Opportunities are improving for students as foreign law firms become increasingly prepared to take on UK trainees. Peter Weiss looks at the prospects for those seeking a challenge. With limited trainee places in UK firms, students may be considering expanding their horizons and working in a foreign firm.

Several US practices, including White & Case, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Sidley & Austin, have begun recruiting a small number of trainee solicitors this year and giving high-flying UK candidates the opportunity to get into a US firm on the ground floor. Their recruitment is driven by competition from other US firms in London that want to be able to offer their clients UK-qualified in-house lawyers who can provide capital markets and projects finance services.

"We have very selective criteria," says John Freeman, general manager of Sidley & Austin's London office. But he thinks the recruitment of trainees by US firms will be "increasingly common".

"There is very certainly a growing trend of US firms recruiting at the trainee and the assistant level," says Stuart Robinson, senior consultant at Reynell Legal Recruitment. He points out that students applying for these positions will need to be of the highest calibre and have an outstanding academic record.

While lawyers at US firms can expect to earn larger salaries than they would at their UK rivals, they will not have an easy ride. "If you are going to work for multi-million dollar firms, you are going to work hard," says Robinson.

The atmosphere in a US firm and its work ethic will be determined by how many UK lawyers it has. Practices with a higher UK content are more likely to resemble the leading City firms like Clifford Chance or Freshfields.

In New York, top law firms expect total commitment from young associate lawyers, who can receive salaries three times higher than their UK counterparts. "I billed 3,000 hours in my first year and 3,200 in my second," says a former associate at the New York office of Skadden Arps Meagher & Flom,"and not all of my time was billable."

According to another former associate at a leading New York investment bank, US law firms will take on those individuals who like to work hard and are always willing to, and offer to, take on more work. "If you are going to step up to a US kind of salary, that is what is going to be expected of you," he adds.

"US firms demand higher number of hours than UK firms do," says Russell Lewin, partner in charge of qualified recruitment at Baker & McKenzie. But he does not believe that billable hours necessarily mean that US lawyers work harder than their UK counterparts.

If working for a US firm is not the top priority, there are a number of law firms from other countries with offices in the UK that sometimes take on UK trainees. Although these firms offer few training contracts, it may be possible to gain experience in their UK offices which can reduce the amount of time spent in a training contract.

"We do recognise time spent working in a foreign law firm," says Nick Saunders, head of legal education at the Law Society. "There is currently no list of approved foreign firms but we look at every case on its merits."

To obtain a two-year training contract, trainees must cover three areas of English and EU law from an approved list.

"It is unlikely a foreign firm could achieve all of the criteria," says Saunders. In fact, of the overseas firms who provide work in banking, commercial work, mergers and acquisitions, even many of the US practices may have to second their trainees to other firms for their litigation seats.

Whether or not students are considering working for a foreign firm, they should be aware that the marketplace is going global. EU nationals are now applying to London firms to become trainees.

So while the options for trainee places are growing, the competition for them is also increasing. Students need to be able to take a world view with the ability to speak several languages becoming an increasing asset as UK firms look for trainees to send to their overseas offices.

If you want to know more about working in a foreign firm, contact Jacqui Freeman, case work officer, legal education at the Law Society on 0171 242 1222.