Suits, Law and Order and the Good Wife portray law as a glamorous, dynamic and glitzy profession, but what is it really like working for a law firm? Is the reality a little less New York City skyscraper and more about the long hours and personal sacrifice required by lawyers?
For those that are often left wondering what it will be like to become a paralegal, lawyer or firm director, Francine Ryan, Senior Lecturer in Law and member of the Open Justice Centre at The Open University, takes a look at the ins and outs of law firm life, what it’s like to really work at a law firm and what exactly we can look forward to and be prepared for.
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The legal profession offers a wide range of job opportunities in private practice, in-house, and government institutions providing a variety of different places to work. One size doesn’t fit all: it is hard to generalise about what it is really like working for a law firm because it depends on the size of firm and the type of law practised, but here a few things to think about when considering where you would like to work.
According to Chambers Students trainees at large city law firms earn in excess of £40,000 and can look forward to a qualification salary of around £100,000, but the reality is very different if you are working in a high street practice outside of London. The area of law you qualify in and the type of clients you advise will determine your salary prospects, for example, a family lawyer working for high value clients will earn considerably more than a legal aid family practitioner. Considerable variation exists in how much you can expect to earn working as a lawyer, it depends on the type of law firm, the area of law and whereabouts in the country you practice. It is important to do your research, so you know what your future salary prospects are.
The area of law you qualify in and the type of clients you advise will determine your salary prospects, for example, a family lawyer working for high value clients will earn considerably more than a legal aid family practitioner.
Defining culture is not straightforward but it comprises of the values, ideas, behaviours and assumptions shared by a group of people, it influences everything inside a law firm. A positive workplace culture can determine how much you enjoy your job. It is important not to underestimate the impact the environment you work in has on your happiness and wellbeing. In 2018, TARGETjobs asked trainee solicitors to rate their firm’s culture on a variety of different measures, including working hours, culture, training and diversity. It is hard to generalise, but law is a competitive profession, target driven and that can negatively impact on culture. A good working environment depends a lot on the people you work with and the management philosophy of the firm. A good indication of a happy place to work is high staff retention, if people are happy where they are, they tend to stay. If work life balance and flexible working arrangements are important to you, think carefully about the type of firm and area of law most likely to offer that.
A typical working day depends very much on the type of law firm you work for. Large law firms expect their lawyers to work long and often unsociable hours in return for paying high salaries, but even in smaller firms, evening and weekend work isn’t uncommon. If you are a criminal lawyer, you will be expected to advise a client at a police station at anytime of the day or night. Growing competition for legal work and changing client expectations means that law firms have to be available to clients outside of normal working hours. Firms expect their lawyers to meet financial and chargeable hours targets, those targets mean the traditional ‘nine to five’ working day does not apply to most lawyers.
Law firms are often high- pressure environments, you are working to tight deadlines, and there is an expectation to get it right. An important skill to learn is how to keep a level head and handle pressure. To successfully work in a law firm, you need to practice staying calm and staying focused on what needs to be done. If you have the opportunity to work in a law clinic at university or volunteer at Citizens Advice or Support Through Court this will really help you to learn how to respond to difficult situations and handle pressure in the workplace.
The reality of working at a law firm depends on where you work and the law you practice, legal work is complex and offers the opportunity to work in an intellectually challenging environment that often is well paid and rewarding. Make sure you do your research, think carefully about the area of law that is most suited to your personality and the type of firm where you will flourish, speak to other people to get an insight into what it is really like working for a law firm.