Sweet shop, not sweatshop

February 13, 2015

Is there now a real alternative to rubbish workplaces?

At last: firms that are more Wonka than, um, wonky. Photo: Shutterstock


The RollOnFriday ‘Firm of the Year’ results are out. And, yes, it’s all a bit subjective – firms leaping up and down 20 places year to year suggests more than a little statistical slack in the whole process. But there a few highs and lows worthy of note.

So it’s hardly news that US firms typically have the best pay and the worst work/life balance. Take Latham & Watkins that ranks first for pay, but comes seventh from the bottom for work/life balance. Or Kirkland and Ellis, which wins the top prize for career prospects, comes second for pay but then comes a lowly 44th out of 52 for allowing associates to go home at night.

‘Fuck me the money is good’, as one respondent is quoted as saying, seems to pretty much sum up the sentiment here.

Magic looks tragic

What may be more striking, though, are the pretty poor scores of the UK’s magic circle against all these criteria. Only Clifford Chance manages to scrape into the top 10 for pay, with Allen & Overy coming a paltry 38th out of 52 for salary satisfaction.

Combine it with the other scores and the UK’s magic circle begins to look miserable indeed. They score woefully for work/life balance (Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy and Freshfields all appear in the last six). But more surprisingly they also score pretty badly on career prospects too. Only Linklaters manages to squeeze itself into the top 20 for career development.

With these scores, you can understand it when one respondent describes a UK magic circle firm as a ‘US-style outfit paying low magic circle wages and bonuses but asking associates to work around 2,000 hours per year’. You can also see why another complains about doing more hours than those at US firms but getting paid less. ‘Something needs to change’, the magic circle respondent adds.

The rise of the all-rounder

And maybe there are signs that things are changing – but not among the magic circle firms. Take a look, for instance, at some of the firms that have scored highest for work/life balance. Traditionally, these are the ones in which you sacrifice your pay and career prospects for the chance of some semblance of a home life.

Except that a number of these seem to be doing pretty well across all criteria. Clarke Willmott, for instance, comes second for work/life balance, third for career prospects and a very reasonable 14th for pay. Mayer Brown too gets into the top 10 for work/life balance, but hits the top five for both pay and career prospects. In fact, of those firms that rank in the top 10 for work-life balance, only two drop out of the top 20 for pay and just one doesn’t make the grade for career prospects.

For sure, this isn’t scientific. The remuneration of the magic circle firms would clearly beat the pay at these mid-tier firms. But that isn’t the point. This is about satisfaction. And in that respect, this survey suggests that the magic circle is failing on most counts.

Two options emerge from this survey: if you want top pay, go for a leading US firm. For a beasting you can line your pockets with gold.

If you want a life, though, go to a progressive mid-tier firm. For they are the ones that can now offer a genuine career alternative to the legal sweatshop – one in which you can expect decent pay and prospects for something akin to a normal day’s work.

And where does the magic circle sit in all this? Well, no-one’s going to be writing them off – certainly not off the back of these results. But with increasing competition the evidence is mounting that the days of complacency for the UK’s leading firms are well and truly over. CP

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