UK vs. US Law Firms: The Big Debate
Posted by Tamara Salem
Each law firm, whether UK or US, has its own culture and way of working, and each individual firm comes with its pros and cons. However, there are general differences that you should consider when deciding whether to move from a UK to a US firm and vice versa. As an associate, your decision will ultimately come down to what type of person you are and what is important to you in your long-term legal career. Choosing your career path and deciding between a top UK or US law firm can seem daunting - our expert legal recruiters have put together some key information to help you make an informed decision. Salary Associates in US law firms have historically been paid much more than their counterparts in UK firms. The decision by New-York based Cravath Swaine & Moore to increase its first-year associate base salary to around £145k has been a ‘game-changer’, with White Shoe law firms increasingly paying ‘Cravath scale’ salaries as it has now become known in the market. In reality, no UK firm will ever be able to match the salaries offered by US firms and large UK law firms have done well to resist major NQ salary rises for this long, which has been primarily achieved by offering work-life balance and perks as opposed to simply cold cash. However, recent months have seen Freshfields followed by the other four Magic Circle law firms, as well as some Silver Circle firms, increase their salary for NQ lawyers to around £100k. So, while it is widely recognised that US law firms do pay more than their UK counterparts, the current UK legal market is also seeing considerable movement in terms of remuneration and benefits packages. Breadth of work If you want a role in an area that isn’t big-ticket transactional or mainstream litigation, you are looking in the wrong place with a US firm as there are some areas that US firms don’t tend to take as serious parts of practice. If you are looking to work in a relatively niche practice area, such as employment or intellectual property or private client, you are most likely to find a varied role that suits you within a UK law firm. However, for those lawyers who want to work on multi-million or billion-dollar/pound deals, US firms can provide this exposure which cannot be matched by most large UK law firms. Degree of responsibility To a degree, US firms can offer a greater degree of responsibility at an earlier stage in your career. This is partly because US firms tend to have a linear structure to their teams - instead of six associates as you may find in a UK firm, there may be only two or three. While it is important to mention that this is becoming less true of some firms, including Kirkland & Ellis and Latham & Watkins, this is the case for a significant number of US law firms. Due to the leaner structure of teams, you may find you have a greater degree of responsibility early on, which can be invaluable and an excellent catalyst for progressing your legal career. Progression Many people have the idea that US firms will push them up the ladder quicker. While this may be true in terms of initial responsibility and remuneration, it is also important to remember that as you move towards the senior end of your career where there is a huge demand placed on those aiming for Partnership, this ease of progression can skew in the other direction - potential Partners at US firms are expected to bring in more business than a UK centred firm. However, it is also true that fewer associates mean less competition for Partnership, a benefit of the structure of US law firms. In reality, the path to Partnership is tough at every firm, both UK and US, and depends heavily on your practice area and your individual team. Training and development While this very much depends on the firm, the team and the Partner, UK firms are ahead of most US firms when it comes to training for associates and have more resources available for development - associates at US law firms are not exposed to the same depth of training materials and advice as in large UK firms. US firms tend to focus on fee-earning and building a practice as many have been in London for a short period of time, whereas large UK firms have placed emphasis on training and development for decades, partly due to a larger number of Partners in UK law firms who can spend more time on associate development. However, US firms are self-aware in this regard and are making attempts to redress the imbalance. It seems that recently some of the more established US law firms in the London market are making roads to bridge this development gap and are placing more importance on associate training and development. Work-life balance Is it a generally agreed-upon view that UK law firms offer a better work-life balance. Typically you will work longer hours in US firms, most of whom expect a minimum of 2000 hours billed per year. In the practice areas typically covered by US firms, including corporate, banking and private equity, you will find yourself working longer hours which is due in part to the fewer number of associates per team. While, of course, it does depend on the individual firm, top-end UK city firms tend to offer employees better working hours and work-life balance. International opportunities and access to the US market Bigger deals tend to be in the US legal market, New-York in particular. New York is the largest financial and legal centre in the world, and therefore the value and profile of work that top US firms are able to attract can surpass what large UK firms are often doing in London and elsewhere in Europe. If you are looking for access to premium deals or international cross-border work, or even opportunities for international secondments in the States, working at a US firm might be the right choice for you. Office priority and power base One final thing to consider about working in a smaller London office of a big US firm is the office’s power base. Working for a US firm, you would need to be aware of how loud a voice the UK has in the wider firm as a whole entity. It is important to understand that the firm’s strategy will most likely come from overseas and may not take into account the idiosyncrasies of the London market, which could be perceived as a negative of working in the UK office of a large US law firm. On the other hand, if you work for a large UK law firm - a Magic Circle or Silver Circle firm for example - London is the centre of operations and the firm’s vision and strategy is formulated with the London market at the forefront. Of course, there will always be an element of internal politics - as in any law firm - but going into a UK law firm you can be sure that policy is being written by people in the UK legal market. Your choice of law firm must ultimately come down to what is important to you in your long-term legal career. If you are looking for a higher salary, early opportunities for responsibility and progression and international opportunities, a role at US law firm may be the right choice firm for you. Or if your priorities lie with a good variety of work, training and development and a better work-life balance, you may want to consider working for a top UK firm. For more information about this article or to discuss current opportunities in both UK and US law firms, contact Tamara on 020 7269 6368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.