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Differences between the Magic Circle law firms

by Charles Nwabueze
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Reading Time: 6 min

In your search for a training contract (TC) you most likely have heard about the magic circle firms – a name used to describe the five most prestigious UK-based multinational law firms. These five firms – Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May – all enjoy revenues that far exceed the UK industry average; and work on behalf of the biggest corporations, specialising in corporate law.

From this, you might deduce that these five firms share similar traits. Does this mean that each firm is alike to the other to the hilt? Far from it! All of these firms share unique differences which may make one appealing to a TC seeker and yet unappealing to another seeker. This article has been written to help you compare and contrast the differences to help you arrive at the one that suits your palate.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP

With Freshfields being established in 1743, the firm can consider itself to be one of the oldest law firms in the world. Based in Fleet Street, London and led by Lisa Docherty and Georgia Dawson who act as CEO and senior partner respectively, the firm employs a large base of partners and lawyers. The firm is said to have about 427 partners and 2,800 lawyers.

When looking for candidates, Freshfields expects the candidates to have bucket loads of enthusiasm; engagement; be well-prepared; have an interest in the business; have time management skills, and the ability to work well in teams. Trainees who make it onto their training program are adamant that there’s no firm like Freshfields when it comes to flexibility of the training structure, training, quality of work and peer and partner support.

For example, trainees point to the fact that the firm offers an eight-seat training contract, which allows the trainees to get a wide breadth of experience across their vast areas of law. To stay in tune with the changes brought about by the introduction of the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), the firm is part of the City Consortium, where they created the City Consortium Solicitor Training Programme (CCP) alongside BPP Law School to prepare their trainees for the SQE.  

With Freshfields, you can be assured of high-profile client interaction and a particularly interesting workload.  


The next oldest on the list with a birth date of 1838, Linklaters is a firm that prides itself in its personable, team-oriented environment. Based in Silk Street, London, in terms of personnel, the firm is smaller than its older counterpart (mentioned earlier). There are 470 partners with about 2,300 lawyers.

When looking at Linklaters, we found that apart from the abovementioned one of the things that set them apart from the other magic circle firms is the opportunity they offer through their training contract program. They offer two unique training contract programmes which we have not seen other magic circle firms offer.

The first is the China-London TC which provides their trainees with the opportunity to train and qualify as a lawyer in England and Wales before starting a commercial law career in Hong Kong, Beijing or Shanghai. During this TC, the candidate works on live client cases during four six-month seats, with them taking place in London, Beijing, Hong Kong or Shanghai. When the candidate qualifies, they then start their career as an associate in Beijing, Hong Kong or Shanghai.

The second is the Singapore-London TC which provides trainees with the chance to train and qualify as a lawyer in England and Wales before starting a commercial law career in Singapore.

These two unique TCs in addition to them provide the traditional TC programme. For those looking for a magic circle firm that offers something different, Linklaters is one you won’t regret. 

Slaughter and May

Third on our list in terms of age, Slaughter and May was created in 1889 and is the smallest of the magic circle firms. It has about 115 partners and 560 lawyers to its name. Though it is the smallest, it is known for packing a punch in the areas of corporate & M&A, tax, competition, real estate, disputes and commercial contracts, and it’s believed in some quarters to be the most prestigious of the magic circle firms. They were also the first of the Magic Circle firms to establish a presence in Hong Kong when they opened an office in 1974.

The seating structure of the TC is a traditional one with trainees expected to complete at least two six-month seats in their corporate and M&A and financing areas. During the TC, you will share an office with a partner or associate (your ‘supervisor’) in each seat, who will guide you and ensure that you are actively involved in their work and the work of the group. A partner in your group will regularly meet with you to discuss your progress and your supervisor will give you a full review at the end of each seat. 

If you’re looking to convince them to pick you, you’ll need to show them that you have strong interpersonal skills; a sharp intellect; curiosity; commercial awareness; energy; common sense and judgement; integrity; resolve and resilience; a global outlook; ambition with a great commercial approach; commit to excellence; relevant experience in one or more of their practice areas; and strong academic grades. 

Allen & Overy

A titan amongst titans, Allen & Overy is one of the most aggressive magic circle firms seeking to break into the US legal space. The firm has backed its goal to break into the US space with the investment of its resources. Since the start of 2021, it has added offices in Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley and it has recruited 40 US partners over the past two and a half years. Created in 1930, the firm has about 550 partners and over 5,600 people in employment. The firm is ranked as the 7th largest integrated law firm, globally. The firm is also structured across seven practice areas: corporate, banking, international capital markets, litigation and dispute resolution, employment and benefits, tax and real estate. They are known for their banking and geographical strengths and have a big presence in China.

The training contract programme incorporates the traditional approach of four six-month seats. Their trainees are also willing to swear that the training that they receive can be classed as an award-winning one. The premise of this strong position is based on the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top lawyers. As well as regular departmental training and updates (specific to their seat), they can attend client seminars delivered by their partners and associates. They are also encouraged to attend wider skills training and have the opportunity to attend a range of seminars and talks on matters of strategic importance to Allen & Overy, which includes mental health and wellbeing and, separately, diversity and inclusion. 

Clifford Chance

Rounding up the list of magic circle firms, Clifford Chance came into existence as a result of the merger between Clifford Turner and Coward Chance in 1987. It has over 570 partners and more than 3,300 lawyers in its employment books. Clifford Chance has designed their TC to give its trainees the great breadth of experience they need to emerge as a confident business advisers. You will have several rotations which will allow you to explore their business – working in their practice areas, with the opportunity to also undertake client and international secondments. 

In terms of the uniqueness of bringing up its trainees, Clifford Chance more than holds its own. It has a programme called LIFT (Learning Internships for Future Trainees) where through several developed partnerships with select organisations, the firm offers paid summer internships to their future trainees before they kick off their TC. What this means is that before you start your Training Contract with them, you’ll have the opportunity to develop useful non-legal skills such as marketing, product management and business operations which will help you to excel as a trainee.  

They even offer the Clifford Chance Academy, a pioneering resource which helps you develop innovative learning tools, and provides you with fundamental support throughout your career.

So there we have it, while it might not be wholly true to say the magic circle firms are the greatest, the best or even the largest in any of the metrics, they are often the best and the go-to firms for the kind of work that London feeds on: corporate, finance and banking.


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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