Commercial law jargon buster

Here's a quick guide to some of the most common terms you'll encounter in this sector
Commercial awareness

Associate / assistant

The step between qualifying as a lawyer and becoming a partner. Associates, as they're now more commonly known, are heavily involved in the nuts and bolts of deals and disputes and have high levels of client contact. Some firms have various grades of associate which you must progress through before making the leap to partner.

Bandwidth / capacity

Interchangeable terms, both of which denote the limit to the amount of work you can take on before you malfunction.


A lawyer who specialises in advocacy. Usually works in a set of chambers with other barristers, but some are employed by law firms.


Used as a noun, it means a collection of all the relevant documents for a completed transaction. As a trainee, you'd better get used to the verb: to put all of these relevant documents together.

Billing target

The number of chargeable hours (see definition below) you'll be expected to record each year. Your target at a large commercial law firm could range from 1,600 to a whopping 2,200 hours per year, though note that targets are often not strictly enforced for trainees.

Blue-sky thinking

Management speak for "thinking outside the box". It's when a group of people produce ideas unbound by preconceptions where no idea is considered ridiculous (anything involving dinosaurs is likely to be dismissed out of hand, so try not to be too creative).


Collecting together and cataloguing all the documents needed for a court case.

Chargeable hours

As a trainee or qualified lawyer, you'll record how you spend each hour of your day and "chargeable hours" are those which you spend working for clients. This record of your chargeable hours will be used by partners to draw up bills.

Circle back

To revisit a matter or discussion at a later time.

Compare Write / DeltaView

These are software tools you'll be seeing a lot of when you work at a law firm. Each allows the user to compare versions of a document before and after it's been edited, much like the "track changes" function on Microsoft Word.


Usually means a barrister, but can also be used to refer to lawyers in general - for example, a foreign lawyer working on a matter might be referred to as "overseas counsel".

Due diligence

Thorough research from a legal perspective, usually of a company that a client is thinking of buying.

Fee earner

A simple one, this. A fee earner is a person who earns fees for the firm and for whose expertise clients are usually billed on an hourly basis. In other words, the ones who bring home the bacon (note: nothing to do with "ham sandwich" below). Fee earners include paralegals, trainees, associates and partners.


The Graduate Diploma in Law, best described as a law degree in a year for non-law graduates who wish to enter the legal profession.

Ham sandwich

If you thought all lawyers dined at exclusive sushi bars, you'll be surprised to see this classic British lunch meal sneaking into our jargon buster. Alas, it's not a culinary reference, but a poor pun. A legal "ham sandwich" is when opposing sides conclude a negotiation by agreeing to "meat" in the middle. Groan.

In-house lawyer

Someone who works in the legal team of a business which doesn't specialise in law. Most large corporates and financial institutions have in-house legal teams, and there are many opportunities to pursue a legal career down this route.

The Law Society

The body which regulates solicitors in England and Wales.


A limited liability partnership, a company/partnership hybrid used as an organising structure by many large law firms.


The Legal Practice Course, a period of classroom-based vocational training that law degree and GDL graduates must complete before starting a training contract. Usually takes a year, although some accelerated courses are available.

Magic circle

While the name conjures up images of the greats of sorcery (Paul Daniels, Tommy Cooper), in the legal world, it simply means the five firms regarded as the UK's leading large commercial law firms and are Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Linklaters and Slaughter and May.


Named after the single-seat fixed-wing aircraft craze currently sweeping the legal sector, the verb "microlight" denotes an über-brief scanning of a PowerPoint presentation (much to the ire of the poor soul who has spent hours creating it).


The oral presentation of a legal issue or problem against an opponent and before a judge. It's perhaps the closest experience that a student can have while at university to appearing in court.


The Holy Grail for a trainee: the position newly-qualified solicitor. With this title under your belt, the legal world is your oyster.

Open door policy

While every law firm claims to have an "open door policy" (that is, even the lowliest of employees has access to the most senior), some doors may be more open than others. Best to knock first, just in case.

Open kimono moment

That moment all lawyers await with baited breath, in which some important details relating to something they're working on are revealed.


Paralegals are those with some legal training (perhaps a law degree) who provide assistance to qualified lawyers. The role can sometimes be a stepping stone to a training contract, especially at smaller firms, but these days is more often a career path in its own right.


The most senior members of a law firm, who also usually have a share in its ownership. Partners are the driving force behind the firm's business strategy and day to day work for clients.


The Professional Skills Course, additional classroom training you must undertake during your training contract in order to qualify.


A partner renowned for winning new clients and generating revenue for their firm.

Retention rate

The percentage of trainees a law firm takes on as associates after their two year training period. Rivalries often start twitching around six months from qualification time, when the race to make the cut starts gathering pace. But, despite the difficult economic climate, many large commercial firms have posted recent retention rates of over 80 per cent.


The practice of swooping in and destroying someone's PowerPoint presentation. The destroyer is usually a partner; the victim, often a trainee.


A trainee spends their first two years rotating around departments in a law firm. Each rotation is known as a "seat", because, well, you sit there. They usually last between four and six months.


A period in which an employee of a law firm is despatched to work for the in-house legal team of a client. The secondee can be at any stage of their career. Many firms offer trainees the option of doing a secondment as one of their seats.

Silver circle

The magic circle may be the biggest and boldest of the UK's law firms, but this clutch of smaller firms also have considerable reputations for the quality of their work and very high profits. Often included in this bracket are Ashurst, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Herbert Smith, Macfarlanes, SJ Berwin and Travers Smith.


A qualified lawyer able to carry out a range of legal work, but who usually lacks the rights to appear in higher courts that barristers have.


The experienced lawyer, usually a senior associate or partner, charged with keeping tabs on you throughout your training contract, but also your immediate port of call if you've got any questions or problems. You'll usually share an office and work closely with them.

Training contract

The one you're all shooting for. A two-year period working in a law firm, after your LPC, during which time you're known as a trainee. Once you've completed it, you're a qualified lawyer.

Vacation scheme

A period of work experience at a law firm, usually undertaken by students during university holidays.

White shoe firm

The firms falling into this category are Wall Street's legal elite, many of whom now have outposts in London and offer English law training contracts, for example, Cleary Gottlieb and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Image: merec0 via Flickr