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Difference between City Law Firms and National Law Firms

by Charles Nwabueze
Reading Time: 8 minutes

After a dose of watching the incredible movie series, Suit, many students graduating from university imagine working at a large, corporate law firm where they can put the opposing firm to the sword just as Harvey does (if you haven’t seen Suit go see it, it’s incredible). They want a law career that is fast-paced with all the razzmatazz such large law firms offer. Many students, unfortunately, overlook the boutiques, small to mid-sized firms that could also offer a different form of career fulfilment. These firms, known as national or regional firms, should be considered when students are considering their options for major milestones like training contracts. In this post, we will be taking a look at what national law firms are, their advantages and disadvantages, and what a city firm is, with its advantages and disadvantages. When you have read this blog you should be able to decide on which one to work in.

City Law Firms

When talking about City firms, I mean one of the large commercial law firms based in the City of London which has offices in different regions of the UK, and other countries around the world. In my opinion, such a firm will typically be part of the Magic Circle, Silver Circle and US firms (though US firms are obviously based in the US, their work and ways qualify them to be regarded as City firms). Most City firms’ work tends to have an international element coupled with strong corporate and financial elements. The operations and transactions they usually take on for their large clients involve multiple legal jurisdictions around the world.


Big Fat Salaries 

Ever heard of that phrase ‘swimming in money’? Well, if you work for the typical big City firm you’d be doing a lot of swimming in money. City firms are known for paying the most in the UK. As of the latest figures from the year 2021, some city firms were known to pay their first-year trainees in the region of £44,000 and £50,000. As if this sum were not enough, in January 2022, Milbank said it would start paying their newly qualified lawyers an eye-watering £160,000. The highest newly qualified lawyers are currently paid in the region of £130,000-£150,000. Apart from the income received, City law firms can be quite generous with other financial aspects that make up your financial package. Over the COVID-19 period, lawyers at some City firms received thousands of pounds as bonuses for their efforts during the trying times.

Opportunity to Work with Large, Diverse Clientele

City firms are more likely to have large financial institutions, corporations, governments and large non-profit organizations as their clients than national firms. Thus, with City firms, you are more likely to get your fill of working with a diverse client base than you would get if you were at a national firm. By virtue of working with diverse clients, you will acquire a broader range of knowledge and experience. Furthermore, these large clients have international offices, and with certain law firms, you might get the opportunity of taking on an international secondment in one of the clients’ offices.

Opportunity for Challenging Work

As a result of having diverse clients, you’ll get diverse opportunities to work on matters that stretch you beyond your limit. You might even be involved in groundbreaking cases. Working at City firms will help you harness exceptional analytical skills coupled with your communication and negotiation skills. Practising law in a City firm will most likely push you to use your mental skills each day in effective ways to solve problems for your clients. Because a lot of the cases your firm will get might be unique, you will be forced to use your full mental capabilities to research, speculate, hypothesize, and create legal and [in some cases] business strategies to satisfy your client’s problem.

Lush Offices in Enviable Locations

If aesthetic is your thing, then you will be pleased to know that City firms will most likely have the most beautiful of offices with incredible views from their offices. For example, when visiting Clifford Chance’s office in Canary Wharf, you might be forgiven for thinking that you were visiting a law firm out of Suit – the office has its own pool! Or take, for example, US law firm, Kirkland & Ellis’ office located at 30 St Mary Axe, known as ‘The Gherkin’, and the holder of the City of London’s most Instagrammable office building award. A typical City firm will have lush offices that are typically spacious, easily accessible, and built with many added amenities, such as in-house gyms, restaurants, and elaborate meeting rooms to make being at the office sweet for clients and recruits.


Longer Hours

You cannot escape from this reality if you work in a City Law firm; let me say it in another way: be prepared to work donkey, odious, hideous and tedious hours at a City firm. Remember earlier on, you read that these firms get a diverse range of clients; well, that advantage spills over into the disadvantage of long hours. To service those clients, these firms have to be up until the work is completed. In the City, trainees regularly report having to stay till the middle of the night to complete some deals, associates and partners are also known to stay behind to complete the deals. Long hours are mandatory, so if you want this, buckle up and get to work. It, however, appears that City firms are trying harder to make a life for their lawyers less gruesome in terms of hours spent.

Lack of Responsibility from the Onset

If you have a task that is sensitive and high-risk, are you likely to give it to your baby brother to work on it? The chances are you will probably not do that. In the same way, your typical City firm that is involved in a high-profile, high-risk matter is less likely to entrust such work to their trainees. Thus, you may find that at the beginning of your training contract, you may not have enjoyed the benefit of immersing yourself in complex work that a City firm offers. Instead, you may find that you and your administrative duties might be the best of buddies.

National Law Firms

A national law firm is a firm that is located outside of the City and away from London. Also known as regional law firms, most national firms will have offices spanning different cities in the UK, and this might include London. So how is this different from a City firm? Well, for a national firm, its offices spread across different cities would be equally important to the firm just as its London office would be – that’s if it has a London office. That a firm is a national firm will not mean that the firm is small in size; it might even have the capacity to take on international matters.


Great Work-Life Balance 

If you are someone who is more concerned with striking the right balance between your work as a solicitor with being able to build a family or spend time with your family and friends and being able to take out the time to do something other than work, then national law firms are the way to go. With regional firms, you will work hard, but you’d hardly experience the small issue of being in the office till the middle of the night. Even before COVID-19 forced the City firms to adopt remote working, national firms were known for advocating for a good work-life balance through the promotion of flexible working solutions, offering flexitime – a system of working a set number of hours with the starting and finishing times chosen within agreed limits by the employee – and remote working, allowing for a better work-life balance to be achieved.

Responsibility from the Onset

Most national firms employ only a handful of trainees. As such, all hands on deck are needed to make sure that their clients’ matters are effectively solved. So, when you are employed in a national firm, do not be surprised if, after your induction, you are thrown into the deep end. With this method of working, trainees are more likely to get an opportunity to go out of their comfort zone, adding up to top-notch experience. With everybody working to make sure the clients’ matters are sorted, you might even have only a little supervision. Instead, you’d be encouraged to learn by asking and taking responsibility.

Client Contact

Again, this has to do with the small intake noticed at national firms. When you are in a regional firm, you might be entrusted with dealing with clients on your own from an early stage, as opposed to City firms where there might be a fear of handing over their clients to their trainees at an early stage. If one of your strengths is interaction with people, then you should strongly consider national firms because of the high chances of dealing with clients from the beginning, and making a difference for them through the solutions you proffer.

Cheaper Cost of Living

Ranked as one of the most expensive cities to live in in the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit, living in London might make the supposed huge financial package you gain from working in a City law firm look like peanuts. If you live and work outside the City, your cost of living will drop, as London is the only UK city in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s top 20 rankings. For some, it’s not about chasing more money to cover your everyday expenses, it might just be working in a national firm, where the city’s cost of living does not cost you an arm and a leg.


Lower Salaries

If you enjoy having a high salary, and so far you’ve liked the sound of national firms, take a deep breath, this point is going to hurt. In a regional firm, a first-year trainee can expect to earn approximately £20,000 – £25,000 per year or [slightly more], which in some cases is about £25,000 less than what you may receive at a City firm. Let that sink in. Using the same degree that you earned (you might even have excelled more than them), your counterparts in the City are earning over £20,000 more than you are earning. Further, I don’t want to make it worse, but when you become newly qualified, a national firm could pay you £40,000 (if in doubt check Brabners salary for newly qualified solicitors); while a city firm like Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton will pay you £140,000 when you qualify with them. Please don’t smash your device, but there are several firms that pay higher than Cleary Gottlieb by thousands of pounds.

Average or Below Average Value Work

Yes, you’ll be getting responsibilities from the onset at a national firm, but the work you will be doing will be deals that are of low value. Unlike City firms that get involved in multimillion deals, even multibillion-pound deals. No one is saying that the work that you will take part in at regional firms won’t matter to the firm, the client, or the community. In most cases, they will bring value to these different stakeholders. What I am saying is that if you want the opportunity of taking part in ground-breaking work, work with the highest monetary value, you are likely not to find such at a typical national firm.


So there we have it, some of the advantages and disadvantages of working at a city firm and a national firm. With there being thousands of law firms operating in different parts of the UK, you can use this blog to narrow down the options to fit what direction you want for your career. You could choose to go the route of a national firm or that of a City firm permanently. You could even choose to start off with a City firm and later switch to a national firm – and vice versa. The choice is yours. I’d advise you to become aware of all the factors that matter to you, make a decision, and go for it.


Charles is a writer, practising lawyer and personal trainer who loves learning and developing himself. He graduated from Middlesex University, London with eight first-class grades in the second and third years of his law degree, and received a postgraduate offer from Cambridge University. He loves strength training, boxing and encouraging people to succeed in their pursuits (legal ones)


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