With so many law firms to choose from making a decision on where to train or work isn't easy. Here we break firms down by type and highlight some of the top law firms in the UK

Magic Circle law firms

The Magic Circle is an informal term for the five most prestigious law firms headquartered in the UK. Based in London, these firms are:

Magic Circle members are extremely prestigious, and consistently rank among the highest earnings per partner and earnings per lawyer in the UK. What's more, such large law firms usually give their employees a narrower remit - meaning that they suit those who are certain of their preferred specialism.

However, entry into the Magic Circle is notoriously competitive. In addition, short-term promotion prospects are fairly low, you'll work under close supervision, and working hours can be extremely long.

Learn more about the reality of working in law.

Where barristers are concerned, five London-based commercial chambers are sometimes collectively referred to as the 'Bar's Magic Circle'. They are:

City law firms

Headquartered in London, but with offices across the UK and overseas, at a city law firm you can expect an exciting career working with high-profile clients such as large commercial companies and financial institutions.

Competition for training contracts at large commercial city firms is intense and employees have a reputation for working long, unsocial hours. However, your hard work will be rewarded with high salaries and impressive benefits.

City firms include:

National law firms

Ideal for those who don't want to work in London, national law firms have a network of offices in a number of regions and cities across the UK. This type of firm operates in locations such as Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Nottingham. Firms include:

The work you undertake will vary between commercial and general practice and clients are mostly public and private companies and local authorities.

Salaries are reasonable but depend on location. A big advantage of national firms is that employees often experience a better work/life balance than their city firm counterparts.

High street law firms

Firms of this type come in all shapes and sizes, from long-established organisations to sole practitioners, and primarily act on behalf of private individuals. A person on the street can literally walk in to a high street law firm and ask for help with a legal issue.

Practice areas of such firms include crime, family, property/real estate, wills and probate, employment, immigration and personal injury to name a few.

USA-based law firms

You don't need to head to America to work for this type of firm; in fact, there's an increasing number of USA-based law firms in the UK. With their prestigious reputations, American firms tend to offer higher salaries to trainees in line with the New York market. They also provide increased responsibilities and international opportunities.

USA-based firms include:

Top law firms that are hiring now

Several top law firms are currently hiring. These include:

How to choose a law firm

You should start by asking yourself what you want from your legal career and then research firms that line up with your goals.

'The very basics of any job require you to have an interest and passion for what you do,' says Tara Davidson, graduate recruitment manager at Travers Smith. 'Ensure you've done enough research into the industry to understand the type of work, the clients and the culture of the firm. Think about how you will be taught, the environment you will be learning in, and how much responsibility you will be given. The type of support you receive is also crucial to gaining the best possible experience.'

Take the following factors into consideration when making your choice.

  • Practice area - From banking to personal injury and shipping to sports there are lots of areas of law you could work in. If you're struggling to narrow down your options think about the topics that you enjoy at university. Take into consideration any legal work experience that you've done, including vacation schemes, and reflect on the projects and cases you found most interesting.
  • Size of firm - This will affect the clients you deal with, the work you do and the numbers of trainees that are taken on. Typically, larger firms tend to be commercial, city practices that advise major organisations. High-street firms are among the smallest and advise members of the public. Firms can be categorised into Magic Circle, City, national, international, high street and USA-based. Discover how much lawyers earn.
  • Location - Many firms have offices across the UK so this may not be an issue. Nevertheless, you need to take this into account as your base could affect the types of firms you can apply to.
  • Training programme - You need to do some research to find out the structure of the training contract and whether they offer any extras such as client secondments or overseas work. If you’re planning on qualifying as a solicitor via an apprenticeship, you'll need to do some research into whether firms of interest provide this type of training opportunity and what the apprenticeship will involve in comparison to other firms.
  • Company ethos - You need to know how a firm operates, its reputation in the community and what the working culture is like. Researching these factors will give you a good idea if you'll fit in.

According to the RollOnFriday Best Law Firms to Work For 2024 survey Burges Salmon claimed the top spot for the third year in a row, with Bird & Bird, Mills and Reeve, Michelmores and Birketts all making up the top five.

Why you should consider working for a smaller firm

The prestigious nature of Magic Circle members and other large city and national law firms makes them an incredibly attractive proposition for graduates.

Erena Pillitteri, early careers manager at Addleshaw Goddard explains some of the advantages of working for a big firm. 'You'll receive excellent training throughout your training contract and have the opportunity to work in  different areas of law. You'll likely be involved in high value transactions and work you see in the news. You'll also receive opportunities to network with clients and peers in other firms and industries.'

We also can’t deny that higher salaries are usually offered by bigger, well established firms.

However, there are several benefits of working for a small law firm. These include:

  • Closer client contact - You'll have plenty of opportunity to engage with clients and boost your interpersonal skills. In many larger firms, this experience is reserved for senior employees.
  • Enhanced promotion prospects - Fewer employees vying for management-level positions means that a partnership within two or three years isn't out of the question. The smaller, more closely knit workforce means that it's easier to prove your worth to senior employees.
  • Flexible working hours - Smaller law firms usually offer a relatively informal and relaxed working atmosphere, which extends to employee benefits such as work hours and dress code. The workplace is often much friendlier than at larger firms. 'You'll be part of a smaller cohort of trainees so experience in your training contract will feel more personal,' says Erena. 'You are likely to have more flexibility with your training contract as processes won't be as structured as they are in larger firms.'
  • Greater hands-on experience - You'll probably be trusted to perform important tasks without supervision, something that you wouldn't experience in a larger firm. What's more, you'll probably have a greater say in your firm's direction as senior partners are often open to suggestions from junior colleagues.
  • Varied workload - You'll work across numerous practice areas as, unlike many of their larger counterparts, smaller law firms are usually generalist. Working for a smaller law firm can provide you with a greater understanding of where your future specialism may lie.

As a bonus Erena points out that 'you get to know everyone in smaller firms, something that isn't possible in larger organisations.’

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