In late 1981 Alistair Farley and Martin Watson, two shipping finance partners at Norton Rose, decided to strike out on their own. This was a boom time for shipping, and these lawyers were keen to build up foreign contacts and take on international deals but frustrated by NR's cautious approach to overseas expansion (how times change, eh?). Another colleague, aviation specialist Geoffrey Williams, came on board, and by May 1982 their new firm was launched in the City.
Today the firm maintains its traditional maritime strength, with the largest shipping finance practice in the world and a top-tier ranking in Chambers UK. However, the firm has expanded beyond its traditional forte. In 2010 an aviation team joined the ranks, and the shipping finance department was renamed 'asset finance'. But it's not all about boats and planes. Other assets include power plants, mines, rail equipment, satellites, telecommunications and property, and the firm works on matters involving all of these. And WFW has other departments too, including employment, real estate, corporate and tax.
In 2012/13 the firm saw revenue top the £100m mark for the first time. In less positive news, it announced it was deferring the start-date of a small number of individuals in its September 2013 intake. However, the firm denied rumours that it would be downsizing the training scheme as a consequence, saying it had no intention of decreasing the size of future intakes.
In addition to its compact London HQ, WFW has a network of overseas offices, mainly based in key shipping hubs like New York, Hamburg and Hong Kong. This robust international presence shored up the firm during the recession and helped it flourish financially. The international outlook is an integral part of WFW's identity. A seat abroad is guaranteed (indeed, compulsory) for trainees, who can head off to the Paris, Piraeus, Singapore or Bangkok office.
WFW runs a six-seat training contract. As well as the spell overseas, there are seats available in asset finance; projects, commodities and export finance (PCEF); corporate; litigation; tax; employment; property; and competition. “The compulsory seats are litigation, asset finance and overseas; the others aren't absolutely compulsory, but they ldo ike everyone to do corporate or PCEF,” one trainee declared. Seat allocation is “a collaborative process,” we heard. Three-quarters of the way through each seat, trainees meet with the HR department to discuss where they want to go next.
All hands on deck
Asset finance is “the bread and butter" of WFW. In keeping with its good reputation, the department takes on some “big-ticket” projects. Recent highlights include advising Citibank and Bank of America Merrill Lynch on a loan agreement with the wonderfully named Sovcomflot to finance the construction of two very large crude carriers (VLCCs). Meanwhile, the aviation team acted on behalf of Lloyds Banking Group on a pre-delivery payment (PDP) financing of three AgustaWestland helicopters for LCI Aviation.
“This is a very strong department, and the work you get is very involved, no matter where you sit,” thought trainees. “You get a lot of responsibility. I went to closing meetings and worked on ship deliveries, plus I did a lot of drafting, so I really honed those skills,” one shared. Trainees might also find themselves “managing files and dealing with international clients in different time zones.” Other sources reported that “there's a lot of admin” as well, including “a lot of bibling at the end of transactions.” Still, trainees are given the chance to “run with and lead small parts of transactions, always with appropriate supervision.” Trainees tend to sit with a partner and split their time between shipping and aviation.
In PCEF, trainees handle “a lot of work in trading commodities.” One source was pleased to note that “the partner I sat with was very pedagogical and took time to explain things and make sure I did high-level work. I was drafting trust agreements, corresponding with counsel and questioning points of their legal opinion.” Sources also pointed out that projects work also involves “handling data rooms and due diligence, which no one smiles about.” Another interviewee mentioned that they had “spent a lot of time assisting on big corporate reorganisations, drafting amendments to contracts. It was pretty full-on because they were large-scale deals.”
Corporate matters involve “lots of crossover between departments.” In this seat one trainee “assisted with a couple of joint venture agreements and worked on a shipping transaction involving a private equity group and a company that buys distressed ships. I also got involved in some energy work.” Among the deals the team has worked on of late was Albwardy Investments' $26m purchase of Westcliff Hotel (in South Africa, not the seaside town in Essex).
In the litigation department, “a lot of matters are based around finance or industries like shipping, aviation and energy.” For instance, WFW litigators recently acted on behalf of global oil trading company Vitol on a claim concerning a long-term supply agreement for crude oil. During the seat trainees found that “cases go on for a lot longer than deals, and so the advice you give needs to be very specific. There's less you can run with yourself. It's more academic, more research-based.” One interviewee told of attending an arbitration, going to court to get orders “and grappling with bundling tasks.”
Overall, trainees waxed lyrical about their spells abroad. One content source stated: “It was incredible and one of the best things I've ever done – definitely the highlight of my training contract.” Trainees can jet off to Paris, Piraeus or Singapore to do an asset finance seat, while the Bangkok stint is in litigation. There's also the option to complete a corporate or contentious seat in Singapore. Before venturing abroad, trainees will have ideally completed a London seat in the corresponding department. Sources enthusiastically emphasised that “the quality of exposure that you get in these front-line offices is markedly different to the training experience in London,” telling us while there's “client contact and a high level of responsibility” on home soil, things get a lot more intense overseas. “It's completely different. Whereas in London a junior associate watches your every move, overseas you pretty much run transactions yourself.”
One source elaborated further on their experience: “It was extremely busy, but I loved every minute of it. The hours were longer, but the client contact was amazing. I went out to client dinners, cocktails, networking events, and was allowed to negotiate a point on transactions. The partners were great – every time I had a problem, I could query them in a very casual, relaxed way. It was very open and definitely the most developmental seat.” Interviewees agreed that “you definitely feel like a junior associate rather than a trainee.” Of course, this can be a double-edged sword: “The hours can be tough overseas because as well as doing almost NQ-level work, you're still expected to do all the trainee tasks as well.”
Away from the office, trainees shouldn't get lonely. “There's quite a big trainee social network in Singapore,” said one who'd been out to East Asia. “I got put on an e-mail list of about 60 or 70 people. We'd arrange things for the weekend, like going to the beach and having drinks. I also did a bit of travelling around the region.” Trainees in Greece, meanwhile, appreciated that “the office is really busy, and you get loads and loads of client contact. I went to all the signings, plus I worked with the London office – it's good to still be linked with them.”
A whale of a time?
Back in Britain, what's firm life like generally? For starters, the office “doesn't have the bells and whistles of other offices," we hear. "There's no water feature or extra pizzazz; it's not like the Norton Rose office!” That said, sources conceded their surroundings are “functional” and located in a “very practical” location near Liverpool Street.
Trainees felt that working hours are “on the whole pretty good.” A 6 or 7pm finish is standard at quieter times, but stretches to 9 or 10pm when there's a big deal on, and even later at very busy times. Asset finance “probably has the toughest hours,” but sources were pleased to note that when forced to stay late into the evening, “there's an acknowledgement that you've worked hard. It's not just expected.” During quieter patches “the partner I sat with actively shooed me out of the door,” said one.
WFW isn't massive, so incomers don't get lost in a crowd of clamouring trainees. Instead, sources “know most people by name, which makes you feel welcome. I felt a part of the firm within a couple of months.” Despite being just 31 years old, WFW is “a little bit traditional, though not in the sense that it's conservative or doesn't want to change.” Rather, this atmosphere appears to arise from the fact that the firm's got shipping finance at its heart. “The shipping industry is quite a fraternal, handshake-based industry. Finance is what the firm's all about, and in this area with our kind of clients you need that traditional approach.” As such, “it isn't a law firm that's trying to be really cool.” So while partners and associates are described as approachable, you won't find them zipping down the corridor on a Segway. “I've heard the expression 'It is what it is' a lot,” said one trainee. “So when a client says they want something done before the end of the tax year and we have loads to do, this phrase pops out. It kind of sums up the firm's understated, get-on-with-it approach.”
This attitude seems to influence the type of person WFW is looking to hire: “At the assessment day, you have to be able to hold your ground, explain an idea and listen to someone else. They want people who can just get down to work, but then are also jovial and relaxed.” Within the current trainee group there's a whole spectrum of personalities ranging from “wallflower to extrovert, with everything in between.” It's important to remember that “the firm sends trainees abroad, so they want people who are enthusiastic about going overseas and engaging in new things. They're looking for someone who's pretty outgoing, but not necessarily in the sociable sense. You need to be confident, but that doesn't mean loud. There are a lot of people here who are more reserved but have the courage of their convictions.” One source summarised: “Trainees need to be willing to get stuck in. They don't want people who'll start acting like mini-partners.”
The firm puts on a Christmas and summer party plus a fee earners' dinner, but it's really up to trainees to organise their own social events week to week. One trainee reeled off an impressive list of boozers: “the Whistling Stop, the Light Bar, the Queen of Hoxton, McQueen, Golden Bee – we're trying to push away from All Bar One.” As well as venturing out to Spitalfields or Shoreditch for drinks, they'll often have lunch together in the popular canteen, sampling the wares of French chef Philippe. “He's a great asset to the firm,” declared sources, speaking highly of his canapés, cookery classes and wine-tasting sessions.
A guaranteed overseas seat might float your boat, but bear in mind that there's a “heavy bias towards asset finance” at WFW. In 2013, 12 out of 14 second-year qualifiers were kept on.
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