For many students, the thought of working for one of the large international law firms is an exciting one. With some firms in the City paying a first year trainee nearly £45,000, students often see the City as the place where they can make their fortune!
With huge marketing budgets and a strong presence on the “milk round”, large international law firms are keen to get access to the brightest and best students as early as possible. For those fortunate enough to be offered a training contract by these firms, their legal practice course is usually paid for and they are even given a generous maintenance grant, which can be as much as £10,000 from some firms.
However, is there a future outside large international law firms? Are the brightest and best students forgetting that working at a smaller firm may be more enjoyable and even more lucrative?
Whilst it is true that the large international law firms nearly always pay the best starting salary, when students are applying for vacation schemes and training contracts, it is important that they remember that where they choose to work depends as much on individual personality as it does on starting salary.
Attention-grabbing deals that feature on the front page of newspapers may be exciting for some but for others, drafting a Will for a high-net-worth entrepreneur where discretion and confidentiality is key can be just as exhilarating.
Although not always as well-known as powerhouse City and international law firms, West End and niche firms in London and surrounding areas often have a market-leading reputation in specific areas. Many of these firms operate like small private banks: advisers to the super rich often make a discrete phone call to trusted lawyers when a client is in need of legal advice.
For Saleem Sheikh, Senior Partner of GSC Solicitors, a boutique law firm where high-net-worth individuals make up approximately 65% of the clients, practising at a market-leading boutique practice has been an exciting and intellectually stimulating challenge:
“I would thoroughly recommend working at a smaller firm like ours. Our trainees have a vital role in helping with a variety of exciting matters such as: succession planning for children coming into a family business, protecting assets for married clients through pre-nuptial agreements and advising on tax-efficient gifts for children. We try to give our trainees as much exposure as possible and encourage them to actively take part in business development.”
Working at firms outside the City can often be the best way for trainees to get exposure to matters very early on in their career and this experience generally leads to an earlier promotion to partnership. This is exactly what happened to James Cohen, who was recently promoted to Partner at GSC Solicitors:
“When I was looking at targeting law firms to work for, it was a conscious decision to aim for a smaller boutique firm rather than a larger international firm. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, I have found that being part of a smaller firm enabled me to be flexible and explore different areas of the law and have the autonomy to make a decision on the firm’s direction. I was always supported by the Senior Partner which resulted in me being made Partner after six years”.
West End and niche law firms usually have a more diverse client base than large international law firms and trainees are encouraged to actively take part in business development and develop their own portfolio of clients. With much lower hourly rates and the opportunity to offer flexible fee structures, working at a smaller firm could also give trainees the opportunity to provide legal advice to family and friends.
For more entrepreneurial students, a career at a smaller law firm may actually prove to be more lucrative financially if they can bring in their own clients. Undeniably, firms outside the City pay a lower basic salary but overall, the remuneration of their lawyers can often be equal to or greater than counterparts at large international firms because remuneration is often tied to annual billings. Lawyers can take home as much as 30% of their annual billings and for many well-connected practitioners, this remuneration structure can be very rewarding.
With the prospect of using your network of contacts to generate work for your employer and perks such as attending your billionaire client’s birthday party in St Tropez, some may argue that life outside large international firms beats the allure of the City and should not be ruled out.