Differences between top tier, mid tier and boutique law firms

There is one important reason why you should know the differences between top tier, mid tier and boutique law firms: you can find all the firms that other students don’t apply to. It’s also important to understand the structure of the Australian legal market!

This post will look at the differences between top tier, mid tier, boutique and small firms. The objective is to provide you with information so you can apply for a wide range of clerkship and paralegal positions.

top tier and mid tier law firms

There is a lot of talk at law school about the different types of firms. Almost all students know the names of the top tier law firms and a few of the prestigious mid tiers, as these are only firms with large enough budgets to advertise at universities.

What most students don’t realise is that there are literally hundreds of other firms out there, and no one applies to them! Clerkships and law student jobs are hard to come by – don’t limit yourself by only applying to a handful of them. (For some inside info, take look at my post on clerkships here: Legal Clerkships: What are they, and why are they important?)

Are the categories really that important?

The legal industry can be arrogant and snobbish. We’ve all overheard law students talking (much louder than necessary) about how they’re only applying to top tier firms, because nowhere else is good enough. I sometimes wonder whether we should get rid of these categories altogether.

Law - a snobbish industry
Where ever you end up, just don’t be a jerk about it.

However, I think it is important to lay out this information for one simple reason: different law firms will appeal to different people, and it can be really hard as a law student, with no experience or exposure to the legal industry, to understand what firms provide what legal services.

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Now, let’s get straight to it.

The “tier” categories (eg top tier)

There are more than just top tier and mid tier law firms in Australia. There are also upper mid tier, international, boutique, small, suburban and government categories.

There can be a lot of overlap between these categories, and some firms can definitely be described under more than one category.

Here are some brief lists of firms that fall into the different categories. These lists contains all of the top and upper mid tiers (because there aren’t many firms in these groups), but I have only included some of the more well known mid tiers and boutiques. As mentioned above, there are literally hundreds of firms out there, so use this as a starting point for your research.

(And by the way, these lists are not exhaustive.)

Top tier law firms

Australian top tier law firms

The “top tiers” (also known as the Big 6) are the leading law firms in Australia. Many of these firms have undergone mergers or alliances in the past few years, which has its advantages and disadvantages; having a global reach is the key advantage that most firms are seeking.

These are all full service firms:

  1. Herbert Smith Freehills (previously Freehills)
  2. Allens Linklaters (previously Allens)
  3. King & Wood Mallesons (previously Mallesons Stephen Jaques)
  4. Ashurst (previously Blake Dawson)
  5. Clayton Utz
  6. Minter Ellison

Here is a recent Australian Financial Review article which provides some more stats on the global law firms: “Law firms buoyed by revenue spikes despite turbulence”. It’s interesting to see that many of these top tier firms are dwarfed by the large international firms.

Upper mid tiers

This is a relatively recent categorisation, and highlights the fact that some of the mid tiers are seriously outperforming the rest. These “upper” mid tier firms attract the same clients and work as the top tiers (and sometimes even better work) – the only real difference is that they are usually not full service firms.

The upper mid tier law firms are commonly cited as Gilbert + Tobin and Corrs Westgarth Chambers.

Mid tier law firms

In my experience, these firms are relatively largish firms, usually operate in a few different cities, and simply have a great brand. A few examples are below.

Hall & Wilcox, Maddocks, Landers & Rogers, Holding Redlich, Arnold Block Liebler.

You can find a more comprehensive list in our post here.

International firms

International law firms in Australia

Australia is home to some very large international law firms. While these might be much larger (in terms of revenue and lawyer number) than the top tier firms, they don’t pull in the same kind of work in Australia (but might do so overseas).

NortonRose, Baker & McKenzie, DLA Piper, K & L Gates.

Boutique law firms

Boutique law firms typically specialise in only a few areas (some only one area). An example would be Griffith Hack for IP law, Wotton + Kearney for insurance law, and some specialised and highly regarded criminal law firms (Gallbally & O’Brien, for example).

The “boutique” moniker is widely used by smaller (or otherwise not particularly good) firms to sound impressive. Everyone needs to market themselves, I guess.

Small and medium sized firms

The reference to”small” and “medium” law firms is pretty much a catch all for the remaining law firms in Australia.

Small law firms generally only have a few lawyers and possible one or two support staff. Sometimes people refer to these firms as “suburban” law firms, just because most are located in the suburbs, however, it should be noted that small firms are found everywhere, and sometimes close by to larger firms.

Medium firms are relatively large (they could have 10 to 20 lawyers), but don’t have the brand name to fit into the “mid tier” category (yes, perception can be everything sometimes).

Suburban

This category is highly variable. It is generally used to refer to smaller suburban firms, which have a general practice (ie family law, criminal law and small commercial matters). However, these firms could have anywhere between one lawyer to over 10. includes all suburban law firms, which could be anything from a sole practitioner with no support staff, to a firm with 10 or more lawyers.

Not all law firms located in the suburbs will be considered “suburban” firms. Some are simply small to medium sized commercial firms that are located close to their commercial clients.

Government

The Government is a large employer of lawyers.

Australian Government Solicitor, ASIC, Prosecution departments (OPP in Victoria, ODPP in NSW, etc), ACCC, Attorney-General’s Department, Consumer Affairs Victoria.

Who’s missing?

There are many international law firms that have recently arrived in Australia. For example, Clyde & Co, Seyfarth Shaw and Squire Patton Boggs. These firms are very successful overseas, but their brands have yet to really penetrate the Australian market – I’ll add these to the lists in due course.

Which law firm is the best?

So how do these types of firms differ, and which one is the best?

Here is a very brief overview of the differences between the categories – it is up to you to decide what firm is best for your career goals.

Firm work

The type of work that a law firm does is one of the better and easier ways to differentiate the firms.

The top tier Australian firms typically undertake the largest corporate deals and work in Australia. Why? Because the clients who have this work are some of the largest corporates in Australia, and so they can afford the fees that large firms charge (these can be over $1000 per hour for the best partners). Clients are willing to pay these fees because the work is very complex and they need a legal advisor that has the sufficient expertise to make everything run smoothly.

Further, the top tiers are not shy about getting work done quickly, and if a client wants something done by a certain time, they will make it happen. If this means working past midnight for days on end, or missing family commitments, holidays and other special events, then so be it.

The upper mid tiers can also perform this kind of work (eg some are known for advising on complex mergers and acquisitions).

Mid tiers usually undertake similar corporate work but with lower dollar values. For example, a top tier might have a business sale worth hundreds of millions; a mid tier might have a business sale worth tens of millions; and a smaller firm might have a business sale worth a few hundred thousand. Lower value deals tend to be less complex.

Small and suburban firms primarily deal with individuals and small businesses.

Graduate and junior lawyer work

Different people want different things out of their legal careers.

Corporate cog
Some people love the corporate life, others can’t stand it.

Some people want to finish uni and hit the ground running. If that is you, look to enter small or medium sized firms. Many of these firms are “sink or swim”, and you could be seeing clients from day one – your own clients!

In many smaller firms you will be doing everything – the initial client interview, follow up legal research, drafting the letters to the client and opposing party, and even appearing at court and in mediations and negotations. There will always be more senior lawyers around to ask for advice, but most of the training will be on the job, using your own natural skill.

At the other end of the spectrum are the top tier firms. I mentioned above that graduates get great training at top tier firms, but there is a pay off; responsibility comes slowly. It will usually be a few years before you are talking to clients about anything substantive – most client contact is though sitting in on client meetings and conference calls.

A lot of people want to stand up in court and argue for their client – just a warning for those who want to do this in a top tier firm: you will never get the opportunity. Even lawyers working in the litigation team won’t – everything is briefed out to barristers. I hate public speaking so the thought of advocating in court for the firm’s clients terrifies me. I’m very happy that I will never have to do it!

Overall, the trade off can be summarised as follows: at a small firm you will get a lot of responsibility very quickly, but it is possible that the complexity of your work will not increase after a few years, and there won’t be as much formal training. At a larger firms, it will take a few years of grunt work before you will get some real responsibility, but your work will likely increase in complexity over the years.

Is there a better one to go for? The answer is yes, and it depends completely on what you are aiming for in your career.

Size

The top tier law firms are typically the largest in Australia. For example, Herbert Smith Freehills is the largest Australian firm with around 800 lawyers (including 190 partners). Minter Ellison is the smallest top tier law firm, with around 600 lawyers (including 190 partners). Note that these are the number of Australian based lawyers

Some of the international firms are truly massive. Baker & McKenzie is the largest firm in the world, with more than 4300 lawyers.

The upper mid tiers are pretty much the same as the mid tiers, usually having a few hundred lawyers. The only reason they have the “upper” mid tier name is because of the work they do, which is slightly different to mid tiers (see above).

Law firm size
So why does size matter? It all depends on what you want.

Larger firms have the resources to provide better training to graduates and junior lawyers, the work is (or has the potential to be) more complex and the pay is better. On the other hand, smaller firms provide more responsibility and autonomy sooner and they allow lawyers to practice in a wider range of areas (eg crime, family law, civil litigation and wills and estates). A middle ground can be found in the medium and mid tier firms.

 Salaries

Hays Legal releases a salary guide for lawyers for free each year. As you probably expect, lawyers at top tier firms get paid the most, followed by mid tier firms and then small firms. In-house roles sit around the mid-tier level.

how much does a lawyer earn?
Unfortunately, you will never make this much money.

For graduates in Sydney and Melbourne, the survey results reveal that the median wages are:

  • Top tier graduates: Sydney – $70k. Melbourne – 60k.
  • Mid tier graduates: Sydney – $55k. Melbourne – $55k.
  • Small firm graduates: Sydney – $50k. Melbourne – $45k.
  • Inhouse: Sydney – $50k to 65k. Melbourne – $50k to $55k.

From talking to my friends who have also started grad jobs in the last few years, these salaries are a little on the low side. Nevertheless, they give a decent overview of what to expect. You can ask for a copy of the entire Hays Salary Guide here, which will also tell you how much lawyers make as they progress in their careers. Alternatively, just Google it.

How should you use this information?

I know I have made a lot of generalisations here, but I still hope that this has been somewhat useful.

I think you can use this information as follows:

  • As a starting point to think about what kind of firm you would like to work at when you graduate. Once you figure this out, you can start working towards making that happen.
  • To understand what kind of opportunities will be available to you at different firms. The legal industry is extremely diverse – determine what type of law firm will suit you in terms of your career goals and aspirations.
  • To provide a way to narrow down your clerkship and graduate job applications based on reason, rather than on irrelevant factors such as what other law students think of the firm, or how good the law firm website looks.
  • To help you gravitate towards your ideal law firm, that will provide you with the type of work, training and responsibility that you are seeking.
  • To improve your commercial awareness in respect to the Australian legal market (this is important for legal interviews).

Now get out there and start researching!

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