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Does size matter?

Law firms come in many sizes – what is the best firm for you? What are the differences between large and small firms and the advantages and disadvantages?

The range of possible employment options open to lawyers is much greater than may be expected. Deciding where to practice law goes beyond deciding which field is of greatest interest to you [see Choosing a specialisation], factors such as your work-life balance and geographical location together with the types of clients you would like to advise are significant. The information below largely relates to solicitors, as barristers are generally self employed, but there may also be opportunities for barristers to work on an employed basis.

Essentially clients come in two main types, individuals and companies. But it isn’t that simple. What sort of individual do you see yourself advising? A person seeking legal aid for a housing problem? Or a person who owns homes around the world? Companies can also be large or small. Do you want to act for the local restaurant business on a planning application? Or a major PLC in an international transaction?

In the last decade the legal market has evolved. National and regional heavyweight firms have come to the fore and it is no longer necessary to join a London firm if you see yourself acting for a major PLC. The London market has also changed. Although major commercial work is still dominated by “Magic Circle” firms, some of those firms have much more of an international bias or may even have merged with an overseas firm.

On the High Street, many smaller and medium sized firms have tended shifted away from legal aid work and have built up strong commercial teams acting for local businesses as well as private individuals. The firms who still act for legally aided clients have had to change the way they work to remain cost effective, often increasing in size and efficiency.

Acting for private clients, particularly in London, can mean acting for someone with immense and complex wealth as London has become the city of choice for many non-domiciled business people. Even domestic conveyancing has felt the impact of a rapidly rising property market, and with the average house price now in excess of £230K nationally and over £300K in many parts of the country, conveyancing work is a competitive business!


Give careful thought to your personal priorities before deciding what type of firm would suit you. Issues to consider include:

  • Work-life balance – are you happy to work long hours or are you more of a 9-5 person? There is no doubt that the law is a demanding career and the opportunities to work 9-5 may be few and far between so you may have to consider whether the law is really for you? But it is possible to achieve a balance and if working weekends and in the early hours of the morning doesn’t sound like something you would want to do, then the financial rewards of the Magic Circle firms may not seem so appealing.
  • Financial considerations – large commercial firms pay higher salaries, but at a price! You may be attracted by the high salaries but not the long hours. Salary levels vary considerably in the law, often determined not only by the size of the firm but also the area of specialisation. So if this is important to you, do your research before deciding the path you want to pursue.
  • Personal reward – if you have always wanted to be a champion of human rights, your decision may already be made regardless of other considerations. Alternatively you may prefer to serve the local community rather than a large corporation in which case a smaller firm may be right for you.

Types of Employers


“Magic Circle” Firms

This is the name often used to refer to the large commercial City firms. The range of commercial work is great, from tax advice to mergers and acquisitions with specialisms often linked to specific sectors of the commercial market, for example shipping, construction, oil and gas etc. If you are looking for a good work-life balance this type of firm may not be for you but the financial rewards are significant and not unsurprisingly there is a lot of competition to work for this type of firm. You will need strong academics and a propensity for hard work and long hours.

Large – medium firms

Top class commercial work and big salaries are not restricted to the Magic Circle. Many other firms in London act for major commercial clients and some for wealthy individuals as well. Again the financial rewards can be great and the hours long. There are also a number of comparatively large firms in London who act for legal aid clients, often with a number of branch offices, and whilst the financial rewards may not be so great, the work is rewarding and interesting in itself.

Small and niche firms

These firms vary considerably in the types of work they do from a sole practitioner acting for the local community to a niche firm of divorce lawyers representing the wealthiest residents in London. Remuneration and expectations re working hours will also vary so you will need to do your research before deciding which firm is best for you.

The regions

Large firms

Whilst large firms in the regions are likely to also act for private clients the focus will be on commercial work. If you would like to specialise in heavyweight commercial work you should be able to do so at one of the large regional firms, many of which have an increasingly national presence. You may have a better work-life balance at a large regional firm but don’t expect a 9-5 existence and the financial rewards will reflect this.

Medium firms

Most will undertake a wide range of legal work. You should have a better work-life balance and the opportunity to specialise in a particular field of the law without being too restricted to a narrow area. Opportunities for early responsibility may be easier to come by than in a larger firm.

Small and niche firms

As in London, small firms vary greatly and may specialise in one area or alternatively be an example of a true general practice.

Other opportunities

Solicitors and barristers may also work in a number of central and local Government organisations, including the Government Legal Service, the Crown Prosecution Service and local authorities. In addition a large number of banks and companies employ lawyers in their in-house legal departments [see In-house lawyers].

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