London and New York are undeniably the two biggest draws for the best legal graduates and junior lawyers worldwide. Firms like Latham & Watkins, White & Case, Allen and Overy and Linklaters have the size and prestige to consistently entice the best trainees, assistants and associates.
Given the choice, how do top-level assistants and associates identify the differences between the two legal hubs and the law firms that have made their names in them? Are the firms largely homogenous and just selling an image based on their historic ties to different territories? Or is there a fundamental difference between a corporate culture built in the UK and one built in the US?
There is a raft of US firms with London offices that can be very tempting for lawyers when considering the incentives they offer over locally dominant competitors. Meanwhile top London firms such as Linklaters and Allen & Overy also have offices in New York while a number of multinational firms such as DLA and Hogan Lovells also cover both hubs.
Pay is always going to be an important consideration for lawyers looking at top firms and in this area the US firms have an edge. For example, lawyers looking to earn six figures in the first three years of qualification will have to look to firms like Kirkland & Ellis, Debevoise & Plimpton and Skadden Arps. Even high-paying UK firms such as Clifford Chance and Linklaters do not pay 3 year PQE lawyers much beyond the mid £90,000s at that stage in their careers.
The big UK firms do focus more on gradually (gradual being a relative term) introducing junior lawyers to greater responsibility and the formal aspects of training are widely perceived as superior. US firms on the other hand are notorious for their baptism of fire approach but this is actually a simplistic view of what goes on. US firms located in the UK generally have much smaller offices so assistants and associates typically have closer contact with senior lawyers who can offer direct mentoring early on. Many see this as outweighing the lack of formal training programmes. The size differences also means junior lawyers have tended to be less specialised (one aspect that is changing), get more client contact and are involved in more diverse and higher level work.
Lawyers interested in working in specialist areas like technology, employment or property may prefer UK firms, where the legal culture grants these discrete departments more attention and prestige than is traditionally found among their US cousins’ London offices. However, City based US firms that started out predominantly focused on corporate and finance work for US businesses operating in Europe have gradually started to build specialisms in these and other areas.
How many hours?
With regards to working hours, there is unlikely to be a discernible difference between top firms. There is a perception that US firms demand very long hours, but the reality is that all top level law firms require a serious time commitment. Billable hours targets are higher for US firms in the 1800-2000 range rather than the 1600-1700 range set by top UK firms but some of this will be offset by the more enthusiastic billing approaches typical of US firms.
A UK-US compromise
Ever increasing globalisation means that the cross-over between US and UK law firms has never been stronger. Many US firms now have offices in London and vice-versa. Despite this, cultural differences do remain which can be either positive or negative depending on the individual concerned.
Lawyers who make the wrong choice of firm whether US, UK, large or small can easily become dissatisfied but there are always alternatives available to candidates with top firms from either jurisdiction on their CVs.