Magic circle vs US MoneyLaw: An associate’s perspective

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One City lawyer sets out some of the factors they took into consideration before making the switch 🇬🇧 ➡️ 🇺🇸

I recently made the move from a magic circle law firm to the London office of a US law firm. While there are unique factors driving any person’s decision to move laterally to a competitor firm, I have set out below some of the factors that were front of mind for me when considering whether to take the plunge and move to a US firm.

The NQ landscape

We hear a lot about what firms are doing to attract the best talent out of university. The changes in newly qualified (NQ) salaries, in particular, have been well-publicised on this platform and several others, with a number of US firms now offering a base salary to freshly-minted NQs of close to £150k a year, with the magic circle firms of Linklaters, Allen & Overy, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Clifford Chance now all offering NQ salary packages of at least £100k. Other large commercial firms have recently sought to follow suit, including Osborne Clarke, Travers Smith, Hogan Lovells and Simmons and Simmons, each raising NQ pay to all time highs.

There is an ever-present debate on this website and among associates and partners alike as to why people should (and shouldn’t) work at a high paying US law firm over, for example, a magic circle firm or large “independent” firms such as Macfarlanes or Travers Smith.

The reasons given as to why one should not give into such salary temptation and jump ship to a top-tier US law firm are varied and, for many associates, have long held sway. These include: the long(er) hours and billable targets at US firms, an “always on” expectation, more demanding and unrelenting partners, a lack of formal training processes, a heavy emphasis on fund and private equity work (rather than listed and private client work), and being an outpost of a larger American-based and focused behemoth (as opposed to working in the London headquarters of the firm). These lines are invariably trotted out in some form or another to any UK associate with itchy feet considering making a lateral move.

What is often lost in this US law firm debate is not the gap in salaries at the NQ level, which is considerable, but the salary gap further up the associate pay bands. And it is this salary gap which may turn the usual steady stream of mid-level associate defections to US firms into a roaring river. I am one of those lawyers to have recently made the leap to a US firm, and I know of many colleagues who are doing the same.

Current factors driving associates to move to US firms

So — is it just about the money? Well, sort of. The money is undeniably a major factor driving the movement of associates (and, to a lesser extent, partners too). But to point to money in isolation risks glossing over a number of specific factors which are influencing the current transfer climate.

First, hours at top tier UK and independent firms can be equal to hours at US firms if you are placed in a busy team (just ask Freshfields private equity, or A&O leverage finance, or anyone in M&A during the first half of 2021), and the demands on junior and mid-level lawyers since the pandemic started have only increased, both for those in front-end transactional work and on the litigious side too (this lawyer is aware of a number of associates at different magic circle firms who worked in excess of 2,500 billable hours in the most recent performance year). What this shows is that there is no longer a discernible safety net that applies to lawyers at large firms, regardless of whether you work for a large UK-headquartered firm or a US firm. Your hours will probably be longer at a large US firm, but that is far from certain.

Second, the recent series of “MoneyLaw” salary increases in the US have, in some cases, been applied across the Atlantic to those firms’ London offices too. The “MoneyLaw” increases for mid-level associates in particular have been chunky, with “class of 2016” associates now earning $305,000 and “class of 2015” associates now earning $330,000, following the latest increases led by Milbank and then Davis Polk. Using an exchange rate of 1GBP = 1.40USD as an example, that’s a base salary of around £218,000 and £236,000 respectively, before annual or special bonuses are even factored in.

Third, at the same time as the “MoneyLaw” increases, there has been a general stagnation of mid-level and senior associate wages at UK and independent firms. In the case of a number of large firms (including some, but not all, magic circle firms), recent announcements of NQ salary package increases were not met with commensurate increases in the pay bands for other more experienced associates, leading to a compression of the salary scale (called “salary bunching”).

For example, at one magic circle firm, there is now less than £30,000 a year difference between the gross base pay offered to associates on the cusp of being promoted to senior associate (at 4.5PQE) compared to the package offered to NQs. In addition, at the same magic circle firm, recent pay rises for NQs were instituted at the same time as all other pay bands were kept at their current levels (which were last raised in May 2019) — all with inflation currently at a three-year high, meaning the real value of wages is being eroded faster than at any time since mid-2018, so salary bands are actually going backwards.

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Given how the UK tax system treats the reduction in the personal allowance for those earning over £100,000 a year, this results in associates at the 4.5PQE level (who are often tasked with running significant matters with limited partner supervision) earning a guaranteed take home pay of less than £13,000 more than a fresh-faced NQ lawyer.

Fourth and finally (and perhaps most tellingly), this year has been an incredibly difficult and isolating year for many in practice. Many of the perks of working at a large commercial law firm, including the in-person training and development, informal interactions with colleagues, lunches and dinners and nights out on the town, coffee catch-ups and the joys of real in-person meetings, negotiations, signings, court appearances and closings have all been lost or greatly diminished as a result of remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the midst of all this, law firms are reporting bumper years — early indicators in firms’ annual reporting season have seen Allen & Overy partner profits increase by an impressive 17%, while Herbert Smith Freehills partner profits have jumped by a whopping 28%. Similarly spectacular results are expected for other firms, including the other magic circle firms, with such increases likely to do more than offset any lacklustre financial results experienced during the first months of the pandemic.

Yet despite the increased profitability of UK firms, the rewards offered to associates by US and UK firms in connection with the pandemic have been vastly different. For example, during the pandemic, some US law firms were quick to spot the costs savings and revenue increases that materialised, and the accompanying risks to staff retention, and handed out sizeable “special bonuses” to their associates of up to $64,000 in 2021 depending on experience (on top of annual bonuses and previous special bonuses).

UK firms, on the other hand, have generally shown themselves to be less generous (see above in terms of the stagnant salary bands). Some firms have offered up special “Covid-19 appreciation bonuses” to staff, but those tended to be around the 5% of base salary mark, and in some cases, much lower.

As a result, associates have been left with an impression that there is a difference between US and UK firms in terms of how the spoils are shared between partners and associates during the good times (and, by implication, who may potentially bear the cost of any downturn should economic conditions deteriorate).

What happens next — do the UK firms follow, evolve or hold steady?

At this point, it’s worth noting that the above factors will likely be less influential for those associates wanting a more balanced practising lifestyle. For some, you cannot put a price on free time and the ability to travel, attend special events, see friends and family, date, exercise, eat well and relax without needing to log-on and turn a document at some ungodly hour.

But if, like me, you generally enjoy the work, have accepted the downsides of working in “big law” and are already working at a large commercial firm, then the reasons why a move to a US firm once seemed like an unnecessary risk may just feel a bit less relevant, particularly if there is no guarantee of decent work-life balance at a UK based firm, and the differential in pay is as significant as it currently stands.

For UK based firms, the choice appears clear. They could follow the US firms to some extent on pay — a number of UK based firms with a presence in the US have shown a willingness to match the “MoneyLaw” salary and bonus scales in New York and other major markets in the US, so it only seems fair to ask why such upward pressure on associate salaries hasn’t eventuated in London. Alternatively, firms could offer staff a “hybrid” option whereby they are guaranteed an improved level of work-life balance as part of their employment arrangements and are compensated appropriately should the employer ever infringe on that promise.

The other option is that UK firms could continue on their current trajectory in London, and ignore the increasing market presence of US firms and their financial lure. Of course, if that happens, then more associates than ever may just ask themselves, “why not?”, and that steady stream may soon turn into a river.

Anon City Lawyer is an associate in the London office of a US law firm.

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MC trainee

Really interesting insight. Thanks for sharing and best of luck in the new role


Top US Titan

Follow the money baby!



I would much prefer to have a life, only got one.


Please stop

The steady stream has failed to turn into a river for the last 20 years of the US firms being in the UK and many US firm associates also swap the other way. But the writers at legal cheek have a hard on for big pay packets probably because they don’t make very much with their journalism so of course we get more of this money law bullshit.

Outside of a few very specific practice areas this decision of US vs UK basically doesn’t exist and isn’t worthwhile but of course making that very clear isn’t in anyone’s interests….



A few very specific….you make it sound like PE, funds etc. is somehow niche in the wider legal market.



Easy there buddy, wouldn’t get too ahead of yourself before rushing into those open day applications in a few months.

Best get back to selecting your favourite halls at Trent for the upcoming year…Exciting times ahead aren’t they!


Not sure...

“A few very specific practice areas…” – like banking, corporate, PE, funds, IP and commercial litigation? Those ones?



1. US firms dominate is some of the biggest practice areas. Corporate, PE, M&A, Funds etc. But you’re very very correct – this conversation doesn’t exist in MC behemoth departments such as Art & Cultural property law or shipping!

2. 20 years is a HUGE amount of time in a market that has only been around for about 50 years as we know it. The legal market is sooo much different today than it was 20 years ago. The conversation about MC to US has never been more relevant as the salary gap has increased and the prestige pull has decreased.


Archibald Pomp O'City

You wouldn’t have a sniff, mate. The geezer who wrote the piece would make your life’s earnings look like a child’s pocket money.


Former Linklaters Associate

Ya “very few specific practice areas” like LevFin, DCM, Restructuring, Private Equity, Litigation – AKA the life blood of Magic Circle revenue. If you’re a sad Pensions or Trusts lawyer it makes sense to stay in the Magic Circle, but otherwise you’re selling your time for 50% less than lawyers at US firms for no good reason.



“For some, you cannot put a price on free time and the ability to travel, attend special events, see friends and family, date, exercise, eat well and relax without needing to log-on and turn a document at some ungodly hour.”

And this is it. For a lot of people this is priceless or soon becomes so once you hit your 30s



Thats just it , I want to be a lawyer I’m willing to work hard , but I’m not willing to sacrifice that much of my personal life , no matter the salary. I hate that this US culture of overworking is spreading to the UK


Different view

“I’m willing to work hard , but I’m not willing to sacrifice that much of my personal life”. We have different views on what working hard is then. Working harder, for a lawyer, surely means sacrificing more of your personal life. Lawyers bill their time, so unless you expect to do one matter with your left hand and another with your right hand then the way you work harder is by dedicating more hours.



Grinding out long hours doesn’t necessarily mean you’re working hard or efficiently. Personally, screw it, if working hard leaves no time for hobbies, friends, life events or travel then I don’t want to work hard.

Many people have a totally different view and that is fine, but law is a really bad profession for equating long hours slaving away to hard work, achievement, or value. Just think about what you will be happier with on your death bed – more hours for more money, or a more balanced life. The answer will be different for everyone.



And herein lies a problem with our industry. Long hours is automatically associated with hard work. The perception that if you’re not working long hours, you can’t possible be working hard, you’re not committed to your job, you’re a slacker, etc. This is probably controversial, but I expect lawyers working on incredibly complicated tax files for 8 hours a day would be working a lot harder than an employment lawyer putting in 14 hour shifts… not to mention how horrendously inefficient everyone gets after solid periods of long working hours and lack of sleep


Archibald Pomp O'City

You need to learn basic punctuation before you even have a choice of becoming a lawyer – or not – fella.



The thing is, everyone I know at the MC/SC struggle to do that as much as people I know at US firms. Hate this narrative that those at large U.K. firms have this amazing work/life balance, they don’t at all.


Think about it

Some would rather be able to have hobbies, spare time and see friends in the week than earn crazy money but work crazy hours. Even fairly mid-market law firms pay well now, but you’d obviously want to ensure that if you’re getting the lower mid-market pay that you work reasonable hours.

Even if you work until 7:30pm or 8pm most weekdays, that basically relegates most hobbies or socialising to the weekend as you’re going to have enough time to commute home, cook or eat and wind down. My friends in ‘normal’ office jobs certainly make less money than lawyers, but they basically finish work at 5:30 every day and working on a weekend is unimaginable.

Choose what works for you, and at different times of your life the answer might be different.



I mean, I’m in my mid-twenties and that is already priceless. I don’t want to spend my youth when I’m not tied down with major responsibilities slaving away until even 7 or 8pm most nights. Other folk have different priorities but I don’t want to hit 40 and think “what on earth have I done with my time?”.

Don’t make your job your whole life unless that is genuinely your passion.


Is there a better place?

I rarely comment on this site, but thought I had to. I am a trainee at a mid-market national firm (anticipating that Kirkland NQ will come along and tell me how much of a loser I am). Whoever is reading this please don’t think that your hours will be comfortable in the mid-market, they are not. If this site is accurate in its snapshot of MC / SC hours, mine are just as bad. And whilst I’m here, another point – the pandemic has, I think, led to an irreversible increase in what is expected of juniors. Dependent on your boss, emails needing action come in at all hours, partners hand out tight deadlines and actually review your work way past the deadline etc. The attitude of “well x trainee can do it, we are working from home” will just turn into “well x trainee has gone home for the day, but he/she has a home work set up so they can do it”



At a mid-market inter/national firm myself and it is very much dependent on which team you’re in. Many are a ~7PM clock off on most night, some are nuts.


Inhouse pleb

If you have no kids, what do you want to do during the work week when you leave the office at 5.30pm? Serious question. I’m not a huge fan of working until midnight often and cancelled holidays that often happens in the City firms, but an 8-8 working day is a very fair trade for a six figure salary, and not particularly stressful. Leaving the office at 5.30pm just meant a really crowded and uncomfortable commute home.



Very interesting to read. I wonder if the bleeding of the best talent to US firms becomes such a threat to the ability of non-US firms to staff their teams and hold the next generation of partners that they’ll have to just match the pay scales and take the PEP hit.


Older gent

What will happen, if it hasn’t happened already, is that in the most profitable practice areas, the US firms will have the best teams and work on the biggest mandates. London is the second most competitive legal market in the world, so there will still be talent at the other firms and they will still get some interesting work. But the best will go to the big US firms. Even Slaughters can promise equity partnership to their top stars which is great, but if a US firm comes along and offers a partner £4 million a year, they can’t compete. That sort of partner move isn’t just an individual moving, it is an entire ecosystem shift. However in other areas, for example employment, the ambitious employment lawyer will not want to spend their career doing transaction support work and so may stay in the UK firms doing top tier employment law work.


Anon Associate

I think the point this article is making (which seems to be glossed over by some readers) is for many there is now no difference in work life balance at MC firms compared to US firms.



The stagnation in salary is spot on and often missed. At a US firm your pay packet and bonus goes up considerably year on year. At MC and SC firms you are essentially earning a few hundred pounds more at most a month for doing considerably tougher work with more responsibility.


Julie the high street solicitor

I’m happy with my 25k per annum (no bonuses either) 🙂



Of course you would be. 25k is pretty good for someone with 5 BTECs.


Anon MC

People focus on PE, Lev Fin, Private M&A, funds etc. in these sorts of articles, where the US firms have significant practices and directly compete with the magic circle, and everyone works ungodly hours regardless of where they are. But the main difference is MC firms have much broader practice areas in the UK – if you work in an advisory practice, litigation, or certain types of capital markets work, then the vast majority of US firms simply don’t have sizeable competing practices in those areas so there is simply much less opportunity to jump ship, and even if you did you would likely do significantly less interesting/high profile work than at the MC (e.g. just being one or two people in a team who support M&A rather than doing your own work). The hours in some practices at MC firms (mainly advisory but also some transactional or contentious ones), are also simply vastly better than the crazy levels demanded by US firms.

I work in an advisory practice at an MC firm, and basically only a couple of US firms have more than one or two partners in that area, those that do are not as well regarded as the MC, and I work several hundred chargeable hours fewer per year than the 2000+ often expected at US firms. So the temptation to move is simply much less. In contrast, if I was being flogged to death in our PE practice then I definitely would move to a US firm for all the reasons in the article.


Old Guy

Great comment. Should add that often getting into some of these advisory areas is more challenging than bog standard M&A or Funds work. You’ll see a lot of firsts and often masters degrees and perhaps even PhDs, and this acts as a barrier to entry. But once in, the hours are more reasonable. Pay is good but not what a deal monkey junkie would get turning around paperwork in PE.



The skills are different and definitely less intellectually challenging than advisory roles like tax but being a good M&A lawyer, particularly at senior level, is very difficult. There are so many moving parts to a transaction that managing it is like juggling ninja stars whilst riding a unicycle falling off an erupting volcano that is shouting at you, and you have to take it as the volcano is your valued client.


US Firm Trainee

Just a 30k increase between NQ and 5PQ is horrific – why on earth would you stay?



Thx for the comment, now back to UCAS Clearing son. Must call Bucks New University next, they’ve got a few BBB spots left for a clever boy like you xoxo



Whenever I see these comments I imagine them being hashed out by someone with tears of rage and jealousy streaming down their face, tragically and mistakenly thinking that their shite banter will for one second bother the person they’re responding to.

I hope your life sees some success soon Mumma.


New Balance

As many posters here have outlined before here in the myriad salary discussions, now that there is no discernible difference between the MC and US firms in respect of work/life balance (as if there ever was), if you were indeed money-motivated and have the personality and mental resilience required to hack the long hours required to be a success at a top-tier US firm, why wouldn’t you move?

Fundamentally, it now comes down to character. I personally wouldn’t respond well to US firm hours, but I have plenty of friends who can – and do – perform incredibly well in those environments, and more power to them. I think it’s a bit of a moot point to criticise people for “not wanting/having a life”, when for 80% of associates at US firms, they want to be there doing the work, and they get paid handsomely for doing so.



It’s all well and good saying this but what if you’ve qualified in commercial litigation, real estate, employment, pensions, tax, private client, IP, construction, insurance, financial services reg etc.

Whilst US firms certainly recruit in these areas, they do so at much lower rates than M&A, funds, PE etc. Just speak to any recruiter.

More focus needs to be paid on these U.K. firms paying more because that is just simply where most lawyers will be working and stuck at. They won’t be able to skip over to the likes of Milbank, Akin etc.


Offshore phatman

The real money as a salaried individual is to be made in low/zero-tax jurisdictions my friends. Working under PAYE in the UK is among the greatest mugs’ games out there.

Pump the billables like a fool until beads of sweat drip from your stress-shrunken scrotum – develop a nice bit of IBS in the process for good measure – and when the monthly payslip comes HMRC takes half of it away, including all those phat US bonuses.

Why earn $250k and lose half of it, when you can earn $250k and keep it all?



Tax is the price you pay for professional credibility. Nobody with any talent or ambition works offshore, to be a postbox for onshore lawyers. You head offshore when your career has failed.



And make substantially more than anyone but a top equity partner.

Which, let’s be honest, almost nobody is going to actually be.



Exactly… The Cayman/BVI lawyer will think oh no, my ‘professional credibility’ is gone, let me cry in the crystal clear sea and dry off on the gorgeous beach later.



The Cayman/BVI lawyers are very insecure, precisely because they know everyone looks down on them.



Boohoo, wiping them tears with ma undred dolla billz


Is there anything wrong with someone wanting to earn a very decent wedge with a good work-life balance in a nice environment? There’s more to life than slaving away in the Gherkin until 1am every day of the week, working weekends, and living in a 1 bed flat in Walthamstow pretending you are living the dream.

Also top generalisation. There are no doubt some dreadful lawyers offshore in the same way that there are some dreadful lawyers at US firms in the city. Same way that there are talented people at both.



Actually true, this. Know a couple who were both lawyers and went to work in Dubai for about 4 years. Dubai gets ridiculed on here, but they easily moved back to London when looking to start a family. They’re set now. Their combined income was the equivalent of an equity parter at a good London firm, and they were both recently qualified. That’s the easiest way to become very wealthy before 35.



There is nothing wrong with working offshore. It is simply an acknowledgment that things haven’t worked out. And yes, working long hours in the City/leading Chambers as lead lawyers for the most demanding clients, is the definition of professional success. Nobody pretends it is anything other than the very toughest gig. That is why the very best aspire to it and achieve it.


Cayman Dolla

Everything ultimately comes down to money. Why give half of your salary away to the taxman and suffer all kinds of other taxes when you could live in the Caribbean and make multiple times what you make in london and be able to afford a superior life? There is no financial benefit to working in London.

Offshore dollaboi

Well done for sounding like a braindead coomer. Your life must be so exciting with all that “professional credibility” lmao 😂🤡



To anyone starting out on their career as a lawyer, do not listen to this nonsense about the so-called benefits of offshore. The truth is this: offshore is an absolute cesspit. A graveyard of ambition. Stick to the long hours and hard graft – this is what is needed to achieve professional success – and you will make it.


Ignore this fool

Lmao what are you on about? A Stockholm Syndrome sufferer egging on the others? Or just a London-based partner trying to motivate the juniors so they can sweat the assets some more?



What do you mean by offshore though? You’re having an utter laugh if you think it’s somehow all failed lawyers in a major financial/commercial hub like the UAE/SG/HK mate.

Keep dreaming of “making it” and buying that leasehold flat in Old Street, those are the dreams worthy of aspiring to, lmao.



Offshore is Cayman, BVI, Jersey and Guernsey.



Did I miss something, or does this article basically just say – I moved to a US firm because I wanted to earn more money?

I’m not sure it adds anything we didn’t all already know, or that hasn’t already been covered in previous article. US firms pay the most for the worst hours, but you could be unlucky and also work just as bad hours elsewhere (in particular, at magical circle firms).


MC associate

I think what you’ve missed is that it’s talking about a particular set of “perfect storm” factors that are more significant now than prior to the pandemic / recent wage stagnation at the MC / MoneyLaw increases – in short, the reasons to stay in, for example, a MC corporate group are getting weaker by the day.


Got it

That makes sense. I’m not quite convinced by any of the “in the middle’ options in private practice. Either go to a US firm and get compensated for sacrificing a very large portion of your life, or go to a mid-tier / boutique etc for a work life balance with compensation that reflects that. I suppose there are arguments about quality of work / prestige in different places, but ultimately at the end of the day it’s just a job and this is your life.


Not a magic circle equity partner

Quite like chances of being an equity partner which are much higher in the Magic Circle than at US firms


Realist (original)

Poppycock. You won’t make a partner at either so why not make some extra cash for your slave labour.


Not a US firm salaried partner

Agreed – if you look at the big US firms in London they have nowhere near the number of equity partners per total headcount as the MC firms (and for those wondering how you can tell, you can look on the firm website to see number of partners/lawyers and then look who are LLP members on Companies House)


Us guy

Most firms have their salaried partners as LLP members (eg both my old SC firm and current US firm do this). Their salaries will be structured as drawings from the LLP which aren’t subject to NI (so long as certain conditions are met) so they make a 13% employer NI saving by doing this.


should have been an engineer

I don’t think a lot of students realize how hard lawyers work generally in the UK. Even high street conveyancers (that are reasonably respected in that town) rarely put in less than a 9.5 hour day. I know partners in small boutiques up north that frequently pull all-nighters and extended periods of long hours because their clients expect it.

I work for a small firm in the City with less than 50 lawyers. Real estate, commercial agreements, low value M&A (typically nothing over £100m and even then getting near that is a unicorn deal for the firm), a fair bit of commercial disputes work and insurance defense work. Most of our clients are big industrial businesses, some developers, some project funders, a couple insurers. Many associates in my team have billed well over 2000 hours in the past 12 months. I haven’t logged off before 9:30pm since Covid started (but holidays and weekends have mostly stayed sacred). Salaries are near DWF/RPC/CRS/Wombles level.

No matter what are area you think you’re going to, if you want to be in a good lawyer in a respectable practice (or at least in a team with a good and stable client base) you are going to be very busy and work long hours. The reward of doing good work in law is more work.

This is the job. It is therefore important that if you’re good enough, you should chase the money. The “life-style” argument is, for the most part, completely pointless.



Then US firms will work you to the bone and once they’re done with you, chew you up and spit you out with a shitty little redundancy! But flash their big dollar signs to the market. #wankers



Yes, look at all the US firms who sacked everyone and cut pay over the last 18 months as a result of COVID…

Oh wait it was all the UK firms whilst the US paid special bonuses and increased pay.



Oh don’t worry – The US firms in London did that too – just a bit more sneakily and with a lot of threats to their ex staff!


K&E Banking Associate

What it really comes down to is, if you are working 2200+ hours as an associate in a magic circle or other UK law firm in corporate, banking or funds, you should strongly consider moving to one of the top US firms where at more senior associate levels after bonus you will close to double your money.

I am in the K&E banking team and we are absolutely hiring like mad at the moment. Anybody interested should just email one of the partners directly.


Archibald Pomp O'City

This argument, while facially convincing, has become increasingly redundant with the shift to home-working after Covid. An 8-8 shift from home might be attractive to some, but the argument that 2.5hours of this is dead time is less likely to hold water.


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