Law firms are busy places. They come in various shapes and sizes, from sprawling multinational operations to just one solicitor working as a sole practitioner from a high street office.
Likewise, not everybody who works in a law firm is a solicitor. There may also be paralegals, licensed conveyancers, legal executive lawyers, legal secretaries and administrative staff. The following is a guide to some of the different types of law firms and the personnel you may encounter during your visit.
These are the people at the top of the tree. Achieving partnership is the aim of most solicitors working in law firms. As partners, they have a say in how the law firm is run and are paid a share of the profits. They have the most expertise and experience in the firm, and will often be renowned in their field of expertise. You may also encounter the senior partner, who heads the firm, and managing partner, who runs the firm.
These are simply qualified solicitors. Becoming an associate is usually seen as the rung below partnership.
These are solicitors who have completed their two-year training contract, and are now employed by the law firm. They work on their own but will usually be managed or supervised by a partner.
These are solicitors at the very start of their career. Once solicitors have completed their academic training (usually, although not always, a law degree or other degree plus a law conversion course followed by a Legal Practice Course) they must complete a two-year traineeship at a law firm or other training provider.
These are lawyers and are, to all extents and purposes, the same as solicitors, but will have trained in a different—usually more practice-based—way. They tend to be specialists in a particular field, for example, debt or clinical negligence. They are registered by the Institute of Legal Executives, and must complete a rigorous training schedule.
The term ‘paralegal’ is a very flexible one and encompasses a diversity of occupations. Paralegals often occupy a senior status within law firms, although they cannot become partners under Law Society rules (this rule will change in the next few years). They do legal work, but are not solicitors, although they may have some legal qualifications and will offer clients legal advice and carry out legal work.
These individuals are qualified to provide conveyancing services, and will be encountered during the process of buying and selling of property.
These are secretaries who have specialised in the legal field, and are familiar with the legal process.
Firms such as Clifford Chance, Linklaters or Allen & Overy have headquarters in London, plus offices on every continent, huge resources and bank balances rivalling those of small countries. These are the big players in the legal world, with multinational businesses as clients and commercial law as their speciality. They have a sterling reputation and don’t come cheap.
The above-mentioned three firms, plus Slaughter & May and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, make up the prestigious quintet known as the ‘Magic Circle’. As the name implies, these are regarded as the cream of the crop. All of them are based in London with a vast network of offices worldwide (apart from Slaughter & May, which has adopted a slightly different approach. It uses a ‘best friends’ network of international firms).
Top lawyers don’t always work for the multinationals. Some of them have high-prestige jobs in niche firms, which focus on one particular area such as pensions law, fraud or media law.
These have excelled in their field, and often cover areas such as family law, crime or personal injury as well as business law.
These are usually, as the name implies, based on the high street, and tend to cater for individuals and small businesses. Typical areas covered include employment law, family law, residential property transactions and immigration. They may have just one partner, known as a sole practitioner, working on his or her own.
Size of firm is not necessarily always an indicator of quality. There are excellent lawyers working at all of these types of firm, and which firm is best depends on the legal problem at hand. An international firm may be best for a business deal where the client is a plc or FTSE100 company, but an individual seeking advice on an employment issue would probably find the high street firm offers excellent advice and best value for money.
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