms are distributed more equally, where trainees and associates can work within an equal structure. The quality of work is exceptional in US firms. One point to consider is the avoidance of M&A work, where many of the established UK firms have long-term relationships with big institutional, corporate clients. Private equity and energy work have become more streamlined with the US firms in London, in order to develop their practice in the States and, in particular, New York. Dual-qualification is always useful. The speakers noted that a number of US firms in London are willing to recruit New York and English qualified lawyers in particular areas such as bonds, high yield capital markets and international arbitration.
It was a wonderful event to attend, and provided a great wealth of knowledge about US firms in London, and their comparison to UK City firms. Certainly it provides the ambitious law student plenty of options to consider and reflect, and which particular firms to target in their search for that elusive training contract.