'Magic Circle' law firms are a group of five law firms headquartered in the City of London. The Magic Circle law firms are:
- Allen & Overy
- Clifford Chance
- Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
- Slaughter and May
Undoubtedly, all of these law firms are regarded as prestigious commercial law firms. However, many candidates struggle to figure out what separates them.
What are we discussing?
This blog article will cover:
- a brief history of the Magic Circle, the Silver Circle and the 'Club of Nine' law firms;
- how to tell the difference between the Magic Circle law firms (i.e. each firm's unique selling points and specialisms); and
- what is typical of all firms in the Magic Circle.
You should also make sure to check out our 'How to Research Law Firms for Training Contracts & Vacation Schemes' blog article for more tips and tricks on differentiating law firms.
What is the history of the Magic Circle law firms?
The informal term 'Magic Circle was coined by journalists in the 1990s to demarcate the very best law firms when it came to their transactional and international work. This group came about after the dissolution of the 'Club of Nine'.
What was the 'Club of Nine'?
The 'Club of Nine' was a formal group of, you guessed it, nine top law firms which had a no-poaching agreement and where its most senior representatives would meet. The Club of Nine was comprised of:
- Allen & Overy
- Clifford Chance
- Freshfields (Bruckhaus Deringer)
- Herbert Smith (Freehills)
- (Hogan) Lovells
- Norton Rose (Fulbright)
- Slaughter and May
- Stephenson Harwood
In essence, the law firms worked together to not poach each others' lawyers and to ensure a degree of harmony between them. However, in the mid-1990s, Stephenson Harwood was asked to leave due to their performance. The group was then broken up at the turn of the millennium.
What criteria do you have to meet to enter the 'Magic Circle'?
At the time (the 1990s), Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May were all doing tremendously well. As the Club of Nine began to fall apart, these firms stood out as being in their own category of performance. Hence, legal commentators coined the term 'Magic Circle' to denote those five firms that had outcompeted their other Club of Nine counterparts.
It is important to recognise that the term was created based on the performance of these firms at that time. Evidently, law firms' respective performances evolve over time - some get better, others get worse. Therefore, a 'Magic Circle' firm, in its truest sense, means nothing more than a firm that was performing well in the 1990s to the extent that journalists put a label to it. However, as we will discuss, there may be more to this label today.
What about the Silver Circle law firms?
The 'Silver Circle' was a term created in 2005 by journalists to denote a separate category of firms that were in competition with the likes of the Magic Circle. They were said to have lower turnover than the Magic Circle but higher profit per equity partner (PEP) and revenue per lawyer (RPL) than the average UK law firm. When the term was first coined, the members were:
- Herbert Smith (Freehills)
- SJ Berwin
- Travers Smith
The membership of the Silver Circle, however, has evolved over time and is disputed. Nevertheless, as it stands, the consensus is that the following firms make up the Silver Circle:
- Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner
- Herbert Smith Freehills
- Travers Smith
The Magic Circle today
As of writing, the terms Magic Circle and Silver Circle are still used on a day-to-day basis. They remain relevant for denoting the groups of law firms mentioned above and for referencing law firms of significant prestige. However, some claim that the terms are outdated. With the entrance of US law firms into the London market, and the divergence of strategies and performance within the groupings, it is questionable whether 'Magic Circle' (or even 'Silver Circle') law firms are similar.
With that in mind, it is increasingly important to choose the right Magic Circle law firm for you. Although they are all prestigious, each Magic Circle law firm has a different approach, which will impact your traineeship and future career.
Allen & Overy
What are A&O's specialisms?
Allen & Overy is best known for its banking and international capital markets practice areas. They make all of their trainees complete at least two of their four six-month seats in:
- corporate; or
- international capital markets.
Naturally, there are many teams within those departments, so trainees still have a lot of choice. However, you should bear this in mind - if banking and finance is not your thing, you need to consider whether this is the right structure for you!
In fact, the firm is so keen on these areas that their assessment process is known (sometimes) to involve being presented with a balance sheet for you to interpret. You do not need to be a mathematics whizz to pass their assessment, but it goes to show that the firm is looking for you to have a decent level of numeracy and passion for banking and finance.
And this specialism is not just for show. The firm routinely picks up the top awards for its banking and international capital markets work, as well as having a star-studded roster of banking clients (think JP Morgan and the like!).
But what if I'm interested in dispute resolution?
The firm does not have as large a litigation department as the likes of Herbert Smith Freehills or Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, but that does not mean it is not strong. Nevertheless, if you are keen on dispute resolution, you need to consider that Allen & Overy's dispute resolution team is smaller than its peers, which means it has fewer trainee places and qualification opportunity.
What's A&O's approach to legal technology?
Finally, it is worth mentioning 'Fuse'. Fuse is Allen & Overy's technology incubation hub. Taking up a large chunk of one of Allen & Overy's Spitalfields' office floors, Fuse is a space where technology companies (upon invitation) set up and develop their products. And these are not small companies - the likes of Avvoka and Kira have both come out of Fuse. If legal technology is your thing, you might want to take a look at how you can work with Fuse as a trainee or later as a qualified lawyer.
What's CC's recruitment process like?
Clifford Chance has set itself apart from the get-go by virtue of its application processes. Dispensing with the traditional vacation scheme process, Clifford Chance gives three options to candidates:
- a direct training contract application;
- their SPARK scheme; and
- their IGNITE training contract.
SPARK is open to first year law students, second year students of four-year law degree or penultimate year non-law students and is a mini-vacation scheme with the opportunity to interview for a training contract.
Can trainees get involved with legal technology?
However, what is most unique is their IGNITE training contract. The firm states that IGNITE is 'a pioneering Training Contract which offers applicants with an aptitude for Tech a route to qualify as lawyers'. In essence, think of a traditional training contract experience but with some added extras to help you develop and use your interest and aptitude for technology!
What are Clifford Chance's specialisms?
Much like Allen & Overy (and the rest of the Magic Circle law firms), Clifford Chance's specialisms revolve around corporate/M&A, banking, and finance. Its work is predominantly transaction-orientated but, as with most top, large commercial law firms, there is a chance to get involved with dispute resolution if that is one of your other interests.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
What is different about Freshfields' training contract?
Perhaps one of the most standout differences between Freshfields and the other Magic Circle law firms is its training contract structure. Freshfields offers their trainees an eight-seat rotational training contract. As part of these eight seats, you must complete at least one seat in dispute resolution and two seats in 'global transactions' (corporate, finance and real estate). There are other seat options in antitrust, competition and trade, people and reward, tax, and intellectual property/information technology.
If you like having lots of choice when it comes to your training contract, Freshfields is definitely a firm to look out for!
What are Freshfields' specialisms?
Unlike some of the other Magic Circle law firms, Freshfields likes to put its dispute resolution practice front and centre. Although much of its work is transaction-based, Freshfields boasts a large disputes practice, giving its trainees ample opportunity to get involved in litigation and arbitration matters should they want.
Of course, one seat in disputes is mandatory; however, trainees can choose to do multiple seats in a department if they feel a particular passion for a practice area or industry.
The departments covering finance-related practice areas are regarded by some as not as strong as the likes of Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance. Nevertheless, the firm does have some strengths in this area: for example, Freshfields has historically been the Bank of England's go to law firm. If you are predominantly interested in typical corporate/M&A, antitrust, and dispute resolution, and would like the ability to garner exposure to some other practice areas, it seems like training at Freshfields is a good bet!
Are there opportunities to work in the US?
Recently, the Magic Circle have focused on accelerating their expansion in the US. Arguably, Freshfields has had the most success so far. The firm has heavily invested in itsUS strategy, and has an ever-strengthening antitrust, finance and litigation practice there.
Freshfields is clearly taking the fight to the elite US-headquartered law firms which have been penetrating the London market. If you're looking for the opportunity to travel to America and are involved in more US-centric work, Freshfields might present the most opportunities for you.
As a final note, the firm has tried to eschew the label of 'Magic Circle'. Instead, it wants to be regarded as part of the international elite law firms. This may seem like semantics; however, it is a demonstration of how the firm sees itself, aligning itself more with the elite US-law firms of today, rather than the historically prestigious 'Magic Circle'.
What's Linklaters' edge?
Linklaters is arguably one of the more balanced Magic Circle law firms when it comes to practice area specialisms. It has market-leading practices in both corporate/M&A and finance, rather than just focusing on one or the other. It also has some more unique departments, such as its ESG team which covers matters relating to sustainable finance, human rights, and risk.
The firm is not as well-known for its litigation and arbitration work as, say, Freshfields. However, in tandem with its ESG practice, it offers some of the more interesting dispute resolution work, in areas such as public and administrative law and crisis management. If you are sitting in dispute resolution, you are likely to have a greater range of matters to get involved with rather than being siloed into one particular kind of matter or industry. This is something for you to consider if you know that you are keen on dispute resolution, but want a good variety of work.
What's the legal technology like at Linklaters?
Popularised by Eve Cornwell, Linklaters has a large legal technology hub called Nakhoda. Linklaters describes Nakhoda as a 'cross-functional team of product managers, designers and developers working closely alongside our lawyers and our clients to design bespoke technology solutions. Together, we find creative new ways to solve old problems in the practice of law'.
If they're lucky, trainees can actually take one of their seats in Nakhoda, which gives them a completely different experience via exposure to product management and software development. If you continue to work with Nakhoda, you can expect to work in a more hands-on manner to create legal and financial technology products. If you are not certain that you want to work in law long-term or simply want a more varied experience as a lawyer, this is definitely something to explore.
Slaughter and May
What are some of the quirks of Slaughter and May?
Last but by no means least we have Slaughter and May. Although its profit per equity partner is not publicly disclosed, it is typically regarded as having one of the highest PEP in the City. Unlike its Magic Circle counterparts, it is also a general partnership.
The firm offers a semi-flexible training contract structure. Although the larger departments have six-month seat options, some of the smaller, specialist departments, such as pensions or tax offer three-month seats. This is effectively a middle ground between the likes of four six-month structures at Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance and Linklaters, and the eight three-month seat structure of Freshfields.
Furthermore, the firm has a completely different international strategy to the other Magic Circle firms. Whilst the other four have a large number of international offices, Slaughter and May has just four offices globally: London, Brussels, Beijing, and Hong Kong. They do still complete a large amount of international work; however, they do so in partnership with firms from their 'best friends network' - selected local law firms in the relevant jurisdictions. Although you may still get opportunities for international travel, you may want to bear this in mind if you are keen on spending significant time in an office abroad.
Internal progression at the firm can be challenging, especially at the higher ranks. Unlike the larger Magic Circle outfits, Slaughter and May does not make up as many partners per year. This is understandable given its business model; however, it is worth thinking about if you are keen on making partner quickly.
What are Slaughter and May's specialisms?
Like the other firms, Slaughter and May's main strengths lie in corporate/M&A, banking and finance, and dispute resolution. However, arguably, the firm specialises in ultra-premium and niche matters. Slaughter and May is often regarded as the government's law firm, advising the British government on matters such as Brexit. It also advises some of the most companies listed on the FTSE (33 FTSE 100 companies and 75 FTSE 350 companies).
Slaughter and May should not be underestimated by its size. If you want some of the most premium or sensitive matters, this firm has it all.
With all those mini-profiles out of the way, it is worth mentioning that there is a lot in common between the Magic Circle firms. For one, they all predominantly specialise in corporate/M&A, banking, finance/capital markets, and some kind of dispute resolution. The differences here lie in the weighting between departments. If banking appeals to you, Allen & Overy might be the firm for you. If dispute resolution is more of your bag, Freshfields might be a good choice. Nevertheless, this is not gospel; all of the firms will offer you good opportunities in these areas. It is just something to consider.
Except for Slaughter and May, the Magic Circle firms all have a large network of international offices. This means that an international secondment is feasible (and with a good selection of locations to choose from!) but not guaranteed. International secondments are definitely available at Slaughter and May, but you may not be based in a Slaughter and May office (rather one of their 'best friend network' firm's offices). This is an advantage or disadvantage depending on your outlook. On the one hand, you will get to experience a different law firm and build a relationship with a local firm, on the other, you may feel like you lose out on the Slaughter and May experience that you signed up for. This is really a personal matter of perspective.
Virtually all of the firms have some kind of technology or research and development hub:
- Allen & Overy: Fuse
- Clifford Chance: Create+65
- Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer: Freshfields Hub
- Linklaters: Nakhoda
- Slaughter and May: Collaborate
The differences are in how easily you can get involved with these hubs and at what stage of your career you can do so.
You will get fantastic training at all of these law firms. Despite their different training contract structures, all the firms will provide you with a good degree of supervision and teaching. In fact, this is arguably what the Magic Circle has come to represent in the modern day. Everyone knows that a Magic Circle trainee has been trained within an inch of their lives and is intellectually gifted. There is a reason why elite US-headquartered law firms love to recruit newly qualified Magic Circle lawyers!
There will be some difference in the number of seats and which seats are mandatory or are available to you. There will also be a bit of difference in what is expected of you. Nevertheless, all of the Magic Circle firms expect the very best from their trainees, and the demands placed upon you will be more department-dependent than firm-related.
Over the course of this article we have looked at how to distinguish between Magic Circle law firms. Specifically, we have covered the history of the Magic Circle firms and other groups of top commercial law firms, a short profile of each Magic Circle firm and what differentiates them, and some of the things that are common amongst all of the group.
- The Magic Circle succeeded the 'Club of Nine' firms. The term 'Magic Circle' was coined in the 1990s by legal commentators and the 'Club of Nine' was dissolved in 2000.
- The term denoted the firms that were currently performing well at the time.
- The 'Silver Circle' was a term coined in 2005 to denote some of the other top firms that were in competition with the Magic Circle.
- Allen & Overy's main differentiating factor is its focus on banking and finance work, and its large Fuse legal technology division.
- Clifford Chance stands out for its different recruitment strategy, specifically its IGNITE training contract.
- Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer's unique selling points are its eight-seat training contract and greater focus on dispute resolution (compared to the other Magic Circle firms).
- Linklaters differentiates itself by virtue of some of its more niche, modern teams (for example, their ESG team) and its legal technology hub Nakhoda (which trainees can sit in).
- Slaughter and May is the most different of the lot. It has a completely different international strategy and operates as a general partnership. It also has a more flexible training contract where you can take some three-month seats.
- All of the Magic Circle firms offer fantastic training and specialise somewhat in corporate/M&A, banking, and finance/international capital markets. You will also get decent exposure to legal technology and innovation at all the firms.
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