Working in Big Law: What is it Really Like?

The paychecks are lavish, but the work can be punishing

It is easy to see why those notable five London Big Law firms in the UK are known as the “Magic Circle” Their offices are glorious, akin to investment banks with marble-floored corridors adorned with expensive modern art. The paychecks can be just as lavish as the offices. 

For those looking to leverage an LL.M. to land a job in Big Law, there are a couple of things to know. Trainee lawyers work long hours but are routinely offered multi-million-dollar salaries once they make it to the partner level of a top firm. Other perks include working with super-smart people, good networking opportunities, plus a prestige brand on your CV, which can open up doors should you decide to move elsewhere. 

Profit per equity partner, a widely used performance metric at a top firm such as Linklaters or Allen & Overy, can be more than £1.5 million. In the US, pay is even higher. Freshly-minted LL.M. graduates working for a leading US firm will be paid up to $180,000. 

But they work extremely hard for the money, with US law firm lawyers routinely clocking up 2,200 hours a year, more than the 1,800 estimate at magic circle firms. 

From an LL.M. at QMUL to a Big Law firm

Lisa Meller is a trainee solicitor in London at Ince & Co, an international commercial law firm with 13 offices worldwide and some 600 employees. She studied an LL.M. at Queen Mary University of London, specializing in international shipping law. She graduated in 2016. 

She says the advantage of working for a large international law firm is getting exposure to the biggest and most fascinating cases. “And meeting the leading professionals in your industry, some of whom have worked on cases that we studied during our LL.M.”

“It gives you great contacts for the future and a very good idea of the industry,” she adds.

[Read: How Many Big Law Associates and Partners Have an LL.M.?]

The work is of course demanding, but Meller does not have a billing target at Ince & Co. “The focus is definitely on development of skills rather than target hours,” she says. 

What is her schedule like? It depends on the cases she’s working on. “Ince is very flexible in that we are encouraged to do agile working where possible and manage our own time effectively,” she says. “Obviously, when something goes to a hearing, working hours are always at their peak and then you can end up staying late.” 

But that doesn’t have to be a downside to working in Big Law. Meller says: “Working long hours during the early stage in your career allows you to learn a lot very quickly, and to progress both in terms of experience and knowledge.” 

And she goes on to say that there is a good work/life balance: “And during less busy periods, we have the opportunity to take part in CSR opportunities, such as an immigration law clinic and other community projects.” 

Lawyers are clearly well-compensated for the sometimes punishing hours, but there were other reasons Meller was drawn to the career path. “Compensation certainly wasn’t the main driver for me,” she says. “I think it is very important to be passionate about what you do and I was very selective about the firms that I applied to.” 

David Tilbury agrees. He completed a bachelor’s degree in English Literature at the UK’s University of Reading before studying for an LL.M. at the University of Law — Moorgate. He has worked at a plethora of leading City law firms, including Edwards Angell Palmer & Doge; Lawrence Graham; and Norton Rose Fulbright, which has over 4,000 lawyers in more than 50 cities globally. His current post is trainee solicitor at Hamleys of London, the famous toy store that has 40 outlets worldwide.  

“Whilst the compensation is a benefit, I’d advise against anyone going into law purely for the salary; you’ve got to have a passion for practicing law,” Tilbury says of working in law in general. “Nothing else will get you through the long hours without hating your job.”

He believes it is worth the effort, however. “Working with high-profile clients and alongside some very sharp-minded colleagues is certainly an advantage,” says Tilbury. “There’s also the advantage of being a part of a profession that is constantly developing and changing; it’s unlikely you’ll end up stagnating in your career unless you want to.” 

Getting involved in as much work as possible is essential for working in any law practice, big or small. Resilience — the capacity to recover quickly from difficulty — and lateral, or “out-of-the-box” thinking are also required, Tilbury says.

Meller adds: “The main attributes you need are to be hard working and passionate about what you do, and have a keenness to learn. However, you obviously also need to be diligent in your work, have excellent communication skills and manage your time effectively.”

Her best piece of advice for budding Big Law workers is: “Get some work experience and see if you actually enjoy working in a law firm. Then be very specific about the firms that you apply to.” 

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