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As a Paralegal, US or UK Firm?

As a Paralegal today, there are hundreds of options for where to take your career. You could opt for a regional practice, where they deal with good quality work but, a lot of the time, offer better work life balance and flexibility, with many employees working part time. Or, you could opt for a big City name with a household legal name where the work is international, the deal values are staggeringly huge and the salaries match this.

Or, you could choose a US practice, where the world is your oyster.

But, is the glitz and glamour a true indication of life in a big name, and are US practices actually better for your career?

The Big City Firm

If you are looking for a high starting salary, as a Paralegal and then later as a Solicitor, then the Top 100 is a good place to start, especially if you have the academic qualifications (outstanding LPC results, etc.) and a few Vacation schemes/open days under your belt. The hours can be long, but if you qualify in one of these firms your career could be exceptional because the quality of work you will be dealing with is often staggering. You are also likely to bill well, which will elevate your career; the higher up the Top 100 you go, the more firms will like to see exceptional billing figures.

The arguments for a big city firm are numerous and they will depend on what you are looking for, be it better work life balance and flexibility of hours/working from options, how much you want to earn, the type of firm you want on your CV, the complexity of the work you want to embrace, the deal sizes, etc.

A point to bear in mind is that the career progression prospects often aren’t that good at the biggest City firms, I come across many Paralegals from Top 10 London practices who struggle to get a Training Contract because of the huge internal and external competition. Also, many firms use Paralegals in a similar way to Legal Assistants, they get stuck in a rut doing simple administration duties rather than real, transactional fee earning with no way of moving up the ladder.

However, are US firms better for your career?

The US Practice

US practices are attractive to many Paralegals. They include some of the real international elites and heavyweights, with not just a UK household name, but a global household name. They offer incredible salaries, sometimes up to £160k for an NQ. If you train with a US firm, your salary will be exceptional, and the quality of work that these firms deal with is exceptional. Some of the numbers are almost terrifying.

However, in a US firm many Paralegals work 10+ hour days and the hours can be much longer. Also, US offices tend to have small UK offices which means it is more difficult to get a Training Contract at a US firm.

On the other hand, many Paralegals become career Paralegals, and at a US firm many career Paralegals are on £90k salaries including overtime. Also, I work with many US practices where the hours are long but the culture is fantastic, with Partners regularly taking Trainees to lunch, dinner and for drinks, and where they celebrate the closing of a deal by going on weekend trips and spa days.

And, US firms do offer Training Contracts, but the competition is fierce, with not as many places being available as UK firms and with such outstanding salaries on offer.

The answer might well be to play the long game and aiming slightly lower. There are plenty of extremely well respected Top 100 or Top 200 law firms out there. With these, you may find less competition, both externally and internally, to progress your career, handle impressive work and deals, and train to become a Solicitor.

Being in a Top 200 or strong Legal 500 practice is not necessarily game over for your career ambitions. Nowadays, almost as many Solicitors and Partners are moving from US and Top 20 UK firms to Top 100 or even Top 200 firms as there are the other way around.

One Top 100 firm, for example, recently took on a Solicitor from a US firm, a Solicitor from a Top 30 practice and a Solicitor form one of the largest firms in the world by headcount.

So, the answer is to think carefully about what you want to achieve, and to be realistic. If you think there is too much competition to get into a Top 50 practice because your grades aren’t quite good enough, don’t worry. There are other options out there, think hard and think long term.

Attend open days if you can, network as much as possible, research the market, areas of law and law firms in your spare time, at University is a golden time to knuckle down, check out the Legal 500 rankings and start to understand your capabilities, your aspirations, your favourite area of law, and think about what motivates you. Of course, this is always going to be fluid and could change later down the line, but it’s good to think about it

US or UK firm? Top 200 or Top 10? Legal 500 regional practice? Brand new start up law firm?