Working for US Firms in London

You’ve heard the rumours of high salaries, long hours, better environment, more responsibility from an early stage, poor support, better/worse partnership prospects…. but what is the truth about working for US law firms in London? In this guide we deal with the questions we are asked most frequently by candidates thinking about a move to a US firm. Each is dealt with in turn and where applicable, we relay the feedback we receive from candidates who have already made the move.

Salary

The salary paid by US law firms in London is up to 60% higher for any given level of qualification when compared with even the top city firms. You could work very hard for years at a Magic Circle firm before you reach the NQ level salary of a solicitor working at a leading US firm. Although on the face of it moves have been made by the Magic Circle to address this over the last year, in practice the pay gap remains. One Magic Circle firm for example increased their NQ salaries to £78,500 but at the same time cut the bonuses available to juniors. Other Magic Circle firms include the bonus element when they list their associate salary scales. A Salary Comparison Chart is given below, showing the kinds of salaries to expect at US vs. UK firms.

 

Type of Firm Salary Range Typical Salary
Leading US firms (“Full New York” rates) NQ-1  – £95,000 to £124,000

2 PQE – £100,000 to £131,000

3 PQE – £111,000 to £145,000

4 PQE – £125,000 to £162,000

5 PQE – £140,000 to £180+

£110,000

£121,000

£134,000

£146,000

£165,000

Other US firms (“Mid-Atlantic” rates) NQ-1 – £70,000 to £95,000

2 PQE – £80,000 to £100,000

3 PQE – £90,000 to £111,000

4 PQE – £100,000 to £125,000

5 PQE – £110,000 to 140,000+

£85,000

£98,000

£108,000

£118,000

£135,000

UK “Magic Circle” Firms £78,000 to £85,000 £70,000
Other city firms £58,000 to £78,000 £63,000

 

Hours

This is the most frequent concern we hear from our candidates when considering a move to a US firm. The truth is that almost all our candidates report about the same hours than they were used to at their previous (normally Magic or Silver Circle) firm.

Will I receive a pension?

Ask your recruiter about the package on offer at a particular firm. More US firms in London are starting to do pensions, but some still do not. Even if a firm does not offer a pension, in our experience the higher salary more than compensates. Do your maths and if in doubt ask us to run a package comparison for you.

Job security

On average, during a downturn and at all other times US firms in London lay off a smaller percentage of their associates than the top ten city firms. This is partly due to US firms keeping their associates less specialised for longer than city firms tend to. At US firms, candidates tend to have a much broader range of experience and can transit more easily into other areas in the event of a downturn in work.

Support

This varies from firm to firm. It is fair to say that, as a rule, the leading US firms in London offer very good support, which our candidates find comparable to any city firm. This includes trainees, paralegals (who are paid higher salaries than Magic Circle paralegals so tend to be the best in the business), a dedicated professional support function (usually a team of individuals devoted to keeping the precedents up to date, co-ordinating deal debriefs and internal/external training).

Environment

You will get the best feeling for a particular firm through your interviews with them. We recommend that, in addition to meeting partners (usually on the first two interviews), you also arrange to go for a less formal interview/drinks with associates before taking a decision on whether to accept an offer. Associates will be able to tell you more about what the culture is like, what certain partners are like to work for and what hours they tend to do each year. Again, the huge majority of our candidates report a more intimate, team-orientated environment at US firms when compared with their previous large city practices.

What the candidates say:

“I love it here. The atmosphere is as friendly as a pub I once worked in!” (ex Magic Circle assistant who joined this major US firm at 2PQE)

Quality of Work

Ask your consultant about the deals a particular firm has worked on, the typical size of transaction and the clients they work for. They will be able to give you a good start on your own research into the firm in question. The best starting point is the practice’s own website, which normally lists the deals or cases the London partners have been instructed on recently.

The top US firms will generally work on the same (or better – see below) quality deals as the Magic Circle firms; just fewer of them. The smaller and medium firms offer a similar trade off compared to their UK counterparts – generally speaking, less hours for less money and more mid-market deals or cases.

It is important for you to formulate a strategy with your recruiter about the type of firm you wish to target and be as sure as possible about your goals from the outset. What the candidates say: “The quality of work is actually better than the [Magic Circle] firm I left. Some of our clients tell us that for the run of the mill deals they use the Magic Circle firms, for the difficult ones they come to us. This means that many of the deals I have worked on have been really interesting, novel transactions.” (ex Magic Circle assistant now at a leading New York firm)

How can they pay more if you don’t need to work more hours?

The main reason for this is historical and due to a salary war in New York at the turn of the millennium. As the top firms started outbidding each other for the top talent, salaries skyrocketed. The London offices have followed suit in a bid to similarly attract the top talent here away from their UK rivals. Further, the UK firms could afford to pay NQs similar rates – they just don’t need to. The fact is that US firms do not make a large enough dent in the numbers of UK firms to justify raising salaries.

Interested?

If you are interested in finding out more about moving to a US firm in London, please contact James Yates, Director, Espero Consulting on +44 845 241 2127, Mobile: +44 7886 181 027 or james.yates@esperoconsulting.com