The American Dream
28 November 2007
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2 January 2014
Ten years ago, maybe even five, the majority of the UKs most talented solicitors2b were destined straight for the so-called magic circle. Since then, a handful of elite US law firms offering US-style training and knockout salaries have transformed the picture entirely. The US firm is no longer a leftfield choice. Indeed, many of the most outstanding UK law students now see training at a top US firm, including the likes of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Latham & Watkins and Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom as the most prestigious option.
So what is it that convinces a high-calibre candidate to bin their multiple offers from the magic circle and pledge allegiance to a US firm? In a nutshell, the leading US firms in London offer a deal their UK rivals simply cannot match.
It all comes down to four key matters:
High quality international work
Relaxed work environment
THE US MARKET
The expression leading US firms in London probably merits some unpicking. There are well over 50 firms operating in London that would call themselves US firms, originating from, or running their head office out of, the US. But not all of them offer the packages referred to above. What is more, several of them including well-known firms such as Cravath Swaine & Moore, Davis Polk & Wardwell and Sullivan & Cromwell do not even offer training contracts. Others such as Dechert, Jones Day and Mayer Brown are certainly big US names, but because they established London presences by merging with mid-tier UK firms or by swallowing up large UK practice groups, the result is a somewhat diluted version of the fully-fledged US firm.
The top US firms in London that this article focuses on the ones offering training contracts that are drawing in the most talented and ambitious law students are firms like Cleary, Latham, Shearman & Sterling, Skadden and Weil Gotshal & Manges. These firms are all powerhouses on Wall Street and enjoy excellent reputations in London. And, most importantly, they all offer a training experience that you will find hard to match at the magic circle.
THE AMERICAN WAY
In the US they do not do training contracts. Put yourself through the US system and from the first day that you walk in with your gleaming smile and new pin-stripe you are a full-on associate. The leading US firms in London view their trainees in a not dissimilar manner to their new starters in New York: they are expected to operate like lawyers from day one.
What this means as a trainee is that pretty much every day you are given work you thought you would not get until well after qualification. For instance, within your first year at Cleary, it is quite possible you will have drafted an IPO prospectus, liaised directly with the European Commission on a huge antitrust case, negotiated key points on a sale and purchase agreement, led meetings and conference calls and managed closings on international securities deals.
The fact that trainee intakes are generally a lot smaller at US firms means that while you are getting to grips with all this responsibility, you are also receiving plenty of one-to-one support (both professional and moral) from partners and senior associates, as well as a highly tailored training programme, which you are encouraged to shape according to your own interests. And the added bonus is that while all this is going on, you are getting to see the world: within nine months of joining Cleary I had been on almost 20 trips abroad.
At a magic circle firm it is a different story. This is what my friends working there tell me and it is what I have seen from across the table. There are too many trainees for everyone to get either high quality work with responsibility or a closely tailored training programme. Sure, if you are a superstar you are likely to get noticed and this will be reflected in the sort of work you receive. But with more than a hundred other trainees competing for the best jobs not to mention the scores of junior associates ahead of you in the queue you are guaranteed to be doing your fair share of gimp work for quite some time. And when it comes to training, the one-size-fits-all approach will inevitably characterise much of your daily diet.
DRESS-DOWN FRIDAY WRIT LARGE
There are also key differences between UK and US firms in terms of the working environment. Fancy being on the lowest rung of the ladder in a place where the strictures of hierarchy are positively embraced? Welcome to the magic circle, where an array of positions and titles repeatedly underline just how junior you are; where it is some sort of nightmarish rite of passage for you to muck in with menial admin work; where it is probably best for you to keep shtoom in the presence of clients; where the partners have a separate dining room.
In stark contrast to their UK counterparts, US firms do not go in for old-school English stuffiness. In my experience at Cleary, the working environment is informal and relaxed, everyone is friendly and everyone is respected. In line with the type of work you get as a trainee, there is a strong expectation that you will have thought about your work and that you will speak up, whether that be in a meeting, training seminar or out to dinner with clients. Save for client meetings, the TM Lewin tie and shirt combo is absolutely not essential. And the idea of a partners dining room is anathema.
THAT THING ABOUT HOURS
It is often said that while juniors at US firms do indeed receive lots of responsibility early on, they are also required to work long hours. The reality is, whether you join a US firm or a UK firm, you will go through periods of doing long hours. Sometimes very long hours. But it would be naive to believe that you will have an easier time at the magic circle than at a leading US firm. And for me, long hours are far more bearable if you are getting your teeth into interesting and challenging tasks, rather than just providing assistance to the school of more senior lawyers who are handling all the juicy bits.
THE ICING ON THE BANOFFEE PIE
Anyone qualifying as a solicitor in the City is going to earn a good salary, whether that is with a UK or US firm. But it does not take much flicking through the brochures to see that the market rate for newly qualified solicitors at US firms is, in general, considerably higher than that at UK firms. Wave goodbye to that student debt!
For me the decision was very straightforward. The three or four US firms I looked at seemed to outdo their UK counterparts on each of my key criteria: quality of work and training; working environment; and remuneration. In particular, I was attracted by the promised levels of responsibility I was eager to turn up, don the Speedos and be thrown in at the deep end. Of those firms, Cleary which has been in London longer than most US outfits, has grown organically, and has a reputation for being intellectual, international and collegiate seemed a great choice.
For many others too, the US firms are now the obvious choice, which is why competition for training contracts at places like Cleary and Skadden is so ridiculously high. Furthermore, gone are the days when you could train at a UK firm and then easily cross over to a US firm. These firms now have the luxury of being able to cherry-pick the most outstanding applicants at the training contract stage. As the partner interviewing me at Cleary explained, the firm would only offer training contracts to candidates they thought would be among the top handful of trainees out of all those going to the magic circle.
Of course, strong applicants continue to head for the leading UK firms. But for an increasing number, the magic circle now goes down as a second choice.
Stephen Glasper is a third-seat trainee at US law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton