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September 7 2021

How are UK law firms structured?

Legal Career Tips

James Bosson

James Bosson

Intersecting wooden blocks emerge from the left, as the FLex Legal branding approaches from behind, cutting across the post.

If you’re working as a paralegal in the legal industry, you should make sure you have a clear understanding of how law firms operate. Paralegal tasks are only one piece of the puzzle, and having a clear understanding of how law firms operate in a broader sense can really benefit your professional life.

Fortunately, law firms are pretty easy to get your head around. Whilst there is some variation from firm to firm, most of them operate in a fairly similar way.  This article will explain how law firms are structured, and is best read alongside our ‘How do law firms work as a business?’ blog post.

A green pyramid, demosntrating the different professional tiers within law firms.

Most UK law firms are arranged in a “pyramid’ structure, although there can be some variety, so the explanation below of how they work should only be taken as a loose guide. If you’re unsure of the hierarchy in a law firm you’re working for, it’s definitely worth asking for clarification on this. You may see solicitors referred to as “fee-earners” - which is any member of staff whose work directly generates income for the firm. Listed below are the types of “fee-earner”.

What are Partners?

As shown in the graph above, Partners sit at the very top of the pyramid. Most law firms operate as partnerships, which are co-owned by partners. There will usually be a Senior or Managing Partner (sometimes both). In some law firms, all partners have equal stake in the business and have an equal say in how the business operates. In other law firms, there will be an internal hierarchy within the Partners themselves depending on the amount of equity they hold, or whether they are salaried. All cases / matters handled by a law firm will be done under the supervision of a Partner.

What are Legal Directors?

Legal Directors sit just below Partners, and will sometimes be referred to as ‘Counsel’. It’s worth noting that not all law firms have this role. A Legal Director typically oversees a lot of business operations at the firm, will run their own cases, and carry a lot of senior managerial responsibility. They generally oversee one particular area of business operations that they specialise in. Many law firms appoint Legal Directors as a “stepping stone” to them being made a partner.

What are Senior Associates and Associates?

The pyramid rungs below that are Senior Associates and Associates. An Associate is essentially just another term for a qualified and practicing lawyer. These Associates can either be ‘NQ’ (Newly Qualified), or ‘PQE’ (Post Qualification Experience). You’ll sometimes see Senior Associates titled ‘PQE7’ or something similar. This means they have ‘post- qualification experience’ as a lawyer, and have 7 years of experience in legal practice. Generally speaking, an Associate with more than 5 years PQE is regarded as fairly senior in a law firm, and will sometimes take on additional responsibilities as a Senior Associate. Sometimes Senior Associates will also be referred to as “Managing Associates”.

What are law firm Trainees?

A Trainee is someone who has completed their formal legal education (LPC) and who has a Training Contract with a law firm. This means they will complete approximately two years paid training with the firm before qualifying as a lawyer. A Trainee will sometimes complete work suitable for more experienced paralegals, and sometimes complete work suitable for lawyers. Training Contract placements are very limited and highly sought after. Many law firms are currently in the process of phasing out traditional Training Contracts, in favour of the new SQE. You can learn more about the SQE on this blog post.

What are Paralegals?

A Paralegal is, essentially, a legal professional who is not yet qualified. Some paralegals will be fee earners, depending on the nature of the tasks they are performing. Paralegals perform an enormous range of legal tasks based around “junior” legal matters. This includes reviewing documents and drafting contracts, to preparing bundles and filing court documents. A good law firm will choose good paralegals and invest in their success, and often paralegals will become a key part of running a case. This means it is crucial that paralegals are well trained, properly supervised, and perform their duties to the highest standard.

What are non-fee earners?

Obviously not every employee of a law firm is a “fee-earner”. Sitting adjacent to all roles in the law firm are a huge range of law firm employees whose time is not billed to clients. This could include accountants, administrative workers, marketeers, or anyone else working non-billable time.

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