What are the hours like at US law firms in London — are they different to Magic Circle firms?

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Aspiring lawyer requires advice

In the latest instalment in our Career Conundrums series, a first-year law student is looking to start training contract applications but is unsure about the hours at different law firms.

“I’m a second-year law student and looking to start vacation scheme/training contract applications in the next recruitment cycle, but I’m unsure if I should apply to US or other City law firms, like the Magic Circle. I’ve been told the hours can be longer at US firms — your own research even supports this! — but I want to know (ideally from people at these sorts of firms) whether they’re that much different to the hours worked by trainees and junior lawyers at other leading London firms including the MC? They pay their trainee solicitors around the same, but upon qualification, US firms pay way more. Is this because of the extra hours they put in? I’d appreciate your readers’ thoughts. Thanks!”

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Lord of LinkedIn

Negligible. Depends on dept.



There is no black and white answer to this. It can depend on various things (e.g. the group you qualify into). I would encourage speaking with associates (3PQE+) too.


MC ass

Magic Circle hours targets tend to sit around 1,600 per year, while US firms are typically more like 1,800 (or even more!)

Hours can be just as bad at both firms, especially if you are in particular transactional practices like PE or leveraged finance.

Where the difference seems to come (at least when discussing with my mates at US firms to compare my MC lifestyle), is the respect. And by that I mean that US firm partners seem more gung go about making you cancel your holiday at the last minute to staff a deal, demanding that you remain online while on holiday, or emailing you something at 11pm with no foreshadowing, and expecting you to immediately turn it.

That’s not to say these kinds of things don’t happen at MC firms, or that they always happen at US firms. It’s just the general trend I’ve observed.

Giving any definitive answer is a fool’s game, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that US firms do not pay double the salary because they are just being generous. It comes with expectations around availability and responsiveness that are (in my experience) slightly more humane at MC firms.


Which magic circle firm....

Only has a 1,600 hours target? (except S&M which has none)



None of them have a target. You can get away with doing 1600 hours maybe even a bit less. At US firms that would raise eyebrows. Of course, there are also people doing 3000 at MC firms it’s just more acceptable to get away with less in my experience.



Wrong. CC has a target of 1800. You won’t get sacked for being below it, but impacts bonuses.


MC ass

Im not going to say which MC I’m at, but my bonus is based on utilisation rates, and if you do the maths, accounting for holidays etc, the threshold to receive an hours based bonus – assuming 7 hours billed per day – comes out at about 1,600 per year. Sick days count as hitting your 7 hours that day as well.

This is a pretty normal average utilisation rate for MC firms AFAIK, having friends at all of them.


Which magic circle firm....

If you have a utilisation rate then you must have an hours target – otherwise how do they measure your utilisation.


MC Associate

As others have said, it depends. E.g. if the M&A market is busy and you are a corporate lawyer on a big deal, you will be working very similar hours at MC and US firms. However, if you are doing something other than mainstream transactional work, you could end up working a lot fewer hours at the MC (who do more of that sort of thing) than at US firms. E.g. US firms still don’t generally have serious advisory practices (e.g. things like tax, financial regulation, pensions etc.) and if you work in those in the MC you could actually end up having pretty decent work life balance considering how much you are paid. In contrast, to the extent those types of practices even exist in US firms, they will generally be in more of a transactional support role, so hours will be dependent on those transactions. Overall, I think it is safe to say that your average MC associate works slightly less than your average US associate but then that factors in things like what practice areas the firms even cover so its not apples to apples – but the differences in practice areas are a very important thing to consider in where you do your TC. Much more important than a crude comparison of hours.

I would also just say, take the legal cheek numbers with a gigantic pinch of salt. I work at a MC firm who, according to legal cheek, has an “average” finish time around 9pm. If you walk around the office at 9pm, nowhere near half of people will still be working, it’s just bollocks. Suspect the issue is that when people estimate their “average” hours they remember the busy times and late finishes, and forget the less busy times, and so don’t actually average correctly.



Tax at big firms isn’t really an advisory practice, its key function is really to support the core transactional parts of the business in addition to any tax advisory they do on the side…



How long is a piece of string – varies by group / time of year / approach taken by your principals & partners.

As a MC trainee I had one seat where I probably worked in the office past 10pm two nights a week for the whole run, one seat where I finished most days between 7-8pm and one seat where my principal religiously left the office at 6pm and encouraged me to go and work at home after that if I wanted / needed to, which I frequently did.

Associate hours in the MC vary so wildly by where you choose to qualify and deal flow but what I would say in the post-Covid world is there is far less facetime culture and our Corporate guys (for example) are almost always at home if you’re working with them of an evening. Of course they are still working late but it has made a huge difference to be able to eat dinner at home, do more mundane evening tasks in your PJs, not have to wait for a cab when you’re done etc.

Never worked anywhere else so can’t compare but plenty of people have seen both sides of the Atlantic divide!


Antitrust Merchant

One of the reasons MC lawyers jump ship to US firms is that the target hours are fairly similar to what they are already doing (around 1950). The reality is a decent Associate at a US shop is hitting around 2400.


Two timer

I’ve been at both.

In my experience, in Corporate/M&A, Funds or Banking – all depends on the firm and their pipeline – but as a general rule, no real difference.

In other teams (e.g. employment; IP), the difference can be huge – but worth noting that most US firms are not full service (even some of the bigger ones, e.g. STB) so its a bit of a moot point. At somewhere like Latham, which is full-service, I’d expect the IP team to be working as hard as the other groups.


US assoc

In my experience (2 US firms, but working with variety of ex MC people), the key difference is lack of support at US firms. There are regularly deals on (of a fair size, say £100-400m) which are staffed by one partner and one, often junior, associate.

It seems like you wouldn’t have this setup in a more UK-centric firm where there would be at least one trainee around to help and likely two associates (with anything vaguely important being passed up the chain for review and sign-off).

The evenings/weekends thing as mentioned above is also true – there is no concept that if someone emails you on a Saturday it wouldn’t get looked at until Monday. It is assumed that you will work your plans around anything that needs doing and that the client always comes first (albeit this often isn’t as torturous as it’s even made out to be).

That all said, I don’t think there is as much difference between MC/US firms if you’re in a non-transactional team.



Sorry, this is a silly question. Both work really long hours, guess the only argument if any is that US firms may have more “weekend hours” but even that is practice are and team dependent and depends on the time of year market etc. There really is no black and white answer.



It’s really not a silly question from somebody who has never worked in a law firm!



If you’re in transactional areas (finance, corporate, funds) would say pretty similar. If you’re in a non-transactional area, you’ll “probably” have a good work/life balance in employment, pensions or IP or commercial compared to one in US firms (not sure US firms even have established pensions or commercial practice). That said I’ve seen where areas such as RE in US firms which are not as brutal as other practice areas when it comes to work life balance. Also very dependent on team, work flow and time of year.



The irony is those that are considered brutal in terms of hours tend to have more career opportunities and exit opportunities compared to those support advisory roles. So I see why there are so many finance and corporate lawyers.



It’s a delusion to believe that the hours differ widely. You’ll be working very long hours – sometimes questioning all your life choices – in any city based firm.

Work is work and you’ll have plenty to be getting on with.



Just go to Bracewell 😊


K&E finance guru (Band 1)

The average actual billables at top US like K&E, Latham and Paul Hastings are anywhere between 2500-3250. Decent bees and honey for your sweat.



If this is true the average MC lawyer gets paid more per hour than the average US lawyer.


So what about non transactional?

What’s it like in a big MC disputes team v US disputes?



QE associates on 2300 + at the moment.



Abandon the quest for ‘glory and prestige’ at an MC or US Firm, find yourself a position in a country firm and enjoy genuine work/life balance .


amazing idea

Sounds great. I’ve always wanted to live in a shed in a decaying backwater filled with gammons.



Work in the City for a few years and you can afford a mansion in the regions compared to anything in London for the same money. A shed is the London end goal unless you join the partnership or have inherited wealth.


MC Turned US

It definitely varies depending on the practice area, but also by firm. I can honestly say my hours have been better at my US firm than at my old MC shop (I’m in finance), but I’ve had friends move from here to other US firms – some are living it up and others have been shocked at how much worse it can get.

Like others have said, the main differentiator is the staffing and support. In MC/UK firms, deals tend to get stripped apart and tasks are allocated according to ability/experience. Whereas in my US experience, it’s usually just a partner and an associate on deals (with a trainee or paralegal if you’re lucky). Which tends to mean that you need to have an eye on absolutely every email chain, document, comment, memo, opinion, etc. That can be quite a bit more stressful. Personally I prefer that to the high level of churn you can get as a junior MC associate, but I can definitely see how the MC setup is better for others.


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