Manchester-headquartered DWF is recasting itself as an international player, and offers trainees a mix of specialist insurance and broader commercial work.
D Double in size
“Its ambitious expansion plans and entrepreneurial spirit” -- a common explanation for joining DWF among our interviewees this year. “When I joined it was seen as a good national firm,” one source added, “but now I'm part of an international firm, and it's still sniffing out opportunities!” DWF hasn't been twiddling its thumbs: between 2015 and the time of writing in July 2017, it acquired firms based in London, Bristol, Belfast, Germany and France; opened new offices in Dubai, Brussels, Berlin and Singapore; and entered into associations with firms based in Argentina, Panama, Colombia and Saudi Arabia. But is it all a bit too much too soon? Not according to training principal Carl Graham, who tells us: "We are expanding at a sensible pace, as valuable opportunities come our way. We're not looking to plant a flag in every city.” For trainees, the consensus was that “the dust has, understandably, not yet settled in terms of cohesion.”
That wasn't really a negative for our sources, who felt that “it's an exciting time to join, as all of this expansion has boosted our corporate and commercial practices.” Trainees went on to reference DWF's insurance pedigree, which still picks up a string of Chambers UK rankings for its contentious, personal injury, volume claims and professional negligence work. However, DWF is also considered a national leader outside of London for its banking and finance expertise, while its showing in the regions – especially in the North West and Yorkshire – reveals strengths in commercial litigation, corporate, real estate, employment, IP and tax. Despite the recent bulking up of its overseas presence, sources still found much of the work to be nationally-focused.
“This expansion has boosted our corporate and commercial practices.”
At the time of our calls the Manchester and London offices claimed the most trainees, with 22 residing in the former and 20 in the latter. The remainder were split between Leeds (13), Liverpool (11), Birmingham (ten) and Newcastle (six). Trainees can potentially complete seats in other offices, but commuting distances mean that swaps between Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds are most common.
In September 2017 the firm switched from its previous six-seat system to a more typical four-seat system. First seats are allocated automatically, but before subsequent rotations trainees can list between three and five preferences. A 'two-tier' system ensures that second-years get their pick of the available options; after their seats have been allocated, the remaining vacancies are then circulated among first-years. “In general, people get some of their first choices, some of their lower-down choices, and, on occasion, some seats they didn't choose.”
DWF counts major insurers like Zurich, Chubb, Aviva and QBE as clients, and handles a broad mix of contentious and commercial work for them. As a result, it's likely that trainees will complete at least one insurance-related seat during their training contract, with options including casualty; catastrophic personal injury; occupational health; professional indemnity; commercial insurance; and insured litigation.
Those who'd sat in catastrophic personal injury told us that the focus is on defendant work for insurance companies. “You can encounter a wide range here,” said one source, “everything from slips and trips to million-pound asbestos claims to sports stars with career-changing injuries.” Recent case examples include handling a series of claims tied to historic abuse at a care home in Coventry; assisting QBE with claims arising from a crash involving a coach-load of schoolchildren in France; and acting for the insurers in a case that involved the death of an investment banker in a helicopter crash in Peru. Trainees can be given a high level of responsibility: “I was heavily involved in the movement of a smaller file, so I was liaising with the other side, analysing CCTV footage and psychological assessments, and giving direction on certain points – it was nice to have the continuity.” Other taskshere included producing first drafts of instructions to counsel and medical experts.
“Everything from slips and trips to million-pound asbestos claims.”
The professional indemnity department also defends insurers, but this time it does so in situations where the insured – the likes of solicitors, medical practitioners and accountants – have been accused of negligence. Sources here explained that there are many specialisms to explore; some seats have a marine or construction focus, for instance, involve accountants, engineers and architects. A recent matter saw the team act for fellow law firm Lewis Silkin after a claimant alleged that its lawyers had failed to adequately advise on the severance details in an employment contract; the Court of Appeal subsequently overturned an initial £2 million negligence award. Some of our interviewees found themselves working on smaller matters on behalf of claimants: “Say a builder comes to your house and doesn't do the work correctly; if you owned the property you could claim under your insurance policy. On those types of matters I'd be running conflict checks, drafting initial responses to the client on the prospect of the claim, and dealing with liability arguments from the other side.”
DWF's corporate work covers a range of M&A, private equity and capital markets deals, across sectors like retail, financial services and technology. Lawyers in Manchester recently represented the management team of secured loan broker Fluent Money during the £15 million sale of its entire issued share capital; those in London advised Houston-headquartered Constellation Healthcare Technologies on a recommended $300 million takeover by its CEO and online derivatives trader CC Capital, while the team in Birmingham acted for Inflexion Private Equity as it acquired car insurance provider My Policy. A Manchester-based source had worked on IPOs: “I ran the verification exercise; basically when a company lists on the stock exchange it needs to have an admission document, but all the information about the company within it needs to be checked and backed up, so I went through it sentence-by-sentence to do just that. I then fed back to the wider team about what needed to be included.” In London, meanwhile, sources had experienced M&A deals where they “put together relatively straightforward due diligence reports – it was quite quiet at the time because it was just after the Brexit vote! But the department is growing.”
Newcastle's real estate department is known for its work in the renewable energy sector, but also “does a lot of broader commercial and social housing work.” Regional property investor Arch Commercial Enterprise is a key client here, and of late the team advised it on its £78 million purchase of the Manor Walks Shopping Centre in Cramlington. Trainees here experienced “mixed levels of responsibility; on the one hand you'd get to have a go at drafting contracts tied to the purchase of a commercial property, while on the other you'd be taking care of the admin that needs to be relayed to the buyer, like the details that crop up on a surveyor's report.” Over in Manchester the real estate litigation seat was a hit thanks to some rather dramatic and intriguing matters: “I went on a site visit to a pub which collapsed into a river; I've also worked on issues surrounding 'iceberg houses,' where people who live in fabulously expensive houses build cinemas and swimming pools in the basements, but don't do it right and cause their neighbour's property to subside.”
The regulatory seat is popular with trainees “because it gives you the chance to experience criminal law, instead of just the civil side of things.” The work often involves defending clients – both insurers and corporates – against investigations being carried out by the Health & Safety Executive. The subject matter can range from “mouse droppings in your favourite restaurant to some depressing things like death inquests.” Trainees found that they were “mostly reporting back to the client on developments. You don't usually go to hearings, but you do get responsibility in the form of drafting advice reports on the next steps, which does build up your skills.” Others weren't so chipper: “I was sent quite far away to deliver files and notepads, which a courier, or someone in that part of the country, could have done. A fair amount of work has been bundling.” Clients include Marks & Spencer, Morrisons and manufacturer 3M; a recent case saw the department advise a recycling and quarrying company, John Wade Group, following the death of an employee and a subsequent corporate manslaughter investigation.
Given the rate of its expansion, it's fair to say that DWF is going through a transformative phase. As it does so, Carl Graham tells us that the firm is “big on encouraging ideas, and a lot of good ideas come from all levels upwards; we've developed a lot of products – like fraud and insurance products – for our clients because junior lawyers raised an idea and said 'won't it be quicker if we do it this way?'” Trainees backed this up, with one go-getter stating: “You get what you put in here. At the start of one of my seats I wanted to create something innovative to help the department, and I was supported in getting it set up.” One idea sources were particularly pleased with was the 'reverse mentoring initiative,' which sees diversity champions across the firm host regular meetings with partners to discuss ways of boosting inclusivity. “The partners are aware that, at their level, they might be insulated from certain issues, so they are open to our suggestions.”
Sources also praised the firm for having a fairly collaborative culture. “They ram it home that we work together,” one Liverpudlian attested. “And to be fair they do practise what they preach; a team is very much a team here, and we do spend a lot of time picking each other's brains.” Those in Manchester agreed, with one telling us that “they do things to foster a team mentality; we have 'Friday Fridge' once a month, where they lay out a lot of beer and wine. That's preceded by a half-hour 'business chat,' which is hosted by a different department each time and gives everybody a snapshot of recent developments in that area. There are also just daily initiatives – they'll give out awards and vouchers to people who've stayed behind to help, or they'll take the trainees out for a meal to make them feel part of the team.”
That said, the atmosphere and extent of socialising can differ from office to office. Liverpudlians, for example, pegged their office as “more friendly and social than the others: a lot of the teams go out for Friday lunches and after-work drinks, and we have our own take on the 'Friday Fridge,' where we hire a venue for the night and put some money behind the bar.” London, on the other hand, “is a lot quieter. People tend to do their work and then go home. We have a similar number of social events to the other offices but the turnout is very different. Plus our summer party was postponed this year.”
One thing that is pretty consistent across the offices is the hours. An average day lasts between 8.30am and 6pm, with sources crediting the firm's more agile approach: “They are happy for you to work through lunch and leave early, or for you to work from home when it's feasible; I've asked a few times and the answer has always been yes.” Some departments may require later finishes on occasion though, with a Mancunian revealing that “the latest I stayed was 2am in my corporate seat, but that was extraordinary.” Phew. The hours may be gentler but “the expectations aren't any lower – the aim is to do what we need to do to keep the client happy, but they're good at planning tasks out in advance so that there are fewer crisis points come completion.”
The NQ jobs list was released “at the beginning June, which is very late,” noted some perturbed sources. However, once the ball got rolling interviewees described the qualification process as “quite straightforward: you can put down two choices and have 300 words to explain why you'd be a good fit.” Depending on the amount of competition for a particular position, interviews may be held. NQ jobs are advertised on a national basis. In 2017 the firm retained just 33 of its 50 qualifiers. In response training principal Carl Graham gave us this comment:"As we undergo significant growth there is naturally a period of adjustment as we determine how to balance our training scheme against the needs of our changing business. While of course we always aim to retain as many of our talented trainees as possible, this year we had an exceptionally large intake and could not meet demand in our most popular practice areas."
Client secondment opportunities are advertised nationally, but tend to be clustered around the London, Manchester and Leeds offices. Overseas seats, on the other hand, do occasionally crop up; we heard of a trainee completing a stint in Dubai and then qualifying there.
How to get a DWF training contract
Vacation scheme deadlines (2018): 5 January 2018 (opens 5 October 2017)
Training contract deadlines (2020): 6 July 2018 (opens 5 October 2017)
Initial application and video interview
DWF receives around 2,850 applications each year for both its vacation scheme and training contracts. The online application form is the same for vacation scheme and direct training contract applicants. It asks candidates to outline their academics, work experience, reasons for pursuing a career at DWF and what transferable skills they have.
Successful applicants are then invited to take part in a video interview where the topics covered include: the ways in which you set yourself apart from others; what aspects of a firm are most important to you when applying; and your understanding of DWF's sector-based model.
The next stage is the assessment centre. These consist of a strengths-based interview, a strengths-based group exercise, a commercial awareness presentation and the chance to network with the assessors. From here successful vacation scheme offers are made.
The final stage of recruitment for both the vacation scheme and direct applicants is PGP Friday – this stands for 'Practice Group Partners' Friday and gives applicants the opportunity to meet and impress the firm's business leaders. The format is that of a lawyer speed-networking type of event that sees applicants pick the brains of the practice group heads as well as CEO and managing partner Andrew Leaitherland, “It just goes to show how much the senior figures want to invest their time in the recruitment process,” said one trainee.
The vacation scheme runs for two weeks through June, with specific dates depending on location.
Attendees sit with two different departments during their visit, attend a series of presentations and workshops, and also undertake a group project. The firm's current trainees praised the work they were given as vac schemers, telling us they'd carried out “typical day-to-day trainee tasks like researching cases and drafting letters to clients.”
There is also a social side to the scheme, giving participants the chance to meet current trainees, associates and partners. This allows them to really get a good picture of the DWF culture and values, as well as have some fun!
How to wow
DWF accepts applications from any university, and has an academic threshold of AAB at A level, plus a minimum 2:1 degree.
Throughout the application process it is important that candidates display a sense of why DWF is the firm they want to work for, and why they think the firm is different from its competitors. This means showing an understanding of the legal market and where DWF sits within it and demonstrating sufficient knowledge of the firm's sector groups and clients.
Interview with training partner Carl Graham
Chambers Student: Are there any highlights from 2016/17 which you think are important to mention?
Carl Graham: We've merged with Heenan Paris in France, expanded into the Middle East, Germany and Singapore. We're looking at a sensible rate of growth – we're not looking to put up flags in every city.
We have also been involved in the aftermath of the awful Grenfell Tower fire. We have worked with the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for many years, and our crisis response team was brought in to advise them from the outset.
CS: How is Brexit affecting the firm and what challenges and opportunities do you foresee in the future?
CG: Our European expansion might serve us well here, especially our quickly growing presence in Paris and Dublin. Our Irish presence may become very significant in the next few years. At the moment there is much uncertainty: in the next six to 12 months, things will get clearer and clients will start making the decisions that they have delayed making for a while.
CS: Is DWF aiming to depart from being centred on insurance work, with expansion into commercial and corporate work?
CG: There is no real departure from insurance. We've acquired claims manager Triton and insurance firm Fox Hartley, and we're looking to expand our insurance practice in Singapore. The insurance market is very tight at the moment and there are many new laws coming in, so that's a fear factor among trainees interested in the area.
CS: Are traineesable to move between offices?
CG: We ask trainees to be willing to be flexible about moving between offices. To give one example: Leeds trainees sometimes do a seat in Manchester if a seat isn't available in Leeds. In addition, we brand our Liverpool and Manchester offices as 'North West', so there is movement between those two locations which requires a degree of flexibility for everyone, from trainees to partners.
In terms of overseas options, a trainee who did a seat in Dubai, but started out in London will be qualifying in Dubai. Their language skills are really useful to us there. The trainee did remarkably well – so well that unfortunately I didn't have to fly over to help with anything! Overseas seats are only offered if we can provide the right level of work abroad and there is demand for a trainee.
CS: How is DWF looking to tackle the challenges to the future of the legal profession?
CG: We are big on encouraging new ideas – a lot of good ideas come from the bottom up. For example, from an IT perspective, we are implementing quicker processing of documents.
Our innovation is also shown through the products we have developed. Some – like our fraud and insurance products- – were thought up by junior lawyers who said 'wouldn't it be quicker to do things this way?' We like it when people question why things are happening in a certain way and consider whether there is a better way of doing things.
CS: Could you tell us about the firm's diversity initiatives?
CG: Our 5 STAR Futures education programme allows our trainees to mentor students from schools that do not usually send their pupils to university. We've also been acknowledged by Stonewall on its list of the top 100 inclusive employers in Britain, rising to place 36 in 2017. Diversity is also important in trainee recruitment: Seema Bains, chair of our diversity steering group, is involved in the final stage of the interview process.
DWF's stratospheric growth
If DWF was a human, you can bet the first word it would utter would be 'growth.' The firm has ballooned remarkably over the past decade or so and now boasts roughly £190m in revenue, 2,100 employees in 21 locations England, Scotland, Ireland and around the world. Read on for a closer look at this era of incredible expansion, as well as some insight from three of DWF's partners: Carl Graham, James Szerdy and Hilary Ross.
Once upon a time...
The first major development in DWF's journey of growth over the years was its 2007 merger with North West firm Ricksons, which added Preston and Leeds offices to complement its existing outposts in Manchester and Liverpool. Revenue surpassed £50m in 2006/07 – more than double what DWF was worth just a few years before. Enterprising managing partner Andrew Leaitherland – elected in 2006, aged just 36 – marked this development by launching a new strategy to get the firm into the UK top 30 by 2010. At the time of this announcement, DWF was ranked 66th in the land by revenue.
Turnover increased to £55.2m in 2007/08, and the firm made 17 lateral partner hires over that period. In 2008, the firm opened an office in London with two partner hires and swiftly added 13 insurance lawyers from Weightmans to its operations there.
A lesson from the recession
The recession dampened DWF's growth somewhat in 2008/09, though its revenue still managed to grow to £60.1m as it brought in another 17 lateral partners hires that year. Andrew Leaitherland – re-elected for a second term as managing partner – announced that the 'top 30 by 2010' goal was to be pushed back. Still, DWF managed to open a small office in Newcastle in 2009.
In 2011 the firm set up shop in Birmingham with the hire of Shoosmiths' head of asset finance. Over the year, the firm made a record number of lateral hires – 20 – and increased revenue by 15% to £83m in 2010/11. The firm also announced that it had downsized its debt from 13% of revenue to 10%.
For DWF, 2012 was even more eventful as the firm underwent three mergers. In January 2012, the firm merged with £5m, 16-partner Newcastle firm Crutes, bulking up its presence in the North East. This tie-up topped up a year of massive growth that saw revenue rise by a staggering 23% to £102m. Then in May the firm merged with Birmingham's Buller Jeffries, adding 20 fee earners to its Brum digs, then in July combined again, this time with Scottish firm Biggart Baillie – a move that added offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and pushed DWF's total worth up to around £120m. (DWF also considered merging with Cobbetts in this period, but the talks were abandoned later in the year.) Andrew Leaitherland, re-elected for a third term as managing partner, was finally able to celebrate the firm achieving its top 30 goal.
Big changes came once again in 2013, when the firm acquired the whole of professional indemnity practice Fishburns – its fifth merger in a 12-month period. Shortly thereafter, DWF revived its talks with struggling Cobbetts and – surprise! – acquired the firm out of administration in a pre-pack deal, welcoming upwards of 500 new folks to its ranks.
According to partner Carl Graham, an initial concern following these two mergers “was making sure that people felt at home and welcome. Fortunately, we're good at syncing people now that we've done it several times! It's a big effort to make sure everyone is taken care of, but despite the scale we haven't had any major issues.” Partner James Szerdy shares a similar sentiment, telling us “there are always improvements to be made, but I'd say we have been successful in integrating not just the systems – which remains an ongoing project – but also the culture of the firms, and indeed the same applies to our lateral hires. It's something that's been a real focus for us, and we've successfully achieved the feat of bringing people together and connecting within the same, unified culture.”
The tie-ups with Fishburns and Cobbetts have proven the most lucrative yet. They boosted the firm's 2012/13 revenue to £188m – an astonishing 84% increase from the year before – and paved the way for a new goal: UK top 20 status by 2015. As luck would have it, the firm topped this goal two years ahead of schedule, nabbing the number 19 spot at the end of 2013.
Not content with standing still, the London team moved to the 'Walkie Talkie' building in September 2014 to give it ample room to continue growing. In 2015 it did exactly that, bulking up its corporate practice with Ince & Co's former head of corporate insurance, Richard Britain, and a banking partner – Christian Francis – from DLA Piper. Unable to resist the urge to merge, May 2015 also saw the firm take over £2.5 million City insurance practice Watmores.
Broadening out abroad
Not content with becoming a large national firm, DWF appears now to have set its sights on overseas expansion. The opening of a new Dubai office in March 2015 and a Brussels base in December of the same year were the first indication that the firm was looking to expand its horizons even further afield. Then, on 1 January 2016, DWF merged with German commercial firm BridgehouseLaw; the tie-up brought the firm new digs in Munich and Cologne and was driven by a desire to be on the ground where clients need the firm most.
Meanwhile, domestic expansion was continuing: the firm took on petite, Bristol-based insurance boutique Fox Hartley in May 2016 and entered the Northern Irish market later that year through a merger with 20-partner C & H Jefferson. In 2017 the firm acquired NeoLaw, the costs division of Keelys LLP, in London. Overseas expansion also continued in 2017: there was a merger with four-partner Heenan Paris in January; the launch of a Berlin office in March; a new office in Singapore in June with four partners taken on from Eversheds; and to top it all off, associations with firms based in Argentina, Panama, Colombia and Saudi Arabia in July.
With its ambitious vision of creating an international profile for itself, the firm looks set to enter a new strategic phase, but only time will tell whether it'll be able to sustain the momentum that it's witnessed over the past decade. London executive partner Hilary Ross told us: “Many of our clients are looking to significantly expand their geographic coverage over the next few years. We want to grow where our clients are keen to develop, so our focus is on Europe, the Middle East and China.”
After several years of rapidly climbing revenue, income has plateaued in the past few years. Turnover grew by just 1% in 2014/15 with profits down too, and revenue fell in 2015/16, down 2% to £187m. Perhaps as a result of this – and of overseas expansion – trainee recruitment numbers are being cut: the firm is hiring 40 trainees to start in 2020 compared to 50 in 2019.
1 Scott Place,
2 Hardman Street,
- Partners 329
- Associates 387
- Total trainees 87
- UK offices Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Milton Keynes, London, Glasgow
- Overseas offices Brussels, Dublin, Cologne, Dubai, Munich, Paris, Berlin, Sydney, Belfast, Singapore
- Graduate recruiter: Luiza da Costa
- Training partner: Carl Graham, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: c.40
- Applications pa: 2,500
- Minimum required degree grade: 2.1 or other
- Minimum A levels: AAB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 35
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: Monday 2 October 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: Friday 6h July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: Monday 2 October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: Friday 5 January 2018
- Open day deadline: Friday 3 November 2017
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £22,000-£36,000 (location specific)
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London
There are now over 2,600 people in the DWF Group, based in 23 key commercial centres across the UK, Ireland, Germany, France, Brussels, Australia, Canada, the US, Singapore and the Middle East.
Main areas of work
The business recruits the majority of its trainees through the vacation scheme, so it’s a good opportunity to get ahead and see why DWF is the right business for you. The two week vacation scheme gives you the chance to work with partners, associates and trainees across two different practice groups. You’ll work on live legal matters and will be given responsibility right from the start.
This is combined with a variety of internal workshops and presentations, helping you understand DWF as a business. You’ll also complete a group project that’s designed to aid your professional development and provide you with some of the essential skills of a successful commercial lawyer.
As well as gaining fantastic experience, you’ll also be paid £200 for your time on the vacation scheme.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2017