Training contract guide: different types of law firms

Flex LegalBy Legal Futures Associate Flex Legal

study published in 2011 showed that there are approximately 11,000 law firms in England and Wales alone. If you’re wanting to make some headway in the legal industry, you’re going to have to learn about every single one of them.

Just kidding.

If you are looking to secure a training contract, however, it can be a little daunting to try and figure out where to apply to. Having a clearer understanding of the different kind of firms out there might help you. The basic categories are:

  • Magic circle firms
  • Silver circle firms
  • US / transatlantic firms
  • National firms
  • Regional firms
  • High street firms
  • In-house legal teams

Magic circle law firms

The ‘magic circle’ is an informal journalistic term to refer to the most prestigious law firms out there. They are all London-based, have significant international reach and influence, and are focused primarily on corporate and finance work.

They are Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May.

These firms give out training contracts on an otherwise unprecedented scale and take on roughly 100 trainees every year. These contracts are extremely competitive, but if secured offer fantastic resources, incredible facilities, international secondments and lots of responsibility!

Training in these firms is no easy task. They expect the best, so the work is incredibly demanding and trainees will be expected to work longer hours.

Silver circle law firms

The ‘silver circle’ is a term that was coined in 2005 by The Lawyer Magazine to describe an incredibly reputable group of UK law firms. They fall directly underneath the magic circle in terms of turnover and influence.

Defining the firms in the silver circle is a little tricky, because the list changes frequently. Generally speaking, a silver circle firm is focused on UK clients, deals largely with private-equity, and avoids ‘big firm bureaucracy’.

The silver circle firms are historically recongised as Ashurst, Herbert Smith Freehills, SJ Berwin (which has now disbanded), Macfarlanes, and Travers Smith. However, many of these firms no longer meet the criteria listed above. The currently understood silver circle list is Macfarlanes, Travers Smith, Slaughter and May, and Mishcon de Reya.

Again, training contracts at these firms are incredibly competitive. If you can secure one, they offer an incredibly high standard of training and opportunities and are widely recognised as amongst the best in the country. They vary quite widely in terms of expertise, work offered, and even how they operate, so if you are thinking of applying make sure you do your research to make sure they’re a good fit for you.

US / Transatlantic law firms

Over the last 50 or so years, there has been a steady stream of US law firms establishing offices in London. Today, there are roughly 100 of these American firms with a UK presence.

There’s obviously too many to name here, but some of the bigger ones are Latham & Watkins, Baker McKenzie, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Dentons, Reed Smith, and Squire Patton Boggs.

Between all 100 of these firms, there are about 700 training contracts on offer per year. US firms typically focus on finance and corporate work, often with an international emphasis. As the offices tend to be smaller, trainees at US firms are given a great deal of responsibility and are expected to work very long hours. The salaries are also often much higher than they would typically be in the UK, to reflect how much it costs to train as a solicitor in America. If this sounds like your kind of thing, you might want to consider applying for a US firm.

National law firms

Next up on our list we have national law firms. Chambers Student defines a national firm as one that meets the following three criteria:

  1. It has at least three offices in England and Wales.
  2. Those offices are in different regions.
  3. The firm has to have at least three UK-wide or ‘national leader outside London’ Chambers UK rankings.

According to these criteria there are twelve national firms in England and Wales. The main ones are CMS, Eversheds Sutherland, Pinsent Masons, DLA Piper, Addleshaw Goddard, and Clyde & Co.

There are a lot of training contracts on offer at these firms, although the number available does vary. National law firms are regarded as very attractive places to train – the main reason being the quality and variety of work on offer. They usually cover a range of legal areas, so the work is usually varied and interesting. This being said, some of these firms do specialise, and often outperform large international firms in their speciality areas. National law firms also have the advantage of having multiple offices, so there may be more opportunity to move around between national offices and experience training in a different environment.

Regional law firms

If you’re interested in training in a particular geographic area outside of London, perhaps near to where you already live or an area you might want to move to, regional law firms could be a great option for you.

Regional firms typically do work for multiple local businesses in the areas they are based in, as well as multinational clients. This means there is good potential for trainees to get quality experience with a varied client base.

Here is a list of some key firms in different regions of England and Wales:

  • Bristol: Bevan Brittan, Burges Salmon, Osborne Clarke, TLT and VWV.
  • South West: Ashfords, Foot Anstey, Michelmores and Royds Withy King.
  • South East: Blandy & Blandy, Blaser Mills and Penningtons Manches Cooper.
  • Midlands: Browne Jacobson, Freeths, Gateley and Shakespeare Martineau.
  • The North: Brabners, DWF, Hill Dickinson and Walker Morris.
  • Wales: Blake Morgan, Capital Law, and Geldards.
  • East of England: Birketts, Hewitsons, Howes Percival, Mills & Reeve and Taylor Vinters.

It goes without saying, but each of these firms will vary in the training experienced offered. As ever, make sure you do your research before applying. We would also highly recommend taking a look at the Regional Firm Training Contract directory.

High-street law firms

High-street firms are, perhaps unsurprisingly, based on the high-street. They are generally smaller firms focused on delivering real community legal work to the local area. There are thousands of them across the country, and many of them offer training contract opportunities.

Given that high street firms are generally small, they don’t have too many training contracts to offer. However, securing a training contract at a high-street firm can have its perks. They are often more flexible and involve a greater breadth and depth of work than larger firms might offer. Also, if there is a business need, trainees may be asked to stay in their seat beyond the usual scope of the contract.

High-street firms generally act for individuals, but also small businesses. The practice areas tend to include wills and probate, conveyancing, private client tax, personal injury, employment, crime, family and housing.

In-house legal teams

Finally, it’s not just law firms that can offer training contracts. Another option to consider is the possibility of securing a training contract with the in-house team of a private company.

Obviously, a lot of these training contracts aren’t that standardised. They vary from company to company in terms of requirements and training experience offered. Again, make sure you’re doing your research if you are interested in going down the in-house route.

Some of the ‘big four’ accountancy firms have started offering training contracts in recent years. All have now gained alternative business structure licences which allows them to offer certain legal services. EY and PWC both have multiple training contract opportunities available, which are enormously well-regarded in the wider industry.

Hopefully this list has made everything a little bit clearer for you. If you are considering applying for a training contract, or even just want to try your luck with a different type of firm, it might be worth following some of the links in this article and seeing what other experiences are on offer!

Additional resources:


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