Whether you’re already working within the legal sector, or a student with ambitions to work in law, then you’ll no doubt have heard of the Silver Circle, an elite group of premium law firms with robust reputations. But who are the Silver Circle firms? In this guide, we explore what the Silver Circle is, which firms belong to it, and the criteria they must meet in order to be labelled as such.
By Grant Longstaff. Published 9 May 2023.
History of Silver Circle law firms
To understand the Silver Circle, we must first look at the Magic Circle. First used by journalists in the 1990s, Magic Circle was an informal term used to refer to the highest performing firms in London. These firms have the highest earnings, are industry leaders in financial and corporate work, and have a huge international presence.
The Silver Circle was first introduced a few years later in 2005 by The Lawyer, a long running legal magazine. The editor, Cathy Griffiths, defined the Silver Circle as firms “content to advise a premium UK client base rather than service global institutions. A lot of work is private equity-dominated […] it is sexy and it pays.” Griffiths added another important consideration for defining the Silver Circle. “There is something else that characterises these firms: a disdain for an overtly managerial approach and a horrified avoidance of big firm bureaucracy.” Silver Circle firms also turnover considerably less than their Magic Circle counterparts, however, their profit per equity partner (an average figure used to benchmark the profitability of a firm) is much greater than the average UK law firm.
The firms initially listed in 2005 as Silver Circle were Ashurst, Macfarlanes, SJ Berwin, and Travers Smith.
Which firms are in the Silver Circle?
Identifying the firms which belong to the Silver Circle isn’t as straightforward as you might think. When the Silver Circle was first created in 2005 it was designed to be a select group of firms, but the boundaries have become diluted over time. The numerous factors involved in defining a Silver Circle firm make the list fluid and open to interpretation, though some firms appear to be a permanent fixture.
In an article from 2017, The Lawyer revised its 2005 list and named three firms as belonging to the Silver Circle. These were Macfarlanes, Mishcon de Reya and Travers Smith. However, other sources offer alternative lists, which still include Ashurst and add firms such as Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, or Herbert Smith Freehills.
Working at a Silver Circle law firm
Working at a Silver Circle law firm will be demanding, though perhaps not as demanding as working for a Magic Circle firm. Often, Silver Circle firms will take a more progressive approach to employment. You’ll likely still work long hours, and you’ll have to maintain a high level of professionalism, but with a greater work/life balance not always present within the Magic Circle.
Gaining a place in a Silver Circle firm will also be highly competitive, but through our strong connections to the legal world we’ve managed to collate advice from recruiters which includes guidance from Ashurst and Mishcon de Reya. You can take a look at our guides and find out what employers look for in a graduate and when they hold recruitment cycles.
The future of the Silver Circle
The classification for Silver Circle firms is problematic. Many firms, including those who are often considered to belong to the Silver Circle, find the term harmful. Silver Circle firms are often viewed as inferior to those within the Magic Circle. Though this was never intended when the list was first created, it is at times perceived this way. In addition, you then have the firms who believe they meet the Silver Circle criteria but are excluded.
In conclusion, it’s best to view the Silver Circle as a guide. There are many excellent firms carrying out great work that aren’t listed for one reason or another. When it comes to looking for employment you should thoroughly research the firm and consider what you can gain from their training and development opportunities.
Don’t just chase the label, find the firm which is right for you.