Different types of law firms

Different types of law firms

There are approximately 10,500 law firms in England and Wales, all offering very different training experiences. The types of law firm can be categorised as follows:

  • Magic circle firms

  • Silver circle firms

  • US firms

  • National firms

  • Regional firms

  • High street firms

  • Other companies that offer TCs

Magic circle firms

The magic circle firms are: Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May.

These firms are all London-based with significant international reach and have a focus on corporate and finance work.

These firms carry out training on a huge scale, each taking on roughly 100 trainees per year. They are able to offer fantastic resources, facilities, international secondments and lots of responsibility!

Training in these firms is demanding and trainees will typically be expected to work longer hours!

Silver circle firms

The silver circle firms are: Ashurst, Herbert Smith Freehills, Berwin Leighton Paisner (now Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner), Travers Smith and Macfarlanes.

The silver circle firms are the band of firms that fall directly underneath the magic circle firms in terms of turnover.

The firms vary considerably in terms of expertise and how they operate. In terms of international reach, Herbert Smith Freehills and Ashurst have huge international operations while Travers Smith and Macfarlanes both only have two offices.

In terms of the focus of their work, Ashurst specialises in corporate and finance work, BCLP in real estate, Macfarlanes in corporate and private client, Travers Smith in corporate and HSF in corporate and disputes work.

The standard of training offered in these firms is similar to that in magic circle firms.

US firms

For the past 50 years or so, there has been a steady stream of US firms establishing offices in London and today, approximately 50 firms are offering a total of about 700 training contracts between them.

US firms focus on finance and corporate work with an international dimension. In terms of the training experience, the offices tend to be smaller, trainees are given a great deal of responsibility and expected to work very long hours. Salaries are also much higher because they reflect how much it costs to train as a solicitor in the States.

There are broadly two ways that US firms have established themselves in London.

The first way is by opening a new office in London and firms that have done this include: Akin Gump, Baker McKenzie, Cleary Gottlieb, Covington & Burling, Kirkland & Ellis, Latham & Watkins, Morrison & Foerster, Ropes & Gray, Shearman & Sterling, Sidley Austin, Skadden and White & Case.

The second way is through transatlantic mergers i.e. a US firm merging with a London-based firm to gain a London office. These firms include Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, Dechert, Dentons, DLA Piper, Eversheds Sutherland, Hogan Lovells, Jones Day, Mayer Brown, Norton Rose Fulbright, Reed Smith and Squire Patton Boggs.

National firms

It can often be difficult to tell what constitutes a national firm given that any law firm with more than one office may call itself a ‘national firm’.

Chambers Student defines a ‘national firm’ as one which (i) has at least three offices in England and Wales, (ii) has offices in different regions of England in the north and south and (iii) has at least three Chambers UK rankings either in the UK-wide or 'national leader outside London' categories.

According to these criteria there are roughly twelve firms which are ‘national firms’ in England and Wales and they include: CMS, Pinsent Masons, Eversheds, DLA Piper, Addleshaw Goddard, Clyde & Co, Womble Bond Dickinson, Mills & Reeve, Kennedys DWF and Irwin Mitchell.   

National firms are attractive places to train for a number of reasons, one of which is the quality of work they do. Some national firms outperform the large international firms in the areas they specialise in. There may also be more opportunity to move around between national offices and experience training in a different environment.

Regional firms

Regional firms tend to do work for both local businesses and multinational clients so there is potential for trainees to experience a very varied client base. Regional firms may also specialise in quite niche areas of law such as agricultural law, which you would not be exposed to in large international firms.

Here is a list of the firms around different regions in 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: Blake Morgan, Blandy & Blandy, Blaser Mills and Penningtons Manches

  • Midlands: Browne Jacobson, Freeths, Gateley and Shakespeare Martineau

  • North: Brabners, Gateley, Hill Dickinson and Walker Morris

  • Wales: Blake Morgan and Geldards

  • East of England: Birketts, Hewitsons, Howes Percival, Mills & Reeve and Taylor Vinters

High-street firms

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.

These firms do a lot of work for clients with Legal Aid funding, though there is an increased number of clients funding privately.

In terms of training, seat options tend to be more limited in high-street firms but the training system generally may be more flexible e.g. if there is a business need, then trainees may be asked if they can stay in their seat for a couple of months longer.

The recruitment process for high-street firms varies considerably depending on the firm so make sure to check their website. These firms recruit fewer trainees that other types of firm, but may be very competitive.

Other companies that offer TCs

Some of the ‘big four’ accountancy firms have also started offering training contracts in recent years. All have now gained alternative business structure licences which allows them to offer certain legal services. EY launched their training contract scheme in 2014. PwC offers about 25 training contracts per year.


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