Choosing a training contract with a law firm outside London
Do you want to find a training contract in London – or at a regional or national law firm? This is likely to be one of the first questions you ask yourself as an aspiring trainee solicitor. But how different is the training experience? Which type of law firm would suit you best?
What’s the difference between a regional law firm and a national law firm?
The growing trend for law firms to brand themselves as full-service firms with both national and international clients makes the distinction between international, national and regional firms harder to define. Generally speaking, national law firms have offices around the country, often including a London office, such as DLA Piper, DWF or CMS. Regional firms may also have several offices but will typically base their headquarters in a major city or region outside London, eg Burges Salmon in Bristol or Mills & Reeve in Cambridge.
Firms may describe themselves as global or international even if they are, on the face of it, a regional organisation but have offices or alliances overseas – making them even more difficult to pigeonhole. For instance, Hill Dickinson has a strong presence in the north west of England with offices in Chester, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield, but also has lawyers based in London, Piraeus (a clue to their strong shipping law practice) and Singapore.
This blurring of the boundaries is another good reason (if you needed one) to make your applications specific to the firm you’re targeting, rather than the category of firs it may or may not belong to. Graduate recruiters will fail to be impressed with a general desire to work for a certain type of firm. ‘Nothing beats an applicant who can demonstrate that they have gone above and beyond to find out about the firm, speak to the people at the firm and really pick up on its culture and values,’ says the recruitment manager at Shoosmiths.
Commercial work as a lawyer outside London
Regional and national firms are conscious of the pull towards London felt by graduates wanting to go into law. Don’t assume that working as a solicitor outside London means being cut off from top-quality training and interesting clients. Commercial law firms, whether in London, Birmingham or Leeds, advise large companies and investment banks on high-profile deals, commercial litigation matters or tax and employment issues. DLA Piper’s clients, for instance, include Warner Bros, HSBC and Liverpool Football Club. Various teams of lawyers handled the acquisition of Somerfield by the Co-operative, many of whom were from regional firms.
A smaller intake of trainee solicitors
Junior lawyers in regional firms often cite being in a smaller team as one of the advantages to training outside the capital – partners know their name. The big magic circle firms tend to take on between 90 and 100 trainee solicitors each year; a smaller regional firm is more likely to employ 20 or 30 trainees. 'One of the biggest advantages of training at a regional law firm is that you are generally the only trainee solicitor in the department,’ advises Sam Lee, graduate recruitment manager at Bond Pearce. 'This allows you to gain much broader experience within a practice area, working with a number of different lawyers – many of whom are experts in their field.’ Katherine Elam, graduate recruitment manager at Cobbetts, stresses the opportunity for early responsibility: 'Many of our trainees comment that they are impressed by the level of responsibility and quality of client work they get in their training contract, when compared to their peers training in London. I have been impressed by the extent of their involvement in business development – building direct relationships with new clients, which in some instances has resulted in new business for the firm.'
Aspiring criminal and family lawyers may suit smaller firms
If you're interested in the more people-centred areas of law, such as family or crime, you’ll be better off targeting training contracts outside London, particularly in smaller, high street firms that tend to advise individuals on ‘everyday’ legal matters such as conveyancing, family and wills & probate. ‘In a high street firm, you are given plenty of individual attention during your training, your commitment is noticed and you are rewarded by progressing up the ladder more quickly. When considering becoming a high street solicitor, however, make sure you feel able to communicate and empathise with clients,’ advises Emma Peart, a newly qualified solicitor at The Legal Practice Solicitors.
Do trainee solicitors outside London earn smaller salaries?
The Solicitors’ Regulation Authority (SRA) currently dictates that law firms pay a minimum salary to trainees outside London of £16,650 (although the Solicitors' Regulation Authority plans to scrap that requirement in 2014 and replace it with the national minimum wage) but the big commercial firms pay more than that to their new graduates. Salaries are lower outside London, in line with the local cost of living. Hill Dickinson pay £24,000 to its trainees; with £36,000 post-training contract. Candidates applying to leading Birmingham firm SGH Martineau can expect to start on £23,000, rising to £36,000 if offered a newly qualified solicitor or NQ position at the end of their training.
Regional training contracts: not the easy option
Trainees at national, regional and high street firms often feel that they enjoy a better work/life balance than their London counterparts, thanks to shorter and less stressful commutes. Lower housing costs outside London mean that it’s also likely you’ll be able to live nearer your office and to entertainment and leisure venues. Katherine Elam, graduate recruitment manager at Cobbetts warns, however, that students shouldn’t think of regional firms as the easy option: ‘Competition for regional training contracts is still fierce and more candidates are now seeing the opportunities that training in the regions can offer,’ she explains . ‘Don’t assume that a regional firm does not share the same drive and ambition for growth and new opportunities as some of the City firms in London.’
Excellent training contract applications, wherever you apply
Whether you are applying to a regional, national, City or high street firm, the advice for making strong training contract applications is the same: be well researched, targeted and accurate. ‘Always research the firm you are applying to thoroughly and understand what is being asked of you in the questions,’ emphasises Sam Lee. Make sure you speak to trainees, secure work experience and attend open days – recruiters want to know why you’re applying to their firm, not their type of firm.