Forget Keeping up with the Kardashians: if you can keep up with all the developments at DWF you'll be one step closer to nabbing a training contract at this ambitious national firm, which is setting its sights overseas.
Bridgehouse-ing the gap
“It's a really exciting time to be at DWF,” Hilary Ross, the firm's London-based executive partner, tells us. “Trainees arriving in the next few years will get the chance to be part of our growth right from the start. We're not operating within old, established parameters where someone can say, 'This isn't the DWF way'. If someone comes up with an idea, we'll give it a go. It's an innovative time for the firm.” And it's also a very busy one: 2015 saw DWF absorb City insurance practice Watmores and embark on its first forays overseas – it launched in Dubai in March and Brussels in December. Before the Christmas decorations had a chance to be taken down, DWF was on the move again: it announced another merger with German firm BridgehouseLaw on New Year's Day, which added offices in Cologne and Munich. This didn't sate DWF's merger appetite, as come May news of another acquisition broke; this time a petite Bristol-based insurance practice, Fox Hartley, was welcomed into the fold.
BridgehouseLaw has “expanded our international capabilities and allowed us to focus on Germany, which is where our clients are telling us they want to be. It aligned with the opening of our Brussels office so the timing couldn't have been better,” Ross continues. “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." Not all of the firm's efforts will be concentrated overseas though; DWF's keen to continue bolstering its London practice, as well as its traditional strongholds in the regions: “We're still going to maintain our robust presence up north!” trainees stressed, pointing to DWF's roots in Manchester (where the firm's still headquartered) and Liverpool.
Let's back up a minute here and gain some perspective. Under managing partner Andrew Leaitherland's leadership, enough mergers and office openings have occurred to qualify 'DWF's recent growth' as a specialist subject on Mastermind. Since 2006, DWF's office count has leapt from two (in Manchester and Liverpool) to 16. Five firms alone joined the ranks between 2012 and 2013, including Scotland's Biggart Baillie and Midlands outfit Cobbetts; both additions marked a shift towards an increasing commercial focus – particularly in corporate, banking and real estate – for the traditionally insurance-led DWF. The recent gobbling of BridgehouseLaw, with its array of commercial practices, slots in nicely to DWF's ongoing plan to broaden its offering. Ross tells us: “Certain offices such as Bristol, Preston and Milton Keynes still purely handle insurance work, but when you look at the firm as a whole there's a 50/50 split between commercial and insurance practices.” For more from Ross, click on the Bonus Features tab above. The firm accumulates Chambers UK rankings for its work in a whole host of regions and practice areas, from insurance to corporate/M&A, real estate to health & safety, and planning to banking & finance.
Join the Chubb
DWF's national footprint is now well established and it recruits trainees in six locations: at the time of our calls there were 26 in Manchester, 20 in London, 14 in Liverpool, 12 in Leeds, seven in Birmingham and seven in Newcastle. The training contract spans six four-month seats. At each rotation trainees are provided with a full list of available seats across every office, but we're told movement tends to be restricted to between Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool as the commuting distance is more manageable. Secondment opportunities are advertised nationally, though if you're not based close to a particular client we heard it can be difficult to bag a stint with them. There are several options in Manchester and London, and there is a Leeds-based opportunity too.
After recently giving trainees the floor to suggest ways of improving the seat allocation process, DWF introduced a two-tier system: first-years are now presented with an updated list of available seats after second-years have been allocated theirs. Sources praised the “more organised and fairer process,” which prevents first-years from applying for seats they have little chance of getting. The first seat is assigned at random and the final seat usually sees trainees return to the department they hope to qualify into. The firm has usually had pretty decent retention rates of around 75%; however, in 2016 just 29 out of 47 qualifiers were retained.
Trainees are likely to spend at least one stint in an insurance seat. DWF has some of the nation's biggest insurers on its books, including Zurich, Chubb and QBE. The firm deals with a large amount of defendant work for these clients, covering matters like occupational health, catastrophic personal injury, product liability, commercial insurance, professional indemnity and fraudulent claims. Individual seats are offered in each of these areas.
“The best part of the job is instructing surveillance companies to ensure people aren't exaggerating their injuries.”
Lawyers in catastrophic personal injury advise insurance companies on serious claims like spinal injuries and brain damage. Cases can easily run into the millions, as this one did: DWF represented Aviva on behalf of a man who was being sued for £5 million by a claimant who sustained severe head injuries after requesting to 'surf' on the bonnet of the defendant's moving car. “It's not a seat for the squeamish; I've seen photos of pretty nasty injuries and the CCTV footage from accidents can be pretty disturbing too,” one trainee warned. “You'll often handle several large files and can end up doing anything from interviewing witnesses and police officers to drafting witness statements and initial drafts of pleadings.” A hefty amount of research is standard, alongside disclosure tasks. The team also handles fraudulent claim matters where “people break an arm and say they can never work again.” One source enthused: “The best part of the job is instructing surveillance companies to ensure people aren't exaggerating their injuries and then reviewing the footage.”
Over in professional indemnity, DWF defends insurers who've insured the likes of solicitors and accountants against the risk of giving negligent advice, only for them to be charged with doing exactly that. “Typically matters revolve around accountants who have allegedly mismanaged HMRC cases or conveyancing solicitors who have messed up a title deed,” one trainee summarised. Just like the catastrophic PI seat, trainees here are exposed to heaps of research, but “once you've got a good grounding in a matter you progress quite quickly” to drafting letters of claim and response, and instructing experts and counsel.
Corporate trainees get involved in a whole host of different matters, including bond issues, private sector M&A work, joint ventures and AIM flotations. Clients are drawn from numerous industries and include cash flow advisers Money Advice Group, property consultants Countrywide and e-learning service providers Learning Technologies. Manchester and Liverpool represent plenty of clients from the financial services, retail and technology sectors, while Leeds handles many a deal for estate agencies and property consultants. In line with the firm's overall push for international growth, DWF's corporate department is chasing more mid-market, cross-border work. Birmingham's seen an increase in the number of cross-border deals on its books, as has London: lawyers here recently assisted UK-based domain name registry CentralNic on its AUD33 million acquisition of New Zealand domain name providers Instra Corporation. Sources had taken a pop at conducting due diligence, managing data rooms and drafting board resolutions and share purchase agreements. Several trainees were keen to highlight the amount of client interaction on offer: “The team is fantastic at taking you along to client meetings. We're encouraged to participate in them, but during the negotiations you'll probably have to focus on taking the notes.”
"I had to learn how to structure and organise all the files on the deal."
Most lawyers in the regulatory team focus on health and safety regulation: one such case saw them assist Cape Industrial Services after one of its employees suffered a fatal accident on an unmanned BP platform in the North Sea. The team advises insurers, like RSA, and corporates including Morrisons, Wetherspoons and Persimmon Homes. “After an accident the police and the Health & Safety Executive are on the trail straight away, so it's our job to help the client protect their position. We're out of the office all the time visiting sites; everything becomes much clearer and easier to understand once you've actually seen the scene of an accident,” one interviewee explained. “I've interviewed loads of witnesses, attended meetings with experts and frequently liaised with counsel in the run-up to trial.”
Across departments trainees didn't have any complaints about their working hours. But don't think that this firm's non-London roots mean working here is a walk in the park. Ten-hour days are normal and trainees in transactional seats can end up staying until the wee hours of the morning. However, “if you're here late someone will ask you if you really need to be, and if you do, they'll give you a hand to get things done quicker. The NQs in particular are good at looking after us.”
Raiders of the Friday Fridge
Across the board trainees told us DWF is chock-a-block with “laid-back, down-to-earth people” who are “confident and personable” – and that pretty much sums up everyone we spoke to. All in all, sources agreed that DWF's “a firm where you're expected to work very hard but also encouraged to let your personality shine through.” Yet the numerous offices and catalogue of past mergers meant that trainees noticed a few differences between offices. Liverpool is “very laid-back and just gets on with it,” plus its smaller size means “everyone knows everyone beyond their team.” Leeds is similar (“people really care about their team”) and was described by one outsider as “very Yorkshire-ish,” which – so you don't go thinking that everyone's equipped with a flat cap and a whippet – essentially meant it was a welcoming and warm office. The massive Manchester HQ, meanwhile, is “a lot more corporate” than the other hubs. It was more “difficult to sense a universal culture” in the Newcastle and London offices, as they house a mishmash of fee earners from a few legacy firms.
However, the social scene is pretty uniform across the firm. Most offices host 'Fridge Friday' ('Thirsty Thursday' in London) once a month, which gathers lawyers together for some well-deserved drinks and nibbles. Sources were also encouraged to get involved in local young professionals networks, and raved about the social events attended through them. In Leeds, for example, the firm hosts “a YP event once every couple of months; we've done cocktail making, beer tasting, pub quizzes and a shuffleboard tournament.”
DWF's stratospheric growth was generally deemed a good thing by trainees, but some felt that the firm now “has some work to do” in order to unite its newly minted national network. “We used to have an annual trainee dinner where we could all get together and speak with management to express our thoughts on the firm, but that's no longer happening.” The firm told us that new opportunities to mingle with management are on the horizon. Apart from a two-week induction at the start of the training contract and day-long crash courses to kick off each seat, our interviewees didn't interact much across offices. That being said, if trainees do want to keep in touch with colleagues in other locations, the firm's internal social media site, Yammer, provides plenty of opportunity to do so, with DWF's charitable and CSR endeavours often steering the conversation.
Everyone at DWF is given two days each year to devote to charitable or CSR causes: this could see you painting community fences or throwing yourself out of a plane – like managing partner Andrew Leaitherland did – in order to raise funds for the DWF Foundation.
How to get a DWF training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 27 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 7 July 2017
Application and interviews
DWF receives around 2,500 applications each year for its 50 available training contracts. The online application form is the same for vacation scheme and direct training contract applicants, and asks candidates to outline their relevant experience, hobbies and interests, and reasons for pursuing a career in law (and, more specifically, at DWF).
Roughly 600 lucky training contract applicants and nearly that many vac scheme hopefuls are invited to take part in a video interview, which “gives candidates – who would otherwise narrowly miss out – a chance to impress us,” says emerging talent manager Kate Hasluck. She goes on to reveal that some of the topics covered include “the ways in which you set yourself apart from others, the aspects that are most important to you when applying to a firm, and your understanding of DWF's sector-based model.”
At this point the numbers are whittled down to between 200 and 250 candidates, who are invited to an interview conducted by a partner and member of the HR team, and comprising competency and commercial-based questions. From here vac scheme offers are made, while direct applicants who impress go on to an assessment day.
The firm recently extended its vac scheme from one week to two. Every office that takes on trainees – all except Preston and Dublin – runs one.
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.”
Both direct applicants and vac schemers are required to attend an assessment day, which sees candidates deliver a presentation, partake in a group discussion – “the topic varies but is always related to DWF” – undertake a written exercise, and undergo a final interview (usually with two partners and a representative from HR). “The day certainly puts you through your paces,” sources agreed, offering descriptors like “rigorous” and “intense.”
The final interview is “a bit more technical than the others,” Kate Hasluck tells us. “For example, we usually give them a scenario in which a client has approached them with a problem, and ask them to talk us through how they would act on it. This lets us see how their thought process works, and tests their knowledge of our practice areas.”
Hot on the heels of the assessment day is Practice Group Partners (PGP) Friday, a separate day for candidates who pass the assessment centre. Here, they return to the firm for a “lawyer speed-dating type of event” that sees them pick the brains of the practice group heads as well as 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.
How to wow
DWF accepts applications from any university, but Hasluck tells us AAB at A level, plus a minimum 2:1 degree, form the threshold.
According to Hasluck, “it's important candidates display a sense of why DWF is the firm they want to work for, and why we're different from our competitors. This means showing an understanding of the legal market and where DWF sits within it, and demonstrating sufficient knowledge of our practice and sector groups.”
Finally, she adds, “we encourage trainees to enter with a view to being flexible and potentially moving between our many offices.”
London executive partner Hilary Ross talks us through why “it's a really exciting time to join DWF.”
Student Guide: DWF has undergone two mergers this year, one with the petite insurance firm Fox Hartley and the other with the much larger BridgehouseLaw. What was the reason behind the latter union?
Hilary Ross: Its been an exciting year with BridgehouseLaw expanding our international capabilities and allowing us to focus on Germany, which is where our clients are telling us they want to be. It aligned with the opening of our Brussels office so the timing couldn't have been better. 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.
The merger with BridgehouseLaw has also provided opportunities to for our trainees and NQ lawyers to work in Germany, and we now have a regular exchange between lawyers in our London and German offices.
SG: The firm also launched in Dubai in 2015, how is this office progressing?
HR: Our Dubai office has been remarkably successful. We initially anticipated its growth to be predominantly organic but we've actually had a lot of interest from partners at other law firms so it's expanded faster than we expected.
SG: It's been a very busy period for the firm; will this level of expansion continue or will you now look to consolidate the resources you already have?
HR: We're absolutely looking to consolidate but you can never sit on your laurels and you'll see us continuing to grow through lateral hires. Right now we're focusing on bringing our teams together and ensuring they work well with each other.
SG: How are you going about this?
HR: We've put on a number of social events; in London, for example, we ran a series of five corporate outings for our lawyers where our teams chose from activities such as chocolate making, climbing the O2 or participating in a 'Ready Steady Cook' event. We also held our annual summer boat party on the Thames. Last November we hosted a family day at our London office, which is based in the Walkie Talkie. We wanted to make the most of our fantastic views over London so we gave staff the chance to bring their families in, set up a children's room with face painting and games and put on food and wine for the adults before we finished the event watching the Lord Mayor's fireworks. We also hold more regular events such as monthly themed drinks in the office or lunchtime fitness sessions which anyone can get involved with.
Across the firm, our learning and development team host sessions to develop our lawyers' broader skill sets rather than just focusing on the key skills they need. In Manchester, clients come in to speak with our lawyers about different industry sectors, while in London we held several Brexit themed events in the run up to the referendum featuring representatives from both the Leave and Remain camps.
SG: Are any of your domestic offices highlighted for development or expansion?
HR: London's our current focus; we're turning it into the shop window which will bring in clients and the work will then be undertaken in our offices outside of the capital. Our overall focus remains on our five big offices in Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh but we're also looking to grow Dublin and Newcastle.
It's a really exciting time to be at DWF. Trainees arriving in the next few years will get the chance to be part of our growth right from the start. We're not operating within old, established parameters where someone can say 'this isn't the DWF way.' If someone comes up with an idea, we'll give it a go. It's an innovative time for the firm.
SG: Over the years DWF has balanced out its insurance practice with a commercial side. What's the split like now?
HR: Although there are regional offices where the main focus is on insurance work, when you look at the firm as a whole there's a 50/50 split between commercial and insurance practices which gives the firm a fantastic depth and breadth of clients.
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 £200 million in revenue, more than 2,300 employees, and 17 offices spread across England, Scotland, Ireland, Europe and the UAE. 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 £50 million 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 £55.2 million 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 £60.1 million 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 £83 million in 2010/11. The firm also announced that it had downsized its debt from 13% of revenue to 10%.
2012 proved even more eventful for DWF as it underwent three mergers. In January 2012 the firm merged with £5 million, 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 £102 million. 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 £120 million. (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 £188 million – 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.
After several years of rapidly climbing revenue, income has plateaued in the past few years. Turnover grew by just 1% in 2015/16 with profits down too, and revenue followed suit in 2015/16, down 2% to £187 million. The firm gave no explanation for this in the legal press (and the figures were announced after our research took place), but we would hazard a guess that post-merger cost savings and overhead cuts have something to do with it. Trainee recruitment remains steady though with the firm aiming for an intake of 50 in 2019.
What does the future hold for DWF?
The opening of a new Dubai office in March 2015 and a Brussels base in December of the same year suggests that DWF is looking to expand its horizons even further afield. We didn't have to wait long to find out if our predictions were correct because while the rest of us were crawling out of bed on 1 January and shaking off a late night, DWF was up and ready to announce its merger with German commercial firm BridgehouseLaw.
The union, which brought the firm new digs in Munich and Cologne, was driven by a desire to be on the ground where clients need the firm most. London executive partner Hilary Ross tells 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.”
The firm's yet to open a base in China, but we'll be keeping an eye on any hint of movement eastward. Back home the firm's not done building up its domestic practice: it took on petite, Bristol-based insurance boutique Fox Hartley in May 2016 and plans to build up headcount in the Newcastle and Dublin offices.
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.
1 Scott Place,
2 Hardman Street,
- Partners c. 250
- Total trainees 97
- Contact Emma Hardman
- Method of application Please complete an online application form on our website at www.dwf.law/join-us/graduate
- Selection procedure First stage interview, an assessment centre comprising of: a panel interview, presentation, group discussion and a written exercise and attendance at the final round which is facilitated by the CEO.
- Closing date for 2019 Friday 7 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 50
- Applications pa c. 2,500
- % interviewed pa 25%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary
- £22,000-£36,000 for first year (location specific)
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- Overseas/regional offices Birmingham, Brussels, Dublin, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol, Cologne, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Milton Keynes, Preston, Dubai, London, Glasgow, Munich
Main areas of work