Life in a Law Firm: Expectation v Reality

There are many reasons why students such as myself have decided to study law or to work within the legal industry. Personally, it was not necessarily about the monetary prospects, the law firm ‘perks’ or even the great grounding the industry provides one with. I chose law and the legal industry for the fast-pace environment, the opportunity to assist in meeting client demands and most importantly it being a subject which I had been fascinated by from a young age.

Studying the subject and working within the industry have made me aware of the expectations which future and present graduates and students have of law firms. Some of these stereotypes and expectations may be due to TV shows such as Suits, Silk and How to Get Away with Murder just to name a few. Other expectations and reasons why a graduate may decide to choose the legal industry can stem from attending firm open days, which in my opinion can arguably give an unrealistic view of the firm.

I am not attempting to imply that I have not experienced some form of external influence. TV and books have also given me a drive to choose this particular subject and industry. Movies like Legally Blonde and the Lincoln Lawyer bring excitement to the industry and help implement personal drive. I am sure we have all had an experience where we have been told something similar to Elle Woods on her first day at law school! These influences are great and they have contributed to the industry and the subject to become more popular. The aim of this article is to put the expectations we have of law firms into perspective and state the reality, with the hope that it will help those who are completing applications to law firms with their choices.

Firstly, I would like to begin with considering the expectations which TV programmes give us of work life within a firm, from secretary to partner. I am going to take Suits as the main example as I believe it has created a drive within students to work in corporate and/or commercial law. Working within the corporate and commercial practice area myself, I hope I can try and bring some reality to the expectation the show may have created. The programme as a whole has depicted the practice area as highly dramatic, however within the drama there is some truth and perhaps some aspects of it can be taken away to help us survive corporate life.

On the one hand, it is crucial to note the attitude towards work. I have worked in two separate practice areas, one of them being real estate, and the hard working attitude is not exclusive to the corporate and commercial practice area. Solicitors want to deliver the best results for their clients, which sometimes means working through the night, which I have experienced myself. Most solicitors I have worked with are extremely passionate about their role and what they do. Interestingly, this attitude gets picked up around the firm which ultimately leads to higher productivity.

On the other hand, the programme has depicted a non-existent form of competitiveness between fee-earners, where they end up working against each other on a matter of which they are both representatives. In reality, this is something which does not happen and will never happen, as fee-earners working on the same matter closely collaborate. Also, work is distributed as efficiently as possible, not just between the solicitors but also the paralegals. The job of a lawyer consists of a lot of team work!

Secondly, it is important to discuss the work benefits. Many law firms, especially the magic circle firms, heavily promote to students what the firm offers to its employees. It is true that the larger the firm, the more it has to offer with regard to facilities, and this is not a bad thing. Law firm benefits, ranging from catering to sleep pods, do make the life of a lawyer and life in general within the firm more enjoyable. What is not emphasised is how little they get used, some of which are only a benefit for the client which is dependent on the firm. Based on my own experience so far, the benefits are very rarely used. In the firm which I work for there is a large social area with bean bags, Sky TV, table tennis just to name a few, but they hardly get used even at lunch time. The life of a lawyer or the legal support staff is very hectic and these benefits get forgotten, hence lack of use thereof.

Thirdly, the firm’s credibility is significant as it is something which drives not only the students but also the clients. There has been a viewpoint created by many universities and some legal recruitment agencies that the perception of you firm matters, and if you have not been offered a vacation scheme or a training contract at the magic circle firm, your career will be questioned. This is completely not the case. Everyone starts small and in reality this is the best way to gain experience, as you are exposed to more work. Therefore, it is arguably better to apply for vacation schemes or training contracts at the smaller firms.

To some extent, the credibility of the firm matters on paper. Nonetheless, even if the firm you are working for is a small firm and is not well known, you might enjoy working there. What I have begun to realise is that the firm’s credibility is just a bonus. When looking for jobs within a law firm, you should really be looking for the practice areas which the firm offers to clients and whether they are the ones that drive you. Also, you ought to pay attention to the atmosphere of the office you will be working in.

Fourthly, the long hours! It may not be something that law students spend a lot of time thinking about or they just assume the industry which they aspire to work in may involve working longer than they are contracted for. Long hours are something of a reality, however the regularity can few and far between depending on the practice area. It has been known for lawyers to work through the night, which I can confirm after assisting on a corporate deal. However, the regularity of this is very rare and many firms discourage it (hence Allen and Overy’s sleep pods!). But, it is still something which should be considered.

Finally, the competitiveness is something to be taken into account. Will it have ended by the time I start my training contract? Is it something which is very firm dependant? It certainly does not disappear, especially if you are currently working within a firm where you have internally applied for a training contract and you are aware that many others within the firm are in the same position. The only difference is that it is something which is never spoken about. Within the practice areas and between lawyers, apart from lawyers who are aspiring to be an associate or a partner, it is almost non-existent. As mentioned previously, lawyers work very closely together.

To conclude, it is clear that many of the perceptions of the legal industry created by TV programmes, the media and the universities have been blown out of proportion to some extent. On the whole, I feel that while the universities’ pressure on students to apply to magic circle firms may arguably be considered positive as it is great to aim high, it should not be forgotten that any experience is good experience. Crucially, sometimes smaller firms provide students and graduates with more exposure and therefore more valuable work experience. The career within the legal industry is something which should be taken seriously. Many that work within are not only intelligent, but also extremely driven. Therefore, when completing applications you should be thinking about where you would see yourself within the firm and trying not to think about the firm’s credibility too much. Mainly, you should ask yourself whether the firm offers the practice areas which you may be interested qualifying into.

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