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Booming in Bristol: Should junior lawyers shun London for the West Country?

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City’s six-figure salaries will boost your ego but little else

Famously, London was once described as “a splendid place to live in for those who can get out of it”. Now, with average one-bed rent a whopping £1,250 a month and the average London house deposit setting you back £100,000, the feat is as much getting into the City as it is getting out.

But fear not, trainees and junior lawyers — law is among the highest-paying professions in the country. A third of lawyers earn £100,000 and some firms even pay more than this on qualification. If you stick around long enough, partners in the City earn into the millions, so it’s a safe bet for Big Smoke domination, right? Right?

Not according to one trainee, earning about £50,000 and set to make in excess of £70,000 on qualification. She begrudged on her Twitter account:

With even top-earning lawyers unable to get onto the London property ladder, and in total contrast from City Hall’s ‘London is Open’ campaign, the capital has erected a sort of ‘financial fence’ around its parameters. Or, in the words of journalist and author Caitlin Moran in a column aptly (and sort of apocalyptically) called ‘LONDON IS DYING’, “no one new is being let in, any more — unless, of course, they are oligarchs, or of the bonus class, who may helicopter over the gates, at will. No one I know can afford to move here… They are locked out.”

Following a death comes grief and mourning, but not for Moran, she says:

“It’s good news for Britain. A million ideas a week that would, previously, have migrated to London will now remain in their home towns, and make those towns glorious instead. As London, glassy-eyed and compulsive, begins to eat its own heart out, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Sheffield, Liverpool, Cardiff and Plymouth will rise again.”

‘Rising’ too are these cities’ legal districts. There are major UK firm offices in the likes of Birmingham and Manchester, but note the sheer number of major corporate outfits inside Bristol’s borders, including: Burges Salmon, Osborne Clarke, CMS and TLT. Simmons & Simmons recently announced its Bristol expansion, while RPC just this week revealed it would be reinstating its Bristol training contract programme. Clyde & Co will be opening an office there soon, too.

The word ‘regional’ has strangely come to be used as an insult in the legal profession, yet the Bristol trainees we’ve spoken to had little but praise for the ‘City-quality work without the City-style hours hitch’ combo boasted by their firms. “Genuinely interesting work”, “independence earlier on in [your] career” and “a far better work-life balance” are all trumpeted by one regional trainee. Another adds:

“I had already worked for three years in London prior to getting my training contract in Bristol. Most of my friends trained at City firms and I also had an offer from one; I made the choice based on my own happiness, geography and the firm. I like the sea, surfing and cities, and in Bristol I can combine the three. It is a very easy going and cool place to live. London is cool, it is not easy going and I did not want to spend my twenties in an office. I don’t believe you become a better lawyer by staying later and I don’t believe you gain happiness or fulfilment from the inside of Liverpool Street Station.”

Perhaps it’s small wonder Burges Salmon won Legal Cheek‘s Firm of the Year gong in 2017 and is up for the prize again this year (alongside Osborne Clarke and RPC).

But, to some of you, all these perks are nothing on the absolutely mental salaries you can expect in London. As mentioned, some London firms pay in excess of £100,000 on qualification. In Bristol, a big corporate outfit will pay you half of that (if you’re lucky).

A basic comparison of the pay packets clearly crowns London the higher payer, but, to use a common phrase, it’s about quality, not quantity. A Bristol NQ’s approximate £50,000 a year salary, which is £3,065 per month after tax, will stretch far further. The maths, albeit very crude maths, bears it out.

In Bristol, one-bed rents will set you back an average of £818 in the city centre or £680 outside of it. It took me minutes to find a one-bed flat on Zoopla for £775 per month, this being a six-minute walk to the city’s main station, nine minutes to Burges Salmon, seven to Osborne Clarke or 15 to CMS (zero commuting costs). If you’re willing to travel a little further afield, here’s a one-bed flat for £475 that’s a 27-minute walk from the station, or another for £450 that’s a 35-minute walk from the station.

Sticking with our close-to-work Zoopla property above, a £50,000-earning NQ will be left with roughly £2,290 a month after rent. The average deposit needed to buy a house in the city is about £24,000. If you stowed all of your £2,290 away after rent (not realistic I know, but let’s keep the maths simple) you’d have a Bristol deposit saved in ten months. If you’re on £40,000 in Bristol — a city that recently won the ‘Coolest city in Europe’ award — that’s around £1,755 after rent. With that, it’d take you 14 months to save for an average Bristol deposit.

The London housing market, by comparison, is indefensibly expensive. One-beds range from £825 a month in Bexley to £1,950 in Kensington and Chelsea, with the average coming out at £1,250. (In Bristol, you could expect to snap up a two-bed riverside house or a detached four-bed for the same price.)

The riverside house you could rent in Bristol for £1,250 versus a student flat we found for the same price in London

On a £70,000 salary in London, you’d be on give or take £4,032 a month. If you were to live in the cheapest borough, Bexley, you’d have £3,207 left over, and it’d take you 31 months to reach the average, six-figure deposit. If you lived in an averagely-priced London property, you’d have £2,782 left over at the end of the month, so that’s 36 months of saving to do.

As for top NQ pay in London, you’ll earn around £5,481 a month if your salary is £100,000. You’ll be left with £4,231 a month after average rent, which if you saved every penny means you could put an average London deposit down in 24 months. If you’re on £140,000 — which crazily some firms do pay their London NQs — you’ll be on about £7,032 a month. If you saved all of this every month, you’d have £100,000 in 14 months. But, with average rent factored in, it would take you 17 months.

This means even an NQ on the highest wage in the City would be unable to save up for an average London deposit quicker than a Bristol NQ on £40,000 would be able to save up for an average Bristol deposit. Of course, none of these calculations have factored in: average commuting costs, bills and expenses, which will also be far higher in London. They also only look at one-bed flats (which aren’t very amenable to families) and average rents and deposits (I assume many of our readers would have their sights set higher).

The maths is stark but, of course, it cannot capture the multi-faceted reasons someone may want to train and work in London (in other words, God forbid, money isn’t everything).

The 2018 Firms Most List

“The idea of London as glamorous”, it offering “the most interesting and challenging work”, “job prospects in general” and “international secondment chances” are all mentioned by one soon-to-be lawyer in defence of the Big Smoke. And maybe, some people just kind of like it as a city. One trainee says:

“I think London is pretty cool; I’m a Tottenham Hotspur fan, love the theatre and a load of my best mates from uni are here now too. I’ve also been coming here since I was wee with my family…. I never really expected to be in a position to be in the house market until I was like 30 anyway, as it just seems a fact of life for our generation — house ownership was never a priority for me.”

Of course, a training contract and NQ role in London doesn’t mean a life led there, too.

“I don’t plan on staying in London forever. Quite frankly, I don’t even like it that much,” says one trainee I spoke to for this piece, “I decided to do my TC in the City largely for financial reasons. I’ve heard that if you train in London, you can be poached by regional firms for high salaries — higher than if you had trained in those firms. I think in ten years, maybe less, I’d like to move somewhere that can offer a better quality of life, even if that means taking a significant pay cut.”

On paper it’s a smart move but — as discussed in a recent Legal Cheek podcast, embedded below — a ‘work now, live later’ attitude to life can, unfortunately, sometimes prove misguided. (We have come full circle to my first line of this piece: that London is “a splendid place to live in for those who can get out of it”.)

That’s because it doesn’t work economically. Data shows there’s a strong positive correlation between earning more and needing more to get by, known as the ‘decreasing marginal utility of income’. “Once you’re half way up the ladder, it’s very difficult to come down,” the research concludes. Publisher Alex Aldridge, speaking in the above podcast, puts it in more real-world terms:

“What I’ve seen is that often people who have started on a certain path with the intention to do something later, ‘I’ll just get the money and then I’ll do something later’, it hasn’t worked out that way in the end. You get into your big, high-earning City job, and you get a big mortgage and then on top of that, perhaps the partner you’re with will have certain expectations and you get used to this certain lifestyle which is quite expensive and you’re reliant on your salary.”

London, throughout history, has been described as “a world within itself”, “a roost for every bird” and “a modern Babylon”. If you like it, you like it; this piece won’t change your mind on that. But if you find the City smoke choking and the skyscrapers give you vertigo, know that Bristol is calling. And with its happy trainees, high-quality work and per-pound value, maybe you should answer.

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53 Comments

Anonymous

Caitlin Moran is right, London is dying

(7)(1)

Not Amused

Caitlin Moran has moved in to middle age. When that happens to people they tend to believe all sorts of things they enjoyed as young person are dead.

If the middle aged person is a narcissist with the ability to broadcast their personal opinions then they tend to speead their false message.

But dissemination does not make an idea true.

(10)(9)

Anonymous

Mutatis mutandis:

Not Amused has moved in to middle age. When that happens to people they tend to believe all sorts of things they enjoyed as young person are dead.

If the middle aged person is a narcissist with the ability to broadcast their personal opinions then they tend to speead their false message.

But dissemination does not make an idea true.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I agree. And I think it is of great benefit to the UK if our young people stop moving to London in droves. I long for a country where all the best jobs aren’t in one place.

Having said that, let’s face it, everywhere else is basically a bit sh1t compared to London. You can’t even get a decent flat white in the provinces – they give you some weird concoction about twice the size it should be, that tastes of instant coffee. And their idea of a good night out is eating in a chain restaurant.

There are exceptions, I’m thinking in particular the cooler bits of Manchester and Liverpool. But most of it is a bit of a come down – I’m glad I’ve at least spent my 20s in the capital.

(11)(20)

Farmer John LL.B (Hons)

It’s perfectly possible to get a good coffee in Bristol; we just don’t tell you City folk where the best cafés are because we don’t want the taste of smug mixed in with our crema. Some of us even have coffee cup holders in our tractors.

(24)(5)

Anonymous

Admit it, you had to google what a flat white was.

(6)(6)

London or bust

Went to Bristol for an event recently. Heard the accent for the first time as I exited the platform and immediately purchased a ticket for the next train out of the city.

Don’t live in a city where everyone sounds like an extra from the Pirates of the Caribbean.

(56)(10)

Anonymous

“Perhaps it’s small wonder Burges Salmon won Legal Cheek‘s Firm of the Year gong in 2017 and is up for the prize again this year (alongside Osborne Clarke and RPC).”

Perhaps it’s small wonder that all three firms up for the “prize” extensively sponsor this dross and pay for several puff pieces a year…, but you know, perhaps…

(42)(5)

Anonymous

No.

(0)(10)

Anonymous

Interesting that no one has pointed out that the lawyer in this story from yesterday https://www.legalcheek.com/2018/02/zombie-corporate-lawyer-avoids-being-struck-off-for-dishonesty-after-being-left-physically-and-emotionally-drained-by-workload/ appears to have worked in the South West.

(6)(0)

Anonymous

They have also won or nearly won Roll on Friday’s firm of the year for the last few years. Sure that’s all sponsorship too?

(1)(1)

Trendspotter 5000

>imagine admitting to the fact that you’re at a firm that only pays 70k to its trainees a year

(4)(6)

Anonymous

£50k as an NQ is not the Bristol average. Think £35k-£40k.

(21)(1)

Anonymous

As with London, it depends on where in the market the firm is. But any firm that prospective London trainees will look at pays at least £45k (£45k TLT, £48k Burges Salmon, £50k OC etc etc). Obviously you wouldn’t expect that much from Barcan+Kirby.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

I think Simmons pays £50k in Bristol but doubt many do

(2)(0)

Anonymous

I can say with absolutely certainty that all of CMS, RPC, Simmons, OC, and Burges Salmon pay £48k p/a or more.

(3)(0)

OC NQ

NQs at OC are on 50.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

RPC pay £35K first year, £36K second year in Bristol.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Ignore that, just realised you were talking about NQs not TCs

(1)(0)

Anonymous

This is a great article showing that there’s more to life than London. Bristol’s a lovely city and I’d imagine a much less stressful environment than London!

(10)(9)

Alex A

Glad you came RPS/Burges Salmon HR. Now cough up that 20p and 4 pack of Special Brew you promised me!

(7)(0)

Anonymous

London is like Nandos – good but terribly overrated.

(4)(1)

Cheeky Nandos

Cheeky Nandos?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Gert lush me babber.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

KK writing about Bristol. It’s never going to be critical, is it? Nice town with a lot of history; but like everywhere in the UK that isn’t London, it’s still a backwater.

If you want an insight into Bristol law check out ROF’s article on Cook & Co under Bonkers Websites.

(10)(5)

A trainee

A fantastic article, but citing a small firm is far from representative. Burges Salmon and OC will be doing top city work and are about 50/50 magic circle/regional lawyers. On panels with magic circle firms etc an regularly on the other side to them in transactions.

In short, you know you don’t believe what you wrote.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I know that Bristol is an attractive place with history. I know that everywhere outside London is – legally speaking – a backwater. I know that the ROF article is very funny.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

The regions are for failures.

(8)(20)

Anonymous

Depends how you define ‘failures’. I know plenty of people I would call failures in London – living at home with their parents in Dulwich because it’s rent free. You can go out in Peckham for a night if you are feeling edgy, but you don’t really have to deal with the real world at all.

I’d give much more kudos to someone who has moved to a different part of the country on their own two feet – but that’s just me.

(11)(6)

Anonymous

It’s the parents who have failed in that scenario, as they failed to accumulate enough money to buy junior a nice London flat.

(3)(2)

Anonymous

Having spent my entire life in London I recently decided to give Bristol a go after becoming disillusioned with London’s property market. I lasted less than a year before moving back to London.

I went from a MC firm to one of the firms mentioned in this article. I am somebody who rolls my eyes at phrases like “high quality work” and “blue chip clients”. Work/life balance and length of commute matter more to me than the size of my payslip.

I was surprised to find that quality of work was actually important to me. Despite being a large Bristol firm most of the clients were “unsophisticated” (i.e. they didn’t deal with lawyers on a regular basis). Their issues were mostly resolved by printing PLC precedent and filling in the blanks. I spent a disproportionate amount of time on the phone to clients explaining how to obtain a certified copy of their passport. This was fine at first but doing such mundane work soon became very dull.

Most notably, the quality of colleague in Bristol is shockingly low. As there is a smaller pool of candidates compared to London the competition for places is far less fierce. Naturally the quality suffers. Maybe it’s snobbery but I was genuinely amazed to find roughly half of associates and partners attended universities that wouldn’t be found in the top 50 of a university league table. People that simply wouldn’t get an interview at any good London firm. I tried to see past my prejudice but the quality of legal advice was also poor. I was frequently on con-calls hearing partners muddle through basic legal principles and provide outdated (and therefore no longer applicable) legal advice. This ‘lack of ability’ wasn’t unique to legal skills or academic success – conversations about current affairs made me feel like I was sitting in a sixth form common room. Essentially I found myself in an environment where I had little respect for people who I was supposed to be learning from.

Finally, I found this particular Bristol firm to be massively cliquey. There is a culture and it’s mostly “rugby and pints” – it was a bit like a student union. All the associates have dated all the other associates and there is so much office nonsense that you just don’t have to deal with in London.

2/10 – wouldn’t move again.

(44)(10)

sid

very well written and the first comment which is honest and reality! All you young lawyers…………

(6)(2)

Anonymous

Did you leave the firm after less than one year? How did you explain that?

(5)(0)

Anonymous

Osborne Clarke.

(7)(0)

Anonymous

Was this article sponsored by Zoopla?

(19)(0)

Anonymous

Just wish lots of London wasn’t such a shithole, but I guess most of the other cities are even worse, at least there’s stuff to do in London.

(5)(1)

Anonymous

Yeah, such as your mum.

(10)(1)

Anonymous

Come at me bro.

(1)(2)

Anonymous

Your mum said something similar to me last night.

(9)(0)

Anonymous

“the capital has erected a sort of ‘financial fence’ around its parameters”

FFS. Perimeter.

(18)(0)

Anonymous

“‘City-quality work without the City-style hours”. But it’s not City quality work, is it? Regional firms either do (a) low level work for City firm clients or (b) more substantial work for smaller clients.

It’s not the be all and end all, but if you want to be working on the biggest and most complicated deals or cases, you are not going to be doing that while working for a Bristol law firm. You might not care about that, and there are plenty of good reasons to work in the regions, but anyone who thinks that they are genuinely exchanging like for like work is deluding themselves.

(25)(2)

Anonymous

Depends on the firm and depends on the service line. There is work that is done out of certain regional firms that is of equal quality to anything being done in the City. It’s just that quality will be more variable if you look at all work done across the firm.

(2)(5)

Anonymous

That’s just not right though, is it? You’re not going to be working on Cadbury/Kraft (or whatever the M&A de nos jours is) or working on highest value commercial litigations out of OC or BS…

(3)(0)

Anonymous

I trained at OC in London and worked there for a couple of years before moving to a US firm (where I’m still at). At least in the corporate team, the quality of the people and the work in Bristol was on par with London.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

OC isn’t a City firm in London though… it’s the London outpost of a regional firm, paying accordingly…

(6)(0)

Anonymous

Bristol work for a Bristol salary means you get a Bristol lifestyle and Bristol stress levels.

Arguably worth a trade off, but if you are fiercely competitive and thrive off high level work you should stay in London.

(13)(0)

Anonymous

London is an embarrassment of a capital city.

Transportation and infrastructure is crap compared to just about any other European capital city.

It should be a city of skyscrapers, given the pressure on space and population density. Instead, people who don’t work live in all the best areas. Meaning people who do work have to commute in when they want to have a family, because they can never buy.

It’s shit.

(9)(4)

Anonymous

I would be legitimately afraid of living in a high rise in London. The firefighters don’t have the training or equipment to handle anything over 4-5 floors. The UK really is the Greece of the G7 nations.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/08/world/europe/grenfell-fire-london-ladder.html

(0)(0)

Anonymous

The most able lawyers are in London. End of.

(5)(3)

Anonymous

Good luck finding somewhere to rent in a decent part of Bristol for the sums specified above. In somewhere just north of the City Centre like Clifton or Redland you’re looking at circa £800 – £900 pcm for an unfurnished 1 bed flat and circa £1,150 – £1,250 for an unfurnished 2 bed flat (more if you want off road parking plus bills on top)! You also won’t find a flat for sale in either of these locations for under £300k.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Bristol is still pretty expensive tbh. Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds are a better choice if you’re not keen on London. More firms to choose from too.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

More firms to chose from in Liverpool than Bristol, really?

(0)(1)

Anonymous

At least as many as Bristol, unsurprisingly as Liverpool is a much bigger city. DLA Piper, Hill Dickinson, DWF etc. Also Manchester is only 30 minutes away.

(1)(0)

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