The $144K dollar question: should UK lawyers go to US firms?

The $144K dollar question: should UK lawyers go to US firms?

Around 100 US law firms have opened offices in the UK, notable examples including Latham & Watkins and White & Case. The salaries reportedly paid by these firms for newly qualified lawyers are truly eye watering: £101,000 ($144,000) by the former Californian heavyweight and £90,000 ($128,000) by the latter New York headquartered giant.

By contrast, the highest NQ salary offered by Magic Circle firms currently stands at £80,000 (Allen & Overy) followed by £70,000 (Clifford Chance and Slaughter & May). Big pay from the Big Apple undoubtedly provides a certain degree of leverage when it comes to choosing the cream of the crop of young aspiring legal minds, and threatens the dominance of the Magic Circle and other leading UK based firms which lack such deep pockets.

Super-size pay packets offered by American firms is a fairly consistent story across the board and hardly surprising; top salaries on the other side of the Atlantic have traditionally been far higher than European equivalents across a whole range of industries. But does this mean that lawyers trained in UK firms are all being lured to US firms which have established a presence on this side of the pond, solely by the prospect of earning more money?

Show me the money

According to Oliver Brettle, executive partner of White & Case’s London office, money is certainly a substantial criterion for indebted lawyers choosing an employer: “Young people leaving university today are burdened with substantial student debts and the remuneration for a newly qualified lawyer is, therefore, becoming an increasingly important factor for the very best young lawyers when choosing a law firm.

But Jeremy Black, a partner in Deloitte’s professional services practice in London, argues that it’s not all about the dough: “The demands for those working at US firms can be high indeed… Pay is an important element but it’s certainly not the only element people look at.” In reality, workloads are likely to be very high at most of the top City firms - whether American or British owned - and, although remuneration at leading London outfits seems to dwarf the pay offered by smaller regional counterparts, another factor has to be taken into account: quality of life.

Moving away from London

Working for a regional or local firm may not carry the kind of kudos or paycheck offered by the big London players, but working hours are likely to result in a healthier work-life balance. Average rents in the capital are about twice as high (around £1,500 per month) compared to a thriving cosmopolitan city like Bristol (circa £800/month) where the likes of Burges Salmon punch well above their weight in the legal arena and offer almost £50,000 to NQs. Furthermore, because many people can walk to work in a smaller city, time and energy is saved on the daily commute and there is generally more opportunity to unwind and enjoy life.

Flexible working and technology

When it’s necessary to have a presence in London but US portion salaries are out of the question, there are other ways firms can attract and retain the top talent. Flexible working opportunities and better technology can both compensate - at least to some degree - for lower levels of remuneration.

In practice, these two aspects go hand-in-hand, because flexible working (at least in the sense of remote working) requires robust IT infrastructure which allows lawyers to carry on their work seamlessly from different locations. A curious consequence of embracing flexible working and technology is that expensive office space can be reduced and the money saved can then be used to increase salaries.

Although the gargantuan pay packets offered by American firms are undoubtedly a big draw for many lawyers - especially those starting out with substantial student debts to pay off - there are other benefits, such as a better quality of life, which can counter a “brain drain” of UK legal minds to US owned firms.

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About the author:
Alex Heshmaty is a legal copywriter and journalist with a particular interest in legal technology. He runs Legal Words, a legal copywriting and marketing agency.