From time to time you hear the term “Magic Circle Firm,” and you start to think J.K. Rowling or The Chronicles of Narnia. Nice try, but wrong. So, it probably would be a good idea for you to know what it really means. For those of you who already know, bravo. You are way ahead of me at your age.
However, before I help you get smart, I have a confession to make. When I first heard about “Magic Circle Firms,” I didn’t have a clue — and I probably should have. And anyone who knows me also knows that I do not like feeling stupid. So, I dove into a rash of research to make myself feel better. Here is what I discovered about The Magic Circle and how that term relates to the law profession.
The Magic Circle refers to law firms in the UK, so it seems appropriate that we start with the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines the term “magic circle” as “[a] small group of people privileged to receive confidential information or make important decisions.”
When applied to the profession of law in the UK, “The Magic Circle” is generally viewed to comprise between three and five prestigious law firms. The law firms generally described by commentators as comprising the Magic Circle are Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters.
Recently, UK law firms, including Magic Circle firms, have experienced increased competition from US law firms both domestically (from US law firms with a UK presence) and internationally. In 2013, The Lawyer argued that the term Magic Circle would lose its relevance, becoming “outmoded”. “It will remain an easy shorthand to denote the UK-heritage firms with the biggest revenues, the most international work and which consistently outperform the rest of the [UK] market on profitability.” It was argued that by 2023 global law firms will rather be split between the Global Elite law firms, International Business law firms and Super Boutique law firms. Here are how those descriptions break down.
The Global Elite law firms comprise Allen & Overy, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Davis Polk & Wardwell, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Latham & Watkins, Linklaters, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Sullivan & Cromwell, Kirkland & Ellis and Weil, Gotshal & Manges.
The International Business law firms comprise Clifford Chance, Ashurst, Norton Rose Fulbright, Hogan Lovells, DLA Piper, Jones Day, Baker & McKenzie, White & Case, Herbert Smith Freehills, King & Wood Mallesons and Sidley Austin.
The Super Boutique law firms comprise Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, Slaughter and May, Debevoise & Plimpton and Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
Now you know — at least until it all changes again. Don’t forget to look back on this in 2023 to see if The Lawyer was right in its prediction. Yes, put it on your To Do List — because, of course, as a young lawyer, you have nothing else to do!