The magic circle
The five organisations in this group are considered to be the City’s top commercial law firms. They differ slightly in terms of size, strategy and specialisms, but all have a focus on international corporate and finance work, a reputation for quality, and client lists full of leading corporates and investment banks. They also all have a large number of training contracts on offer – around 100 each every year. Joining one of these firms will mean working on the City’s biggest corporate and banking deals. It can also mean spending some time abroad, as they all have offices across the world.
Clifford Chance is the biggest magic circle firm. Its traditional key strength is finance, but its corporate department is very well-regarded and the firm arguably leads the magic circle in dispute resolution work. Clifford Chance’s pioneer instincts have led it to be the only one of the top five to move its entire London operation from the City to Canary Wharf, where it occupies a spectacular skyscraper.
Linklaters is perhaps the most well-rounded of the magic circle practices, being arguably the only firm of the five with corporate and finance practices of equal strength. However, corporate has historically been at the heart of the firm. The firm also has one of the strongest real estate practices in the magic circle.
Allen & Overy
A&O is most renowned for its finance work – its teams in this area have long been held to be some of, if not the, best in the City – though its corporate offering is very strong too. A&O is said to have a particularly supportive and friendly culture, and is also reported to be the only City law firm to have its own office bar.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
Freshfields’ corporate, competition and arbitration teams are among the best in the world, and its finance practice is now not far off this level. It’s one of the oldest firms in the City – but its heritage hasn’t prevented its progress into a global powerhouse. Its brand has been enhanced in recent years by its selection as the official legal services provider for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Slaughter and May
Slaughter and May is most well-known for its calm focus on its outstanding corporate department, regarded by many as the premier practice of its kind in the City and which advises a large number of FTSE 100 clients. The firm’s international network, consisting of outposts in just Beijing, Brussels and Hong Kong, is considerably smaller than that of other magic circle firms as Slaughters instead prefers to nurture "best friend" relationships with top local partnerships.
The chasing pack
The City also boasts a clutch of firms just outside the magic circle which undertake work of a similar type and quality, and often also have extensive international networks. These firms tend to not be involved in the biggest corporate and finance deals quite as often, sometimes have their key strengths in areas outside the corporate and finance arenas on which the magic circle firms focus, and in most cases have slightly smaller international networks. But these firms will all give junior lawyers excellent training in an environment that is in many ways indistinguishable from that found at one of the magic circle firms.
Ashurst is a solid corporate and finance performer which also does well in real estate, energy and infrastructure work, and competition. With its traditional strength being in corporate, it has a large number of high-profile FTSE clients.
CMS Cameron McKenna
CMS Cameron McKenna is associated with its excellent work in the energy, infrastructure and construction sectors. These specialities are reflected in the locations of its network of offices – it was one of the first firms to enter the resource-fuelled eastern European market and still has a strong presence there and, unusually for a City firm, in oil-rich Aberdeen.
Hogan Lovells – formed in May 2010 through the merger of long-standing City firm Lovells and Washington-headquarted Hogan & Hartson – is a good all-rounder, having excellent teams in corporate and finance but also particular strengths in litigation and real estate.
Herbert Smith Freehills
Herbert Smith Freehills is seen by many as the best large-scale dispute resolution firm in the City. Although historically regarded as a litigation specialist, the firm is now strong across the board and its corporate practice in particular is increasingly seen as able to challenge those of the magic circle.
Norton Rose has solid corporate and, in particular, finance practices – the firm is strong in asset and project finance and has one of the City’s best Islamic finance offerings. The firm merged in 2010 with Australian firm Deacons and now offers graduate recruits a chance to spend time working in Sydney or Perth.
Simmons & Simmons
Simmons & Simmons is a well-regarded City firm with a strong finance practice – particularly for capital markets and structured finance deals – and an outstanding employment department. The firm is also renowned for its collection of modern art, which includes works by Patrick Caulfield and Damien Hirst.
Little big hitters
In the City’s legal landscape, there are some firms that may be smaller than the biggest names but are still high-profile, perhaps because they have an influence out of proportion to their size, or because of an outstanding reputation in a particular area.
SJ Berwin is a solid mid-market performer – but with one of the City’s leading practices in private equity, particularly fund formation, and also a strong real estate team. At 30 years young, the firm is one of the newest elite partnerships in the City and is known in the Square Mile for its energy and drive.
Macfarlanes offers a full spread of legal services mainly to large UK companies, but the quality of its corporate practice is so high that this department is often involved on big-ticket cross-border deals that would normally be given to much larger firms. It also has strong real estate and private client practices. The firm has no overseas offices and instead uses a well-established referral network.
The regional contenders
Alongside the City-centric practices, the Square Mile is also the home of a number of firms with a presence across the UK. Regional networks have not stopped many of these firms from having global ambitions and some of them have international office lists comparable with those of magic circle firms. These regional players do complex work for high-profile clients, but it often tends to be in the mid-market arena, or for mainly UK-based organisations rather than the largest international banks and conglomerates. But the training at these firms will be high quality and in some cases may involve less punishing hours than at the largest City practices.
Addleshaw Goddard has a compact national network with offices in Manchester and Leeds and headquarters in the City. The firm is strong in corporate and real estate and has a leading position in these areas in the North, while holding its own mainly in the mid-market in London.
Eversheds has long been one of the best-known regional firms with a large number of offices across the UK and now a significant international network. The breadth of the firm’s network has given it strengths in a very wide range of areas.
DLA Piper was originally a northern market leader but has morphed into its current global shape through a hook-up with two US firms. Its work is a healthy mix of corporate, finance and real estate matters.
Pinsents is a national giant with offices across the UK and in Asia and the Middle East and opened French and German bases earlier this year. The firm is a good all-rounder, with strengths particularly in corporate, construction and IT. To read more about Pinsent Masons, see thegatewayonline.com/pinsent-masons.
US and other global firms
Firms of this type in the City include those who have grown offices here over the years from scratch and those who have adopted a ready-made English firm. Either way, they tend to promise their junior lawyers all the benefits of training at a large international firm, but in a smaller office with a more informal atmosphere than that found at the magic circle firms and their nearest English rivals. However, the price paid may well be longer working hours.
Jones Day is one of the largest US law firms with 34 offices across the globe. It’s renowned worldwide for its litigation practice, and in London also has a highly-ranked M&A department. Graduates joining its City office are trained on the firm’s unique non-rotational training contract.
International firm Mayer Brown gained its London office through a merger with respected City outfit Rowe and Maw in 2002. Mayer Brown has particular strengths in corporate, finance, dispute resolution and construction.
White & Case
White & Case is a New York player whose London office is one of the most well-established US outposts in the City. The firm’s main focus is finance, particularly acquisition finance and deals in the energy and infrastructure sphere, but its dispute resolution practice is also strong.