Silver Circle (law firms)
The Silver Circle is a group of elite corporate law firms headquartered in London, United Kingdom that has evolved significantly as the UK legal market has been affected by globalisation and mergers. The law firms generally described by The Lawyer as comprising the Silver Circle were historically Ashurst, Herbert Smith, Macfarlanes, SJ Berwin and Travers Smith, but are currently limited to Macfarlanes and Travers Smith. Slaughter and May and Mishcon de Reya are also sometimes considered to be members.
The term Silver Circle was coined by The Lawyer magazine in response to the term Magic Circle. According to The Lawyer, the term Silver Circle is intended to define a category of firms with a similar approach.
The Lawyer magazine editor Catrin Griffiths’ definition in 2005 read: “Silver circle firms are 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. By the way, there is something else that characterises these firms: a disdain for an overtly managerial approach and a horrified avoidance of big firm bureaucracy.”.
History and evolution
The Silver Circle in 2005
As defined by The Lawyer magazine in 2005, the Silver Circle initially comprised Ashurst, Herbert Smith (now Herbert Smith Freehills), Macfarlanes, SJ Berwin and Travers Smith. At the time, Berwin Leighton Paisner was listed as an ‘associate member’ of the Silver Circle. According to The Lawyer it was “Not yet well enough established to merit full membership”.
According to The Lawyer, Lovells (now Hogan Lovells) and Norton Rose (now Norton Rose Fulbright, which had ambitions of expanding internationally, did not meet the criteria for the Silver Circle and were instead designated in an ‘internationalists’ bracket that also included DLA Piper, Clyde & Co, Simmons & Simmons and Denton Wilde Sapte.
The Silver Circle in 2017
In 2017, The Lawyer argued the group of five firms that made up the original Silver Circle in 2005 had adopted different strategies. Three pursued international ambitions, while two remained UK-focused. Ashurst, Herbert Smith Freehills and SJ Berwin each followed international expansion strategies, and, according The Lawyer, did not meet the criteria for continued membership of the Silver Circle.
Relationship with the Magic Circle
The Silver Circle firms have a lower turnover than the members of the Magic Circle, but consistently have an average profits per equity partner (PEP) and average revenue per lawyer (RPL) far above the UK average  (and, in some instances, higher than members of the magic circle).
For the debate about Slaughter and May’s membership of the Magic Circle and the Silver Circle, see Magic Circle.
- Big Three law firms, an informal term for leading law firms in New Zealand.
- Big Four law firms, an informal term for leading law firms in Japan.
- Big Five law firms, an informal term for leading law firms in South Africa.
- Big Six law firms, an informal term for leading law firms in Australia. In 2012, three of these firms merged with overseas firms, and one other began operating in association with an overseas firm. As a consequence, it has proposed that the term is no longer applicable to the Australian legal profession, displaced by the concept of Global Elite law firms or International Business law firms.
- Offshore magic circle, an informal term for leading law firms in offshore financial centers.
- Red Circle law firms, an informal term for leading law firms in the People’s Republic of China coined by The Lawyer magazine in 2014. For further information, also see the list of the largest Chinese law firms.
- Seven Sisters law firms, a collection of seven leading Canadian law firms with offices in Toronto.
- White Shoe law firms, an informal term for leading law firms in the United States.
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