The Magic Circle Myth? How some applicants miscategorise firms they’re applying to

As almost anyone applying for a training contract or pupillage will tell you, luck plays a massive part in the road to success. Some may call it fortune, others may attribute it to a higher power, but there are certain parts of the process that we mere mortals cannot control.

For wannabe-solicitors, choosing which firms to apply to out of the hundreds offering training contracts is a process which involves an element of luck. The marketing material from most firms sounds so generic that if a student repeated the contents, their application would be binned immediately. This isn’t their fault, it’s just a product of the fact that they all want “intelligent, hard-working, academic achievers” to train with them.

Students therefore have to try and look past the marketing of firms, which they can do by researching on any of the multiple websites designed for exactly that purpose. On websites like Chambers Student, Inside Buzz and LawCareers.Net there are profiles of firms which detail the working environment, the inside story from current and former trainees, and the lowdown on the firm’s ambitions. All of this should be enough to give students a good indication of the firm and whether it might be aligned with their own philosophies. Of course, there’s no substitute for actually experiencing life in that firm, but these longer explanations of the firms’ cultures are better than nothing.

It’s surprising, then, to hear some of the answers to the question “which firms have you applied to?”. Nothing gives more of an indication of a lack of thought in this area than an answer which includes US firms, regional firms, niche firms and City firms. There are some of these which can work in tandem with each other – US firms and international City firms may still be part of a well thought-out plan – but there are some which clearly do not work together.

It may be that students are covering their options, feeling that certain firms are either easier or more difficult to get into, but this is false and self-defeating. Firms are excellent at working out which candidate will be well-suited to their type of work and their culture. Applying to different types of firm doesn’t help unless you’re meant to work at that kind of firm. If you can convince a high-street firm that your ambition matches theirs, and convince a global firm of the same thing, then you should give up your aspirations of being a lawyer and become an actor instead.

The high street firm/global firm example may have been a tad extreme, but there is one place this principle is more common: the Magic Circle. Some people, when asked the question of where they’re applying, answer with, “well, I know I’m going to apply to the Magic Circle firms, but I haven’t decided where else yet.” That sentence should set off alarm bells that the person does not know what they want from a firm.

The Magic Circle, as a term, refers to 5 of the leading UK-headquartered law firms: Allen & Overy (A&O); Clifford Chance (CC); Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; Linklaters; and Slaughter and May. The philosophies of these firms vary from the global expansion of A&O and CC to the UK-centric mentality of Slaughter and May. To treat them all as the same is to completely ignore their thinking about international work, specialisms and the future. And yet some students still think that if you want to work at the top of the industry you need to apply to them all.

Some students know the differences in firms’ outlooks and still choose to submit applications to all of types of firm. Take, for example, this post on a messageboard:

When I had my interview at [mid-sized firm] they asked me who else I’d applied to, and I told them I had interviews coming up with [two other mid-size firms] which they seemed happy with because they have quite a lot in common. Decided not to mention I also applied to all of the Magic Circle!!  At [Magic Circle firm] I didn’t mention that I had also applied to smaller firms.

Through other posts, it is known that the writer of that post has applied to many firms and received countless interviews, but has failed to secure a single training contract offer, despite having many more opportunities to do so than most people. The poster also shares feedback they have received on this messageboard. There is a consistent theme to the feedback, which you should be able to guess by now: the firms keep saying they’re not convinced that the candidate wants to work for that firm or in that type of firm.

The simple answer to all of this is for applicants to think about what it is you really want from a firm. If you’re looking for a firm that’s expanding across the world at the top end of the revenue charts, by all means apply to Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy. But then don’t just also apply to Slaughter and May because they’re part of the same historical grouping as those two; look at Norton Rose and DLA Piper as firms with a similar outlook on the world.

Using the Magic Circle as the starting point for your decisions on where to apply is as pointless as saying you’ll apply to firms positioned in places 40-50 in the revenue chart, without knowing whether the firms in question are regional or international, niche or full-service. Increase your chances of getting the training contract that’s right for you by putting yourself forward to firms that you are most suited to.

The element of luck comes after identifying all of those firms, which will probably be more numerous than is practical to apply to. It’s the point at which you decide which of the firms that fit the bill you aren’t going to have time to do applications for. You have to be fortunate that you have chosen the right ones, and not excluded a firm or two which would have suited you down to the ground. Given the time constraints for applications, and the fact that they often have to be fitted in around other commitments such as studying or working, it may help candidates to make the application process a more targeted process than many currently see it as being.

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