The Magic Circle is an informal term for the five London-headquartered multinational law firms with the largest revenues, the most international work and which consistently outperform most of the rest of the London market on profitability. The law firms described by most commentators as comprising the Magic Circle are Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May.
Magic Circle only includes Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May, while it excludes Herbert Smith, Lovells, Norton Rose and Stephenson Harwood. Magic Circle firms are predominantly centred around London while the rest have closer contact with the other former colonies, now part of the anglophone Five Eyes Alliance of UK, United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. American law firms generally consider Magic Circle law firms as not on par with White Shoe Law Firms of Wall Street.
In Asia, they operate actively in Hong Kong and Singapore. Top U.S. Wall Street White Shoe law firms such as Sullivan & Cromwell and Cravath, Swaine, Moore do not follow the British colonial model and do not franchise out legal offices in the same way, having only international satellite offices and providing clients with services only with U.S. law. The Magic Circle however was pioneer in franchising out English law from UK and setting up franchises in other non-Anglophone countries in a strategy similar to old strategies of colonization during the British Colonial period.
The Magic Circle is a "journalistic device, coined by legal reporters in the wake of the break-up of its predecessor, the 'club of nine'.".
The "club of nine" was an informal group of law firms that comprised Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Herbert Smith, Linklaters, Lovells, Norton Rose, Slaughter and May and Stephenson Harwood. The members of the "club of nine" had an informal "no-poaching" agreement and the firm's senior partners would meet. However, smaller firms like Herbert Smith has been seen as more progressive than other older UK law firms, especially in hiring practices conducive to women employees, and has made progress since the GFC when over leveraged Magic Circle firms, London's titans of the Golden Mile[disambiguation needed], were threatened with real fears of insolvency.
In 1996, Stephenson Harwood was asked to leave the 'club of nine' due to its stagnant performance. The "club of nine" was disbanded in 2000.
The Magic Circle, contrary to the "club of nine", isn't an informal grouping of law firms. Initially, the Magic Circle's membership was described by commentators as comprising the UK firms with strong corporate practices or international work. At the time, these firms were Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters, and Slaughter and May. Generally, the Magic Circle firms have among the highest earnings per-partner and earnings per-lawyer of UK-headquartered law firms.
At the time that the term was coined, Herbert Smith's corporate practice was focused on privatisation work, which had dried up. Arguably, for this reason, it was not included in the initial Magic Circle.
In 2004, Slaughter and May's then senior partner, Tim Clark, said: "It's a funny concept. I don't know where the term came from or who founded it. It's mainly something that comes up when we talk to journalists or they talk to us. We don't describe ourselves as a Magic Circle firm in any of our marketing material." Linklaters' then head of corporate, David Cheyne, said: "City law firms years ago used to provide information to each other so they could keep in touch with what was going on, but that ended yonks ago... It seems to be a term to describe the leading City firms and there is some truth in it." Then corporate partner at Herbert Smith Freehills and former investment banker Henry Raine said: "The phrase was coined by a legal magazine and referred to firms which were very strong in corporate or international work. At the time, Herbert Smith was languishing in the corporate stakes, and so was consigned to the outer darkness." Since then, Herbert Smith Freehills has also, on occasion (although not widespread), been referred to as forming part of the Magic Circle.
In 2013, The Lawyer argued that Clifford Chance and Slaughter & May should no longer form part of the Magic Circle. It argued that Clifford Chance's profitability does not match the other Magic Circle firms, and Slaughter & May operates a different (UK-focused) model and its revenue is less than half of the other Magic Circle firms.
When The Lawyer magazine coined the term, it included Slaughter and May as part of the Magic Circle. The Lawyer magazine, however, no longer considers it to form part of the Magic Circle due to its lower revenues and UK domestic focus. In 2017, The Lawyer magazine stated that "Slaughters fits the silver circle bill in every respect. London-centric, sky-high PEP, top-tier work, an aura of prestige: Slaughter and May is far more like Macfarlanes than the Magic Circle quartet it is commonly lumped in with. To put it in the same category as Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Linklaters would be inaccurate, and to say it is in a class of its own is frankly showing the firm too much deference." Other commentators still consider Slaughter and May to be a member of the Magic Circle.
The Silver Circle is an informal term for perceived elite corporate law firms headquartered in the United Kingdom that are the main competitors for the Magic Circle in the United Kingdom. The term was coined by The Lawyer magazine in 2005 in response to the pre-existing term, Magic Circle. These 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). Contrary to what the term Silver Circle may suggest, there is no Golden Circle.
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.
The Global Elite law firms comprise Allen & Overy, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, Clifford Chance, 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 Ashurst, Norton Rose Fulbright, Hogan Lovells, DLA Piper, Jones Day, Baker & McKenzie, White & Case, Herbert Smith Freehills, King & Wood Mallesons and Sidley Austin.
In 2014, it was reported that Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer wished to discard its Magic Circle designation in the US in favour of being part of the Global Elite. Similarly, in 2014, Linklaters' then managing partner, Simon Davies, said "The Magic Circle isn't what it used to be in the context of the US market or any market. I don't think it's going to gain power or momentum and I don't think it's a strengthening brand in itself." and "At the end of the day we see ourselves as one of the leading global law firms, not one of the leading Magic Circle firms".
In August 2018, research from The Lawyer, however, showed that South Square Chambers received more instructions from the Magic Circle law firms than any other chamber. Barristers from it worked on 64 matters for the Magic Circle law firms since 2015.