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Magic Circle law firms and Silver Circle law firms: what you need to know

by Sellick Partnership | 3 November 2020

For those seeking employment in the legal sector, there are few destinations more prestigious than the ‘Magic Circle’ and ‘Silver Circle’ law firms. These organisations are famous around the world, with hard-earned reputations for excellence.

This select group of legal firms have become widely known for their commitment to the very highest standards of performance and success. As such, obtaining a role with these companies can be seen as a real marker of accomplishment for the UK’s most skilled legal professionals.

Here, we explore the law firms that comprise the Magic Circle and Silver Circle, looking at what differentiates these organisations and what is expected of those chosen to represent these top law firms.

What is the Magic Circle?

The term 'Magic Circle' was first coined by the legal media in the 1990s to describe the most prestigious, high-performing law firms in London. All of the members of the Magic Circle firms are known for their high-profile corporate and finance work, overseeing multi-billion-pound transactions and delivering the highest earnings per lawyer of any law firm headquartered in the UK.

This group used to be known informally as the Club of Nine, but this term fell out of use as its perceived membership became more exclusive. Today, the Magic Circle consists of five law firms: Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May.

Each of the law firms in the Magic Circle shares the following characteristics:

  • Based in London, with substantial international operations.

  • Industry-leading offerings in banking, finance and corporate law.

  • Working with the world’s biggest and best-known corporations on major transactions with significant economic implications.

  • Revenues and salary levels far above the UK industry average.

There is no doubt that these leading Magic Circle law firms are still among the most respected names in law, retaining a powerful attraction for candidates who seek to make an impact at the very top of their profession, working on cases with global impact.

Entry into these Magic Circle law firms is notoriously competitive, with short-term promotion prospects fairly low. These law firms have a trainee intake of around 100 a year and, as they expect the best, they have a reputation for working graduates hard, with long working hours.

However, if a placement is secured, a graduate can expect great resources, fantastic facilities, international secondments and a lot of responsibility. Trainees are often offered a job at their firm post-qualification which makes choosing the right one even more important.

There are no other Magic Circle firms, however there are other big London law firms that work on corporate cases across the globe.

When it comes to salaries at these law firms, first year trainees can expect to earn between £42,000 and £44,000, while second year trainees will be taking home closer to £50,000. Newly qualified lawyers will be paid around £100,000 – including or excluding bonuses and equity partners can earn between £1.6 million and £1.8m.

What is the Silver Circle?

Although the Magic Circle law firms are seen as the top tier for UK law, this is not to say that other firms are not also capable of commanding huge respect and strong reputations. Indeed, the more recent creation of the so-called ‘Silver Circle’ reflects this reality.

This term was conceived by the industry publication The Lawyer to describe the law firms that fall just outside the Magic Circle, but which nevertheless deliver far higher revenues per lawyer than the average UK firm.

When the concept was created in 2005, the Silver Circle law firms were said to consist of Ashurst, Herbert Smith Freehills, Macfarlanes and Travers Smith, as well as the now-defunct SJ Berwin. Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner is also widely considered to be in the conversation for membership of this elite group, who share many of the same traits:

  • A focus on serving a premium London-centred client base in the UK.

  • Significantly higher profits per equity partner and revenue per lawyer than the UK average.

  • A generally broader range of specialisms than the Magic Circle.

  • A flexible approach to management, with an avoidance of top-down leadership and excessive bureaucracy.

There is more debate about the exact membership of the Silver Circle than the Magic Circle law firms, with The Lawyer arguing that the increasingly international focus of firms like Ashurst and Herbert Smith Freehills means they no longer belong in this category as well as debating that Mischon de Reya should now be granted membership.

Training contracts are sought after and incredibly competitive, just like Magic Circle firms. Trainees working at a Silver Circle law firm can expect a stimulating atmosphere as well as a very high-quality workload. While there would be some long days, the shifts are often thought to be more reasonable than what could be expected at a Magic Circle firm.

Silver Circle law firms are not that much different to the Magic Circle firms when it comes to salaries. First year trainees can expect a salary of around £40,000 while newly qualified lawyers may be paid around £68,000 to £70,000.

What is it like to work for Magic and Silver Circle law firms?

Working for a Magic Circle law firm is a dream come true for many in the sector, but those seeking roles with one of these organisations must be prepared to put a lot in if they wish to earn the associated rewards.

Magic Circle firms are known for their lengthy working hours, clear sense of hierarchy and demanding professional requirements. For those able to keep pace with these requirements, the payoff comes in the form of generous salaries, cutting-edge working environments and an opportunity to work on some of the industry’s biggest and most important cases.

Those working at Magic Circle firms will be offered what is considered to be the best training with excellent work and a reputation to match.

By comparison, working experiences in the Silver Circle tend to be more varied. Each company has its own distinctive culture, and are generally known for being less rigidly formal and more flexible than their Magic Circle counterparts; as such, staff can still expect to work long hours as a rule, but may experience a better work-life balance on the whole.

While Silver Circle firms will give you your weekends free, you will also have access to fantastic training as well as excellent professional development opportunities.

It is worth noting there will be many well-respected, top-performing organisations who are not included in the rankings. These firms will still offer well-paid placements, however, for ambitious professionals, the pull of these recognised names will always be considerable provided that they are able to do what it takes to succeed in these demanding, highly competitive roles.

Boutique law firms

It is worth mentioning boutique law firms as an alternative to Magic and Silver Circle firms. These are largely centred in and around London and are mainly founded by former partners of City firms who left their roles to start niche practices with their own vision.

Boutique firms tend to be smaller, occupying single offices and, instead of maximising their caseloads with strict billable targets, they offer more tailored and fluid services, focused on client care and case completions.

Additionally, boutique firms usually allow fee earners to manage their own time more flexibly and deliver more personalised services, rather than keeping a strict schedule. Many clients prefer to work like this, and it lets solicitors enjoy a more relaxed pace of work.

The best boutique firms combine this client-focused approach with a high-value client base. With many of the founders being former City partners, they are able to bring existing clients and contacts with them, ensuring they are still able to work with high-profile accounts and cases.

Many professionals may not realise these boutique roles are available, even though they would be well-suited to the advantages they can provide. This is why it’s important to review all of the opportunities out there before deciding your future career path.

Working for a City law firm provides access to high-value career progression opportunities, but they are also very challenging to obtain. Due to their rigid progression structures, staff will need to work patiently through each level for years to earn a chance at a senior role, and it could take up to a decade to become a partner.

When it comes to boutique firms, routes of progression are much less rigid, and with fewer candidates competing for the top roles, it’s possible to achieve a senior position much faster.

Applicants with relevant experience from a Legal 500 background can get a role with a boutique firm and earn the chance to work on high net worth accounts without a City level CV. In these roles, they will work alongside people with City backgrounds and deal with cases contested by City firms.

Additionally, the hiring process for boutique firms is also much more accessible. Rather than needing a months-long process of multiple interviews and vetting stages, boutique firms will often offer a much quicker interview process, overseen personally by the senior partner, allowing much quicker hiring decisions to be made.

The following groups could particularly benefit from considering boutique law firms as an option:

  • City lawyers who are looking for greater autonomy at work, or a better work-life balance.

  • Professionals who want greater flexibility in their working hours, such as mothers returning from maternity leave.

  • Young professionals who are two to five years PQE (post-qualified experience) and don’t currently have a CV that is suitable for a City firm, but want an alternative pathway to high-value client work.

How we can help

Since 2004, our Legal Private Practice Recruitment Consultants have been sourcing and placing legal professionals in law firms across the UK.

This experience makes us ideally placed to assist the private practice legal jobs market with its recruitment needs. We understand the recruitment needs of private practice law firms, which means we can offer expert career advice and exceptional service to both candidatesand clients.

From the Magic Circle law firms, to high street and regional practices across the country, we enjoy working with an extensive network of clients and high-calibre legal professionals. We assist in the recruitment for legal jobs across a range of disciplines and roles, from partnersand solicitorsto NQ solicitors, in all specialisms, which include:

  • Corporate/commercial

  • Commercial property

  • Private client

  • Employment

  • Family law

  • Personal injury

  • Clinical negligence

  • Litigation

  • Residential conveyancing

Our Legal Private Practice Recruitment Consultants have extensive experience placing professionals into jobs that suit their skills, qualifications and values, providing an honest and professional service to everyone we work with. Our expertise means we match the right candidate to the right role, offering advice throughout the interview process and assisting practice firms of all sizes in making the right choices.

Whether you are a legal practice firm with vacancies to fill, or a legal candidate looking for a new role in this sector, our impressive client and candidate networks and in-depth market knowledge means Sellick Partnership is the best solution for your legal recruitment needs. 

Recruitment Consultants are always happy to help – from offering CV adviceand interview techniques to having a general conversation about what is happening in the legal jobs market currently. Get in touch with us today to find out how we can help you.