What is it really like to work at a US firm? An NQ’s perspective

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By Legal Cheek on

The hours, the responsibility, the holidays, the money


Legal Cheek recently ran the open thread ‘What is it like to work at a US firm in London?’, handing over to our commenters to share anecdotes, experiences and advice. With over 110 comments, this came aplenty, but there was one particular comment that caught our eye. Written by an anonymous user who describes him or herself as “a junior”, here is the — often difficult — reality of life in a US corporate law firm.

As unbiased a view as I can give from the perspective of a junior:

“My average day is probably around 10am – 9.30pm. This will frequently be far later, with up until 2am relatively normal. Beyond 2am is abnormal and only in dire circumstances. I occasionally have nothing to do, in which case I will try to leave at 6, though am aware that if I am seen doing this too often everyone will clock I’m quiet and consequently dump disproportionate amounts of work on me. I tend to work a couple of hours on a weekend, whilst I work substantially more than this on around 1 in 3 weekends. I rarely make evening plans as I will often have to cancel them at short notice, though usually can work around work should it be needed on weekends. I have never worked an all nighter.

My holidays are usually respected, though those of colleagues are frequently disturbed. I am aware that the firm views this as acceptable on the basis of what we are paid and the nature of the clients we have. If I have to work more than a couple of hours on a day off I am given a day off in lieu.

I am paid a lot of money (easily in six figures) and get a bonus which is far more than my contemporaries at magic circle firms. I estimate I probably in total earn at least £50k more than they do when salary, bonus and tangible perks are considered. Financially, I would struggle to do much better. My pension is terrible as US firms frequently offer the statutory minimum, but that is taken into account in the £50k figure above.

I have far less access to meaningful support than I would get at a UK firm I suspect. Secretarial support out of 9-5 is limited, we have far fewer paralegals and often they have no capacity to help. At times (especially as a trainee) I am in the office late doing menial tasks simply because there was nobody else to do them. We have little in the way of precedents and a skeleton library provision in London. Most of the support functions are based in the US, meaning that London is usually not a priority and this reflects in responsiveness/helpfulness.

I am given an insane level of responsibility, and have been since the day I turned up. As a trainee I was doing the sort of work friends at the magic circle weren’t touching until they were a year qualified, and was expected to do it well. As a trainee I was negotiating with magic circle lawyers who were three years qualified — I was hurled in the deep end with nowhere to hide and all the pressure that entails. In terms of experience I doubt I could be in a better position had I gone elsewhere; the type of deals are the cream of the crop, the role I play in the much smaller team is always integral despite my grade. Even as a trainee, I was actually an important part of the team. I have little doubt I would be well placed to pursue roles elsewhere or in-house thanks to this experience.

Client contact has been almost constant from the day I turned up as a trainee. On my second week I was told to call a client with my supervisor sat next to me and explain a fairly complex point to them with 10 minutes warning and told the message I should take from the experience was that I needed to be able to keep things moving if the partner or associate running the deal were to die or become ill. It was good advice and reflects the general ethos of totally immersing yourself in deals or cases. I doubt if I would have this level of client contact/involvement if I worked at a non-US firms.

I have access to a limited programme of in-house seminars, though most of my training as an associate and previously as a trainee has been on the job. I am rarely shown how to do something, rather left to figure it out myself. This independence has undoubtedly made me a better lawyer, but is not for everyone.

My colleagues are, like most workplaces, a very mixed bunch. Some are psychopaths who shout and scream, most are normal functioning human beings who are perhaps slightly intense or simply want money. I have more access to partners than I think I would get elsewhere, which is a mixed blessing. There is little focus on political correctness or strong HR procedures regarding the treatment of employees, meaning some outrageous behaviour does occur and get tolerated. Most of us are there for the money, for differing reasons. I want to pay most of my mortgage off.”

You can access the full Legal Cheek open thread here.