Thirty years ago, three partners jumped ship from Norton Rose to set up Watson, Farley & Williams. The firm was founded on shipping finance and today Chambers Global ranks this practice among the top two in the world (alongside Norton Rose, in fact). The firm has been expanding beyond the relatively narrow area of shipping finance for a while now.
“WFW has a mantra: we are heavily focused on finance and investment in the energy, natural resources, transport, real estate and ICT sectors,” Mike Vernell, the head of the London office, told us. Has anything changed during the recession? “The assets we act on are crucial to the well-being of the world: ships, aeroplanes, power plants, mining, property, et cetera. We don't see it dying.”
WFW is one of the smaller City firms, but has a significant international network. It has offices in nine other countries, often in major shipping hubs. The most recent opening was in Hong Kong in 2012. “It is likely that trainees will be able to do a seat there. Trainees are a very useful tool and Hong Kong will just be one more opportunity for them,” Vernell says. It's another addition to what is already a training contract with a distinct international flavour. Time abroad is guaranteed – indeed, required – with corporate, asset finance and litigation-focused seats available in Paris, Piraeus, Singapore and Bangkok.
In addition to that four-month overseas stint, trainees complete five more seats back home in London, and even here “we work with the other offices on a daily basis.” Litigation, corporate, asset finance and PCEF (project, commodities and export finance) are compulsory, while the remaining seat options are the more niche areas of employment, tax, property and EU/competition.
Trainees advised students to “apply with your eyes wide open and realise that this is predominantly a finance-oriented firm.” Qualification opportunities in the smaller teams are limited – WFW retained ten of 12 qualifiers in 2012, with two going into finance and four into corporate.
Watson the menu, Captain?
The asset finance seat was previously named shipping finance and still operates primarily in that area. However, a number of other assets now fall under its remit, such as aircraft, rail stock, real estate and wind farms. This flagship among the firm's departments recently closed several deals worth over $1bn, while the firm's chairman Frank Dunne won Maritime Lawyer of the Year at the Lloyd's List Global Awards in 2011. Within the asset finance group is an expanding aviation team, with three corporate jet and helicopter finance lawyers recently joining other new arrivals from Reed Smith and Clifford Chance. It has advised Singapore Airlines on an aircraft sale worth $200m.
“A few years ago shipping had a negative reputation regarding some of the partners, but they've made a real effort and now it's a friendly place to be,” a trainee assured us. Trainees handle “anything from drafting to attending delivery meetings and dealing with shipping registries. Asset finance is really busy and you get a bit of everything,” one of our sources explained. “It's great because they really do throw you into it. The training is really good too – we have talks most weeks,” another commented. One source appreciated how the firm promotes its trainees: “My name being included in the final press release was one of my high points at the firm.”
The PCEF seat was a favourite among our sources. “About two-thirds of my year have taken it,” a second-year told us. “It's a really good department with a nice environment. There are quite a few lateral hires coming in, so it's an exciting, changing environment.” We heard the work is “very technical, but it's also a nice balance of research, drafting memos and preparing documents. We have a good amount of client contact.”
“The overlap between PCEF and corporate is great for experience,” one trainee told us. The departments are similar in that they have “interesting work but long hours.” Corporate is the firm's second largest department and accounts for a third of the firm's global revenue. The work of the department is largely in the sectors of shipping, energy and natural resources. Matters can last anything “from a few days to two weeks,” and have included Madagascar Oil and Equatorial Palm Oil's admissions to the AIM. “Day to day, my work depends on how busy the department is,” one source informed us. “Some days I do admin, but other days I'm the only trainee on a transaction, working with one partner and one senior associate.”
The hours in corporate “aren't that bad,” say our sources. “Trainees tend to leave around 7pm but there are a few late nights and weekend work on occasion.” Even when the clock strikes midnight and trainees are still in the office, “we feel part of a team. We are rewarded for our hard work and people will say thank you and appreciate the hours you put in.”
All trainees must complete the litigation seat. Work here often covers cases relating to the world of (three guesses...) shipping. Recent highlights for the team include acting for Lloyds TSB in a Commercial Court dispute over the termination of a ship finance lease, and for a company against its insurers for the cost of replacing three legs of a drilling rig that were lost while being towed around the Cape of Good Hope. However, the group also covers other areas of litigation and arbitration, recently working on professional negligence and fraud cases. The department has also represented the governments of Pakistan and the Bahamas.
Seats in competition, employment, property and tax are popular among second-years “looking to broaden their expertise.” An interviewee who had visited one of these reflected: “I did enjoy my time there, but those departments tend to be a bit peripheral so, although your work is important, it's not at the core of the firm.” That said, the property department has grown so much recently that it split away from corporate and became an independent group, while the employment team has a Chambers UK ranking.
Sail away, sail away, sail away
Trainees tend to go overseas in their third, fourth or fifth seats. The offices abroad are smaller and more specialised than in London. In Paris and Piraeus, trainees complete an asset finance seat, while Bangkok is litigation-focused. Two trainees at a time go to Singapore, one to do litigation or corporate work and the other to do asset finance. Language tuition is provided, although if you are already fluent you'll find “they really put your language skills to use.”
The overseas seat was a big draw for all our sources, and one summed up the experience: “Overseas, I felt more like an assistant than a trainee. I learned a lot.” The Paris office is right on the Champs-Élysées, while the Piraeus office is near the port where the Greeks used to keep their warships. “It's a great office. Piraeus is quite industrial but has a beautiful harbour. They put you up in a flat near the office and there's lots of trainees from other firms around.” Out in Singapore and Bangkok, “the opportunities to work on broader transactions are available, and the Asian market is an exciting one to be involved in.”
A couple of interviewees referred to the “personality test we completed in our first couple of weeks here,” which apparently produced “a mixture of results.” Perhaps, but we think we spot a WFW type all the same. Generally, trainees here are “reserved and understated,” and “down to earth.” Our sources repeatedly emphasised that candidates should “be themselves” in the recruitment process. “They like you to have other interests,” although we don't get the impression that this is one of those firms that scours CVs for wacky hobbies. We hear the current crop of trainees are enthusiastic about the nice, normal pastimes of music, sport, theatre and travelling.
All this tallies with our view of WFW as a solid sort of place not given to pretension or flashiness. We do get the impression, though, that an influx of younger associates and lateral hires is giving a slightly more lively feel to a firm that has always been quite traditional in outlook.
Oh loi loi!
As far as backgrounds are concerned, trainees hail from a good mix of universities. Mike Vernell says: “WFW doesn't just look for academic ability; we look for more rounded candidates with an interest in the commercial world in which they are working. They should be open-minded and willing to see what they get a buzz from working on. Candidates have to be honest with themselves. The law is not an easy place to be if you think it's just a respectable profession to be working in. You need to get a kick out of it.” Having a second language is a “big thing” here for obvious reasons, and “English doesn't necessarily have to be your first,” one of our sources told us.
“The office stretches over four floors but people generally know who's who. You do feel like there's a sense of community here – if you get involved of course.” Social drinks aren't organised by the firm, but one trainee told us: “I've had a sociable year group and so we arrange it ourselves.” Trainees frequent corporate bar of choice All Bar One or dine at Piccolino nearby. “If we're feeling adventurous we might go into Spitalfields.” The boys have a football and cricket team, and there's a canteen “where people sit about and chat.”
The last Christmas party was “really good.” The firm hired out a converted church near Old Street and had a black-tie dinner with 'aerial artists' hanging about on hoops and the like overhead. But the Student Guide team were most impressed by tales of WFW's French chef, Philippe, who not only runs the canteen but “runs wine-tasting events and cookery classes.”
There aren't many smallish firms with such a strong finance focus and such a developed international network. If these three factors are on your checklist, WFW is well worth further consideration.