“I thought Freshfields [Bruckhaus Deringer] was a supermarket when I got here,” says Kirsty Grant, a fourth-year associate in the London office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. Happily, Grant — a fast-learner who got through law school in L.A. while working full-time during the day — quickly figured out that the Anglo-German law firm, a member of the Magic Circle, wasn’t the place to fulfill her grocery needs.
The cultural assimilation enjoyed by the UCLA and Loyola graduate since she arrived in London last March hasn’t stopped there. “At first I couldn’t believe the drinking culture here,” she recalls. “The first Friday after work that I went to the pub, I thought, ‘I haven’t had any food; I can’t do this.’ And then the London lawyers went on until 5 a.m. I just don’t have the liver for it, but it shocks me less now.”
Not that Grant, 33, has oceans of spare cash to splash on boozy nights out. How do her finances as an American abroad compare to those of her Biglaw counterparts back home?
With rent on her central London flat twice what her rented out place in L.A. is bringing in, general living costs in the U.K. capital around a third higher, and Grant now having to factor in currency exchange commission on her student loan repayments, money is tighter than back home. Still, in comparison to a British attorney, she’s doing pretty well. Average pay for a native lawyer of four years experience at a U.K. Biglaw firm is around £70,000 ($107,000); Grant, who’s still on Gibson Dunn’s U.S. pay-scale, earns –- according to published salary data — $210,000.
U.S. lawyers who end up staying in London for the long term usually move onto their firm’s U.K. pay track. Broadly speaking, this means a bumped up, but still slightly less than U.S.-level, basic salary. Plus there’s a significantly smaller bonus to reflect the fewer hours that Brits — who, as mentioned above, are drunk much of the time — tend to bill. A longer-term stay often also means doing the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test (QLTT) — essentially a British Bar Exam. Even with the many similarities between our common law legal systems, this equates to hard work.
However, most U.S. lawyers in London are only passing through. In terms of broadening professional horizons, and making contacts with influential members of the firm outside a home office, a spell abroad is widely regarded as a shrewd strategy. “I’ve met some great people here,” says Grant, who has begun dating an English man while on these shores and so may stick around, “and I feel that I have made myself better known within the firm, too.” She’s also used her time in London — a famously handy jumping-off point for Europe and the Middle East — to visit Italy, France, Switzerland, Scotland and Jordan.
The downside to life here as an American lawyer is getting regular 1 a.m. calls from partners in the U.S., who often pay scant attention to the time difference when they need something done. “I’ve taken a lot of calls in my pyjamas,” says Grant. “You’ve got to be careful about how much pushback you give, because at the end of the day I’m paid well and being available is part of the gig.”
At least, though, as Grant drifts back off to sleep she can do so in the knowledge that the pricey apartment she’s renting not only survived the 1666 Great Fire of London, but is located just yards from a pub where Charles Dickens wrote part of Oliver Twist. “How cool is that?” she asks.
Oh, you Americans, what suckers you are for history — a weakness our estate agents are all too happy to take advantage of….
Kirsty Grant and I are launching an associate version of the Benedict Arnold Society — a place to network and meet other young and youngish Americans practising law in London. It’ll be running one Thursday a month at the Olde Bank of England pub on Fleet Street after work. Please email Kirsty or me and we’ll send details for the meet-up.
Alex Aldridge is Above the Law’s U.K. correspondent. He also writes a weekly column for The Guardian and is the Editor of Legal Cheek. Previously Alex was Associate Editor of Legal Week, having begun his career with The Times. Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexAldridgeUK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.