The known unknowns

A surprising number of UK associates haven’t even heard of the top US firms in London. Our survey reveals their attitudes

If UK associates had to join a US firm tomorrow, which one do you reckon they would pick? One with more money, shiny windows, a fancy cafeteria? According to our survey of over 500 UK associates, the rules of attraction are even less complicated than that. When respondents were asked which US firm they would least like to join out of the international top 30, an alarming proportion gave the same answer: they didn’t know anything about them.

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Who?

“I don’t really know anything about these firms,” one UK associate answered bluntly, echoing the views of many other respondents in this year’s survey, the majority of whom had eight years’ PQE and were made up of an equal number of males and females.

Of course, this wouldn’t be worth the red flag if the firms in question were back-street businesses with offices the size of hotdog stands. Quite the contrary, most of the firms associates were asked to choose from were plucked from this year’s ‘Top 30 international firms in London’ revenue table. The annual list not only names some of the biggest revenue generators in the City, but also some of the most influential firms in the world.

Statistics from the survey back up the comments, with the most popular international firms also boasting some of the longest footholds in the London legal market. The three firms UK associates said they were most likely to consider joining were: Baker & McKenzie, the first choice for 14 per cent of UK associates; DLA Piper, the top choice for 16 per cent; and Hogan Lovells, the number one option for 12 per cent. All three firms – the latter two included in the survey by dint of their US mergers – have a distinguished heritage in the UK.

That said, publicity can go both ways – for all those who put DLA top, 17 per cent said it was the firm they were least likely to join.

Nevertheless, it is telling that these firms, by far the least American of the lot, are the first choice for 42 per cent of the UK associates surveyed. Figures fall by half when looking at the international firms that come next in the popularity contest, with 6 per cent of respondents saying they would put Latham & Watkins at the top of their consideration list, and 5 per cent arch-rival White & Case.

The options are spread even more thinly after that, with the percentage of associates choosing each firm ranging from 3 per cent (Mayer Brown, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, Reed Smith) and a resounding zero (Bryan Cave, Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy).

Again, the main reasons associates gave for considering one firm over another came down to ‘most recognised name’ and ‘most familiar work’.

“I know most about the firm [I chose] and don’t have much knowledge of some of the others,” explained one UK associate.

The comments also underline the importance of UK heritage for British lawyers, with “not too American” and “roots with a UK firm” other reasons respondents gave for choosing one international firm over another.

Not one female associate chose Davis Polk & Wardell, for example, as their number one ‘would-join’, despite the UK office of the blue-blood firm, one of the most conservative outfits in the US, launching an English law capability in London with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer capital markets partner Simon Witty.

Bread and US circuses

But ideals can be differ from reality. While UK associates make a beeline to the international firms they know when given a hypothetical career choice, research in a second survey, this time targeting associates working at US firms in the UK, reveals something quite different.

In this case, the aforementioned stereotype that lawyers join US firms for the money rings true, loud and clear. Nearly 40 per cent of associates currently at US firms said they joined for more cash – the highest-rated single reason proportionately. This marks a huge increase over the answers to this question last year, when just 23 per cent of respondents said money was their main motivator.

US

This growing attraction of a US salary tells a different story from the results in our first survey, where associates at UK firms said they had no intention of joining certain US firms because they did not know anything about them. The differing responses suggest that many of these firms don’t make it onto UK associates’ radar until the job offer (or to put it more crudely, the fat cheque) lands on their desks.

One of the highest paying US firms in the UK, for example, is Bingham McCutchen, which offers NQ City lawyers a £100,000 salary. However, just 7 per cent of UK associates put Bingham in their choice of the five firms they would most consider joining, compared with 44 per cent who chose Hogan Lovells where NQs are offered around 40 per cent less, at £61,500.

Likewise, Weil Gotshal & Manges and Kirkland & Ellis, both of which recently bolstered the salaries of London-based associates to £97,000, attracted just 3.3 per cent of the ‘most likely to join’ votes between them. Despite announcing a salary freeze for City associates in 2011, Bakers significantly outgunned its rivals in terms of popularity – 49 per cent of associates put the firm in their choice of five places they would most consider joining. This compares with 28 per cent for Latham, the most popular ‘pure US’ firm on the list.

Again, the fact that Bakers is one of the longest-established US players in the UK market no doubt has something to do with its popularity. But none of the associates currently at a US firm gave this as a reason they joined.

“The pay is so much higher – it’s a mystery to me why anybody wouldn’t try to work for a US firm,” commented one US associate. “The hours are no worse than the magic circle, the culture is generally more collegiate and the chances of partnership are just as good as anywhere else, these days.”

UK

However, this opinion is not shared by associates at UK firms, with 64 per cent saying they would expect to work “significantly” more hours if they joined a US firm. While the stereotype remains, the reality is quite different. Some 60 per cent of associates currently at US firms say they work the same hours as they did in their previous jobs.

One respondent in the US associate survey added that working for a US firm is more rewarding than working for a top UK firm, and not just in terms of money.

“Having come from a magic circle background [I’ve noticed that] US firms are much more meritocratic and reward self-starters and the best and brightest in a way that magic circle and other UK firms are not set up to do, and not just economically.”

Up for grads

The usual gender struggle was evident in the responses. Around 86 per cent of female respondents currently at UK firms said they had never interviewed at a US firm, compared with 72 per cent of men.

While it is not clear if this is because men are more likely to be approached by a US firm than their female colleagues, the results from our second survey show that if you are a woman, a degree from Oxbridge might be the golden key through the US door.

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Of our respondents at US firms, 26 per cent of women went to Oxbridge compared with just 13 per cent of men. While it is no surprise that well-paid US firms might cherry-pick talent from Britain’s top universities, the fact that twice the number of women as men came from Oxbridge suggests female associates are more likely to be judged by where they studied.

This figure reverses when looking at non-UK universities, with 26 per cent of male respondents and just 12 per cent of females saying they studied abroad before joining a US firm. This could partly explain why more male associates have interviewed with a US firm than their female counterparts, with those who have studied abroad naturally more likely to attract the attention of an international firm.

The gender disparities continue when associates are asked what their main motivations for joining a US firm were. Almost twice as many women as men put career progression as their second main reason for joining (more money was the first choice for both genders), while 19 per cent of men compared with just 3 per cent of women put chances of making partner as a top motivator.

Female lawyers were instead sold on increased responsibility – 54 per cent of female respondents put this as one of their top three reasons for joining a US firm – and chances of working outside the UK, with 51 per cent of women citing this as a reason for moving to a US firm compared with 43 per cent of men.

Although both genders listed money as a main reason for moving to a US firm, more than twice the number of men as women named firms such as Debevoise & Plimpton, which pays UK NQs around £94,000, as their number one ‘would-join’ firm in the UK associate survey. Likewise, well-regarded Skadden, which pays NQs over £94,250, attracted just 7 per cent of overall votes from female associates, compared with 16 per cent from men.

Yet again it was Bakers that won the popular vote among women – 18 per cent of female associates put the firm as their number one ‘would-join’ compared with 11 per cent of men. In comparison, not one female associate put O’Melveny & Myers as a firm they would consider joining when asked to pick five.

“[We] have a very strong culture of respect,” comments Bakers’ London HR director Martin Blackburn. “This culture underpins the work we’ve done recently to review the way we manage and develop our associates. For example, each of our associates has a partner responsible for coaching them over a significant part of their career.”

Is it safe?

Just 6 per cent of associates currently at a US firm cited job security as a motivator for moving to their current base, by far the least likely reason for associates to jump ship. Those currently at a UK firm agree, with some pointing to the collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf as a reason they would not want to move to a US firm.

“After the rapid downfall of Dewey it looks like job security is lower than ever,” said one associate currently at a UK firm.

It appears that specific examples such as Dewey are putting associates off the idea of moving to a US firm, rather than the more general impact of the recession. When UK associates were asked if their perception of US firms as potential employers had changed since the downturn, more than half said there had been “no change” in their view.

“Better pay, but less job security – this perception has not changed in recent years,” said one respondent.

However, 27 per cent of UK associates said the idea of working at a US firm had become more attractive since the recession struck, suggesting the growing pressure on a number of UK firms has got some associates looking around.

“Better pay when salaries are depressed elsewhere,” said a UK associate of why US firms have become more attractive.

While for many UK associates it is often a case of ‘pick what you know’ when given a hypothetical career choice, those who did end up moving prove it is still money that makes the world go round.

UK associates’ top choice US firm

TOP CHOICE

Reasons given for choosing particular US/international firms as potential ‘would-joins’

“Would look for a firm that was (prior to a merger) a UK firm. A US firm with UK roots would be preferable to one with a purely US background.”

“The first three [firms I chose] are more ‘anglicised’, so I imagine the culture would be better. Otherwise, it just comes down to money.”

“Would recommend firms that have made an effort to integrate into the UK market and adapt to some extent to the way things are done here, but which offer an enhanced salary to reflect that they are a US/international firm.”

“The ones I’ve heard of.”

“I’m more familiar with them and their work. I know some people who work for these firms.”

“Not particularly keen on joining an international firms as they are too large and ‘unfriendly’. I view [my choice] as the ‘smaller’ of the firms that still retain some form of team or family spirit.”

Reasons given for NOT choosing particular US/international firms as potential ‘would-joins’

“Never heard of them.”

“Either poor reputations generally, or reputation for treating staff poorly.”

“Lack of identity, low partner profits, incompatibility of English/US parts, bad/rude attitude of partners.”

“Reputation for being brutal.”

“I don’t really know anything about the different firms.”

“Based on the experience of friends who have worked at those firms (eg, working hours, treatment, quality of life).”

“They are either firms I have worked with on deals and didn’t like or firms I’ve never heard of.”

“Bad reputation/never heard of them.”

“Long hours, stressful.”

“Not so well known.”

“Salary or lack of reputation in UK market.”

“Unknown or too niche.”

“Poor quality of work, poor people management.”