City law firms: Six-figure salaries and job satisfaction

It's complicated, demanding work but the responsibility and financial rewards are second to none, says Matthew Rhodes
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The Independent Online

City law firms are, along with firms in New York, the finest in the world. If you work at one you'll find yourself flying round the globe putting together deals worth hundreds of millions of pounds, or taking huge cases to the High Court that hit the headlines of the next day's newspaper. You'll do an incredibly skilled and respected job, and be paid a lot of money for it.

It's complicated, demanding work and inevitably there's a lot of training. You'll need a degree, although it doesn't have to be in law. The big City law firms recruit most of their students at the start of their final year at university, so you'll graduate knowing that you've got a job to go to.

You'll then have to spend a year full-time at law school (two years if you don't have a law degree). Your firm will pay all your fees and will also support you financially; at the moment firms pay a scholarship of around £7,000 a year to students at law school.

You'll then begin your training contract and start earning a decent salary - around £30,000 a year. This takes two years. There'll be a whole load of trainees at your firm who'll be in the same boat as you, so you'll have some great colleagues and a ready-made social life. At most firms you'll spend six months in each of four departments. It's here that you are taught how to apply what you've learnt at university and law school to the real world. You'll develop a greater knowledge of the law and learn how deals are put together. And it's as a trainee that you pick up the basic skills that you'll need in any high-flying career, things like how to negotiate a contract, chair a meeting and draft a business letter.

Most firms offer some of their trainees a secondment to a foreign office, so if you want to travel there's a good chance that you'll be able to spend six months in anywhere from Paris to Tokyo. The firm will put you up in an apartment for free, and they tend to be in the smartest parts of town.

When you come to the end of your training contract you qualify as an associate solicitor. Your salary jumps to about £50,000 and you become part of the engine room of the firm, running deals with less and less supervision and building your career.

You'll enjoy massive responsibility, and this will increase as you become more qualified - as will your pay. By the time you're in your late twenties you could be earning a salary of around £80,000 with a bonus that could take it up £100,000.

Once you're in your early thirties you'll be looking to join the partnership. This means that you'll be promoted so that you own a part of the business and get paid a share of profits, and it's extremely difficult to achieve. If you manage it, you're made for life. Starting salaries for the most junior partners at City firms can be anything from £120,000 to £500,000, and assuming you're good at your job this will increase every year. If you're really successful then by the time you're in your mid-forties you could be earning telephone numbers. A recent survey claimed that there were more than 400 solicitors earning in excess of £1m a year in the City, and the top partners at the most profitable firms will make nearer £1.5m.

If you don't make partnership there are plenty of alternatives. You may carry on working as a senior associate which can be well rewarded: non-partner lawyers at the London office of a US firm make £250,000 a year. You can try to become a partner at a regional firm or a less prestigious City firm; again, there's still a lot of money to be made, with senior partners earning over £500,000 a year. Or you could decide to work for a client, and end up as head of legal at an investment bank.

Clearly there's a lot of money floating around and you'll be worked hard for it. You'll often find yourself finalising dozens of documents or coordinating information from parties in different time zones, all to a very tight timetable. Late nights in the office are common and this can stretch to all night when your deal is about to close. But at least they tend to be amazing offices - Clifford Chance's London headquarters could almost be a hotel, with a swimming pool with views over London, state-of-the-art gyms with plasma screen TVs, personal trainers, restaurants and shops. The rush of a deal really gets your adrenaline going, you'll develop skills that will make sure you'll always be able to get a highly paid job and you'll be working with and learning from some of the brightest people in the City.

Firms are constantly trying to attract the best talent, and that means looking everywhere for it. Slaughter and May, the most "traditional" of the big City firms (and also the most profitable) has lawyers from over 50 universities working for it.

Over half the trainee solicitors taken on every year are women, and City firms are full of lawyers of every religious, cultural and socio-economic background. Ultimately firms are in the business of making money, and if they think you've got what it takes to do a good job, they'll hire you. Aside from the cash, you'll get the satisfaction that comes with being one of the best people in the world at your job and opening a newspaper and seeing your deal reported. You should go for it - there are very few better ways to make such a good living.

Matthew Rhodes is the co-founder of RollOnFriday Ltd ( www.rollonfriday.com)

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