The legal sector is experiencing a significant shift in the way talent moves laterally in London, especially among junior and mid-level lawyers, compared to the market 10 years ago.
In particular, we are still seeing talent move to U.S. firms, who not only tend to offer a greater pay packet, but also exhibit a robust and action-orientated approach to talent acquisition.
The market, after a period of relative slowness, is now showing an increase in opportunity, with a higher demand for hiring associates laterally.
Notably, U.S. firms are raising the bar in their hiring criteria as their hunger for expansion plays into a wider push for London hiring.
Since the post-COVID-19 hiring boom, firms have become more discerning in the hunt for talent and while growth plans drive hiring, competition for associates to get into these firms has increased — deal lists are being scrutinized, interview processes are taking longer, and there has been a decrease in hiring from international talent pools compared to previous associate hiring cycles.
This is making the market more competitive, yet ripe with opportunities for associates who demonstrate ambition to reach top-tier practices, as well as a drive for growth and top-ofthe-market remuneration.
The movement from top U.K. firms, particularly in the Magic and Silver Circles, to their U.S. counterparts is noteworthy and is something that has increased year-on-year over the past five years. This growing trend is motivated not only by the allure of higher salaries offered by U.S. firms, but also by their increasingly distinct work cultures and motivation for growth.
Given U.S. firms are relatively new entrants into the U.K., they come with a new name and fewer preconceptions about working there, able to shape culture as they expand.
While U.S. firms have been in London for around 50 years, there is a lot to be said for the cultural appreciation that will have been developed over time. Firms can now apply this understanding to current points of tension, for example, whether the U.K. may react differently to the U.S. with regard to return-to-office mandates.
There are also growth opportunities at the firms traditionally known as mid-Atlantic, meaning they have entered the U.K. market via a merger with an established British firm.
These firms can often offer truly global work and a different style of growth culture to the U.S. giants arriving in town. However, they do not tend to compete with U.S. elite firms on their salary scales.It is worth noting that joining U.S. firms is not a complete blanket trend across the London legal market. Some associates are looking to the mid-market for quality of work while also Nathan Peart taking a better work-life balance.
The gap lies between these two halves. This changing dynamic in the market highlights the shifting priorities among associates and the evolving landscape of the London legal recruitment market.
Americanization of London Legal Market
The Americanization in London's legal market is a trend that is growing exponentially. At its core, it is the bold arrival and growth of U.S. law firms into the London legal market that are essentially offering a refined business model of legal practice.
This is typically seen as leaner staffing models, resulting in a more hands-on approach that maximizes flexibility and adaptability at both associate and partner levels.
However, it is less about a wholesale adoption of American workplace culture. Horror stories from associates in London on how they perceive some of the elite U.S. law firms often come from misconceptions surrounding matters such as at-will employment, a rule that does not exist in the U.K.
It is more about embracing certain operational aspects reminiscent of U.S. firms. This trend is particularly evident when comparing the operationally driven, ambitious nature of U.S. firms with their U.K. counterparts.
Drawing parallels with the New York market, U.S. firms in London are characterized by their lean staffing models, for example, with fewer business services staff, aggressive pursuit of big cases, lucrative clients, and a relentless focus on performance and delivery. They are places for the ambitious.
This operational shift does not diminish the importance of firm culture, mentorship or professional development. Rather, it highlights a difference in approach.
U.K. firms are traditionally seen as having more layers and a larger business services staff, contrasting with the streamlined, growth-focused approach of U.S. firms, where profitability is key.
Even during market downturns, U.S. firms in London display a unique economic resilience that benefits from an ongoing commitment to growth, and which manifests in hiring practices and overall market energy.
Likewise, the U.S. firms' goal-centric nature is honest and transparent. This distinct energy and operational style are really the defining features of U.S. law firms in the London market.
Defining Distinct Cultures
In the London legal market, U.S. firms are actively carving out their distinct cultural identities. They are clear about their differences and focused on implementing feedback from lateral hires to enhance their training and development programs.
This is a unique opportunity to shape culture based on real-time feedback from their lawyers and an opportunity to increase retention.
These firms are also setting themselves apart through transparent practices in hours, compensation and targets — areas where U.K. firms traditionally maintain a more reserved voice in the market.
This transparency is especially appealing to the newer generation of legal professionals — Generation Z — who prioritize openness in their work environment in order to make informed career choices.
For example, the clear lockstep compensation systems employed by many U.S. firms stand in stark contrast to the more opaque salary bands used by U.K. firms.
The reluctance to openly disclose compensation details across all levels is increasingly viewed as outdated and annoying for prospective talent, particularly in an era where workplace transparency is highly valued.
Indeed, some U.S. states have mandated salary details on job adverts and have implemented regulation around salary transparency in favor of the employee, making the clarity around lockstep systems unsurprising.
What Attracts Talent to U.S. Firms
While competitive salaries remain a significant draw, U.S. firms have many strings to their bow when it comes to attracting talent. Namely, the focus on mentorship and development opportunities with partners who are pushing the idea of so-called real mentorship.
This incorporates being on deals together, providing a learning-from-doing environment and being proactive in developing their associates. Partners will infer that not all firms take this approach, proving this by frequently offering meetings with associates during the interview process.
U.S. firms are investing in both global and local development programs that provide meaningful and connecting experiences for their associates.
For instance, several firms have initiatives to send associates to the U.S. for training programs at different stages of their careers, fostering a sense of belonging to a larger, more integrated firm globally, regardless of where someone is based.
If targets and expectations are aligned, then the thinking is that rewards and recognition should be too.
Professional development in these firms is supported by comprehensive systems, including modular training programs, partner mentorships and collaborations with external providers. The involvement of partners in day-to-day work also provides associates with invaluable and practical learning opportunities.
U.S. firms in London are engaging in local community-based schemes, offering associates chances to participate in pro bono work where they can. These opportunities not only enhance professional skills, but also contribute to a sense of social responsibility and community engagement that is especially important for the younger generation of lawyers coming up through the law firm ranks.
ESG: The New Talent Magnet
The increasing importance of environmental, social and governance initiatives within a law firm is also contributing to how associates choose prospective firms.
A recent survey found that 60% of Gen Z respondents stated that a firm's corporate social responsibility program was a somewhat or very important factor when selecting an employer.
Firms across the board are having to consolidate and enhance their commitment to ESG, and where U.K. magic circle firms have historically led the way, U.S. firms are coming up with new programs that enhance life in the community.
These initiatives are attractive to Gen Z lawyers and therefore prospective talent, who are seeking to align their professional lives with their personal values.
Social media is also playing a pivotal role in this shift. These platforms provide not only space to share visual information and communication, but also a tool for evaluating law firms based on their social media presence. This often highlights and underscores a firm's commitment to these initiatives.
Law firms are responding to this shift by offering variety and embedding initiatives into their core operations and values, including hiring dedicated professionals who help them achieve these goals and objectives. Firms are recognizing that for a growing part of the legal workforce, their commitment to ESG issues is a decisive factor in a candidate's employment choices.
This trend is also amplified by the rise of so-called lawfluencers — generally, legal professionals who use social media to share their experiences and insights on trainee and lawyer life.
There is far more visibility and scrutiny in this context through the social media lens than ever before, so embracing partner Q&As, day-in-the-life content and images from events can only help enhance the prospective talent experience.
Bridging the Generation Gap
Law firms, particularly U.S. firms in London, are taking innovative steps to bridge the generational gap between their lawyers. They are creating spaces internally where young lawyers can voice their opinions openly and contribute to the firm's strategic direction in a feedback-centric way.
Initiatives such as trainee and associate committees, along with active engagement on social media, are examples of these efforts. There is a sense of greater innovation and openness, homing in on more business-like and softer skills than traditionally found in the law firm environment.
These platforms provide a space for younger lawyers to connect, share experiences and influence their workplace.
However, balancing these new initiatives with the traditional demands of client work and billable hours remains a challenge. It is always a possibility that resentment can arise among senior associates and partners who feel they had to navigate a more rigid system to reach their current positions.
We are seeing increasingly that this push for a new working culture from Gen Z can have a hesitant reception among partners who, having had to work through challenges in a much more individual way, see the proposed evolution of culture as a luxury.
Additionally, a disparity in work ethic and expectations from different generations sometimes leads to a disconnect within teams, and it is difficult to encourage in-person mentorship when hybrid working works so well for a lot of people.
Despite these challenges, the global nature of U.S. firms offers a unique advantage. The money-centric work environment at the core of being a U.S. organization provides a realworld learning ground for young lawyers with the emphasis that clients pay the bills and lawyers will have to bring in business, which is where the softer skills are important.
This global exposure, combined with a firm's commitment to innovation and adaptation, while also handsomely rewarding talent for results, makes U.S. firms particularly attractive to the new generation of legal talent.
Navigating a New Landscape
The legal recruitment and talent management landscape is undergoing a significant transformation.
As U.S. firms continue to make their mark in the London market through growth and an aggressive talent acquisition strategy, they bring with them a distinct set of operational practices and cultural norms that make them stand out in the crowd. These changes are reshaping how legal talent is attracted, nurtured and retained.
The key to success in this evolving environment lies in understanding and adapting to the changing priorities and values of the new generation of lawyers. Firms that can effectively bridge the gap between traditional practices and new expectations will be well-positioned to attract and retain the best legal talent.
As the legal sector continues to globalize and evolve, those firms that remain agile and responsive to these changes will lead the way in shaping the future of legal practice.