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Five good things about US law firms that don’t involve money

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By The Careers Team on

We all know they pay well, but what else do they offer?

At Legal Cheek’s recent ‘Why US law firms are thriving in London’ event at BARBRI in London, solicitors from Shearman & Sterling and Ropes & Gray shared their experiences working for US firms in London while US and China qualified lawyer Vivian Ji, who supports international law graduates preparing to sit the New York and California bar exams, offered insights from her time working for Baker McKenzie and practising in-house at United Technologies.

Much of what they had to say challenged the stereotypes. We’ve distilled their best bits into five key points, focusing on the good things about US law firms that don’t involve money (which we know about already!).

High levels of responsibility

This was a factor that all the speakers agreed was a defining factor of US firms. Even on the series of vac schemes that Shearman & Sterling trainee Michael Poolton did before joining the firm, he felt that more was expected of him by the American outfits than the magic circle firms. This has continued to be the case during his training contract. Poolton admitted to the audience of 120 students that such responsibility could “at times be scary”, with plenty of “Oh my goodness!” moments, but he feels strongly that at the end of his training he will be a “much better lawyer for it”.

Small teams

“One standout difference about US firms is that nine times out of ten they will have a smaller set of people in London,” said Ropes & Gray restructuring partner Daniel Martin. “The benefit of that is that when you perform well news of that spreads very quickly. The flipside is also true, so you also will hear quite quickly about the person who gets in a huff when they are handed something to do at 5:30pm on a Friday.”

Flat structure

“Because you don’t have as many people the teams are flatter and work is distributed in a more equal way, with tasks allocated according to what needs to be done,” said Shearman & Sterling competition law partner James Webber. He contrasted US firms’ London offices in this respect with the larger English firms, “where larger numbers mean that tasks become stratified with production line-style tasks at the bottom of the pyramid.” Webber added that this difference helped to explain the lower levels of noise being made by US firms about legal artificial intelligence and other technology relative to their more process-oriented UK peers.

Reasonable working hours

Yes, you read that correctly. Citing the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey average working hours data, while drawing upon his experience on the ground as a trainee, Shearman’s Poolton noted “no disparity of hours between what I work and many silver, magic and even regional firms” but a “big disparity in salaries”.

Ropes & Gray’s Martin expressed a similar sentiment when he recalled that his former colleagues in the securitisation team at a magic circle firm in 2001 “really didn’t feel that there were more hours that they could be working at an American firm”.

Quality of work

The most successful US firms in London have avoided trying to go head to head with magic circle firms in areas like M&A, where long-term relationships with big institutional clients are difficult to dislodge. Instead, explained Martin, they have focused on specialist practice areas where their firms have higher levels of expertise, such as litigation, private equity and high yield bond issuance. The quality of work, which builds on decades of expertise in New York, is hard to match. It’s also highly international. “Every bit of work we do is multijurisdictional,” said Poolton, who is currently working on “a merger in France with a Spanish influence from the London office”.

This is where dual qualification is sometimes a factor. Vivien Ji’s ability to practise US and Chinese law has been a central element in her career, she noted at the event, with “US law firms in China and internationally keen to hire people who are dual qualified”. In the UK, the position varies, with the speakers noting a high proportion of dual New York and English qualified lawyers in certain practices such as high yield capital markets and international arbitration. In other areas, they added, it’s more usual for lawyers to have a single qualification.

Find out more about qualifying as a US attorney in the UK with BARBRI


US firms vs Magic Circle firms

Shearman & Sterling LLP UK Graduates trainee Michael Poolton compares his experiences doing vac schemes at US firms and magic circle firms

Posted by Legal Cheek on Thursday, December 14, 2017

Find out more about vac schemes and training contracts with Shearman & Sterling

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