More Similar than Different: US Firms v UK Firms in London
It is easy to oversimplify the legal landscape, categorising firms and applying a broad-brush approach to assumptions about them. One of the most obvious distinctions that is drawn in the market is between US and UK headquartered law firms. This article aims to highlight some key differences between the “stereotypical” US and UK private practice firms and dispel associated myths.
Compensation stands out as a clear objective difference between the two. At the NQ level, top-paying US firms offer salaries of £160k+, whereas their Magic Circle counterparts hover around £120-125k. The Silver Circle firms pay slightly less, while other UK firms offer around £90-100k. UK firms usually provide annual increases of £3-10k, whereas US firms tend to have more substantial pay jumps, resulting in a widening pay gap year after year.
Work Life Balance
Though the official target hours might be slightly lower in London-based US firms, elite US firms expect associates to bill around 2000 hours per year. On the other hand, Magic and Silver Circle firms set lower official targets (typically 1700-1900 hours). In the past, UK firms have used this difference to defend against the allure of US pay packets, claiming that US firms demand more from their lawyers due to their higher pay. However, the reality is that the top performers in all key practice areas are equally busy, regardless of what their firm’s targets are.
One category of firm that often gets overlooked in this conversation is the “Mid-Atlantic” US firms, where often the target hours are significantly lower (usually around the 1600-1700 mark) for around a 10% increase on Magic Circle salary levels.
Another key difference often cited by UK firms is that they offer greater support for their fee earners. Historically, this was probably true but, as the DNA of the partnership at US firms has changed over the last decade or so (largely due to an influx of partners joining from UK firms), they have invested more in supporting their fee earners – such as by having dedicated PSL/Knowledge lawyers, developing their own trainee cohorts or implementing formal training programmes for their associates. At the same time, a lot of UK firms have looked to outsource their support staff to lower cost centres outside London, so there has been a convergence in the level of support on offer.
US firms’ London offices tend to be smaller with leaner teams and more partner contact, offering junior associates more responsibility, less bureaucracy and faster routes to partnership compared to traditional lockstep firms.
In the current globalised business landscape, having an international reach is vital for law firms. Clients prefer a one-stop-shop for all their legal needs, regardless of location. While top UK firms have a strong presence in Europe and Asia, they have yet to make significant inroads into the US market. In contrast, a few US firms can genuinely cater to their clients’ needs across all these jurisdictions, making their global platform an attractive aspect for partner-level moves.
The Magic and Silver Circle firms in London usually offer full-service capabilities for a wide range of clients. In contrast, when US firms entered the London market, they tended to focus on specific core sectors for their growth, such as Private Equity, Tech, and Life Sciences.
In an era where legal landscapes are evolving, whilst there are still some key differences between different types of law firms in terms of remuneration and structure, you may find that there are more similarities between top tier US and UK options than first thought. Determining which model suits you best requires careful consideration of your career priorities and future direction.
Have these career contrasts piqued your interest? At SSQ we have strong relationships with the leading UK and US headquartered law firms, as well as many specialist and regional practices. If you’re considering a move, we have an unrivalled track record matching skilled candidates with opportunities across all practice areas and seniority. Get in touch with one of our Law Firm team for detailed market guidance and practical advice and take the first step in exploring the possibilities open to you in both US and UK firms.