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A common law? An outsider’s look into the UK legal market

I’m a South African attorney, that’s UK speak for solicitor. Having left private practice nearly 6 years ago to recruit legal professionals I’ve seen a lot. When I decided to move countries in mid-2018 from South Africa to the UK I thought to myself “how different could the legal market really be?” The reality? It’s different, but fortunately in less ways than you’d perhaps imagine.

The initial difference comes first via semantics.

The ‘Big 5’

The South African legal market is dominated by the ‘Big 5’. Lion, Buffalo, Hippo, Giraffe, Leopard.

No, not that Big 5.  Similar in many respects to the UK’s ‘Magic Circle’ The Big 5 refers to an established group of 5 firms who have typically controlled the majority of deals and technical work. However, the arrival of international firms from 2010 onward to the South African market (from both the US and the UK) has reduced the market dominance once held by these old institutions. That said, aside from the Big 5 and the international firms, there are only a handful of regional law firms and an even smaller amount of 15+ partner firms.  The overwhelming majority of firms are run and operated by 3 or fewer partners and tend to pick up the work not taken on by the bigger players.

Qualification & Training

UK solicitors follow a similar trajectory to South African attorneys. Both are required to complete a formal legal qualification: the LLB. Thereafter, prospective solicitors and attorneys need to complete further theoretical learning—the LPC (legal practice course) for solicitors, and a PLT (practical legal training) for attorneys. 

Unsurprisingly, solicitors in training in the UK are bestowed the title of Trainee Solicitor whilst their counterparts in South Africa are called Candidate Attorneys—often referred to as Article Clerks or just Clerks.  Regardless of ‘title,’ both Trainees and Clerks are slowly introduced to the day to day functions and work flow of their new employers. 

So far there are different names. Got it. But what are the real changes?

One of the primary variances relates to where and with whom the trainees can train. Whilst the majority of prospective lawyers in both the UK and South Africa tend to receive their training in a law firm, the UK also offers in-house training contracts. Whilst there are relatively few of these compared to law firm training contracts, they still make up part of the landscape and are perhaps the biggest difference between the two jurisdictions when it comes to training.

Just as their counterparts do in the UK, Clerks in South Africa tend to change departments known as rotations. Whilst Trainee Solicitors tend to do 4 ‘seats.’ Article Clerks, however, can do as many as 4 rotations, sometimes 3, often 2, or in most cases, none! 

But how does this work? The Big 5 and international firm Clerks will typically get between 2-4 rotations in various departments. Clerks in these departments could deal with anything from labour, to litigation, to commercial, intellectual property, and everything in between. In smaller firms, the work flow is too varied to offer a dedicated seat, so general training across a variety of practice areas is given.

Perhaps one of the more curious aspects between the two markets is at the back end of training. In the UK, firms pride themselves on retaining as many Trainees as possible. They advertise these results on legal publications and compete with other firms on how many Trainees they keep on—many boast figures of 85-90% retention rates, some even higher. In South Africa, the Big 5 and smaller firms tend to take on more clerks than they have positions for at the end of training.  Big 5 firms might only retain 60-70% of their Clerks, whilst smaller firms might elect not to keep any!

Placement & Size of Market 

When it comes to choosing where to practice, UK solicitors have plenty of options. The sheer volume of legal firms—especially large legal firms—viz Magic Circle, Silver Circle, International, US, Regional, and Offshore firms simply dwarfs the options available to a South African attorney.

But in-house legal teams is where we see this most starkly. The primary reason for this boils down to that of geography (and perhaps economy). London is viewed (watch this space post Brexit) as the financial epicenter of Europe.  Massive multinational corporations choose London for their headquarters and by virtue of this, base their legal teams there. The sheer volume of companies—big enough to warrant having in-house legal functions—creates a sizable market for in-house legal professionals. Property solicitors, Litigation specialists, IP lawyers, Competition lawyers, Corporate and M&A solicitors and of course Commercial solicitors can all be found in one in-house legal department, creating large robust teams.

South Africa, whilst seen as the epicenter of African business and host to a plethora of international businesses, simply does not have an in-house market remotely comparable.  In-house teams are incredibly lean, often no bigger than 2 or 3 lawyers. (There are of course exceptions to this, most notably in the banking sector where large in-house legal teams exist. This is primarily due to the tight regulatory nature of the industry). The predominant skill set of most in-house counsel is commercial. South African in-house counsel also tend to lean on their international colleagues where appropriate and specialised work is outsourced to external firms (often the Big 5).

The result of the above, insofar as it relates to in-house, is that lawyers with non-commercial backgrounds are often precluded from taking up in-house roles in South Africa. This differs to their colleagues in the UK, who stand a far better chance of securing a position regardless of their chosen specialisation.

On the whole, the South African legal market and the UK share many common threads, but perhaps the biggest differentiator is that of market size. But remember, competition in the legal space—irrespective of geographical location—is fierce, and a professional guided approach will assist you in successfully navigating your career. Having placed candidates into almost every industry, I’m on hand to provide legal professionals with the latest market intelligence as well as exclusive opportunities.

 

Grant Jackson
grantjackson@chadwicknott.co.uk
T:  0121 200 5574
M: 0774 184 5065

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