Leeds-based “Walker Morris offers all the opportunities of a larger firm, but here you feel like more than just a number.”
WM Leeds the way
With a firm standing (sorry) in the 'Big Six' – Leeds' top law firms – Walker Morris has maintained a reputation for regional excellence while steadily increasing its national and international client base. The firm's Chambers UK rankings reveal the scope of its success, as WM picks up eight tip-top regional rankings in construction, professional negligence, social housing, corporate, litigation, planning, real estate and restructuring. Beyond Yorkshire's borders WM is considered a national leader for its work in the last five of these areas, with real estate, corporate and litigation standing tall as the firm's biggest departments.
What makes WM stand out in comparison to the other 'Big Six' firms is its steadfast commitment to a single-site strategy. Its offices can be found in the heart of Leeds' financial district, and you won't find WM popping up in other cities any time soon: "The single site structure is central to what we do. It’s an important part of our DNA,” says partner Andrew Northage. However, “We are doing an increasing amount of work for international clients."
“You get exposure to big names in the firm and can build your reputation quickly.”
Recent developments show that WM is holding its own, despite Manchester knocking Leeds off of its perch to take the crown as the UK's second legal hub after London. The firm's been busy advising on the largest river hydroelectric project in Yorkshire; winning a tender appointment as a top-tier adviser on the government's new general legal services panel; nabbing laterals from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and Irwin Mitchell to boost its commercial and real estate clout; and assisting with the sale of a 50% stake in Leeds United FC.
What's more, our trainee sources were reluctant to see WM change its strategy: “The single-site approach makes a lot of sense. It's great to have everybody under one roof and means that there's a lot of synergy between teams, which enables us to give effective, joined-up advice to clients.” Interviewees also pointed to the benefit it provides to their careers: “I didn't want to go to a national firm where you're just a 'north shore job' and end up doing the work that the London office didn't want or the clients couldn't afford. At WM all the work is done here and it's good quality.” In addition, “you get exposure to big names in the firm and can build your reputation quickly. Here you have heads of departments and senior partners on your doorstep, chipping in and talking about things.”
Extra! Extra! Read all about it!
Trainees complete six seats at WM, which again proved to be a set up our sources admired. “It's better because you don't know which departments you are going to like beforehand,” one enthused. “It gives you a lot of experience in different areas and if you like one in particular you can go back and do a repeat seat. I think it gives you more control compared to a standard four seat system.” However, trainees don't get a say in where they head for their first three seats (covering their first year), but before their second year submit preferences for their final three to HR.
Most of the trainees we spoke to had completed a real estate seat. Clients here include Yorkshire-based property investors Moorgarth Group, national supermarket Asda and the UAE-based Abu Dhabi United Group. Recent work has seen the department advise on the real estate aspects of Odeon & UCI Cinema Group's £921 million sale to US chain AMC Entertainment (which in turn is owned by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda); on a more local scale the group acted on the conditional £40 million sale of a residential development on the former Yorkshire Post gateway site in Leeds. As these highlights suggest, there's a mix of commercial and residential work available, as well as matters relating to specialist areas like energy. Insiders described a “varied” experience, with general tasks ranging from reviewing and negotiating titles to going on site visits to conducting Land Registry searches. “The amount of client exposure you get as a trainee is one of the best things about real estate,” with lower-value landlord/tenant work providing trainees with the chance to “have your own workload and responsibilities, which boosts your confidence!”
“The amount of client exposure is one of the best things.”
Another source of “major deals” at Walker Morris is the corporate department. Private equity, M&A and equity capital markets deals can all be encountered here, with sector specialisms including retail, healthcare, technology and financial services. Again, the matters can have an international flavour, with the group recently advising cloud services whiz Data Intensity on the acquisition of three business which collectively had operations across the UK, the US, India, Australia and Poland. Given the “hands-on” nature of the seat, corporate is usually a destination for second-year trainees. “You get to draft lots of ancillaries, but also do due diligence, manage data rooms and have face-to-face client contact on top of email and letter correspondence with them.” It can be a busy four months, “so you need the confidence to say yes and no to work, but if you're more junior or reserved there's definitely support if you need it.”
REBL with a cause
The commercial dispute resolution (CDR) department has an eclectic range of clients spanning UK housebuilders, North American industrial companies and African energy businesses. Case highlights of late include acting for UK housebuilder Persimmon during a £4 million breach of warranty and misrepresentation claim against the shareholders of real estate developer Hillreed; and representing a subsidiary of French company ENGIE as it pursued a £12 million breach of contract claim against the energy arm of support services company Carillion.“During big trials bundling takes up a lot of the workload but mundane tasks have been few and far between. You’re not chained to the photocopier at all,” reported one interviewee. Others told of a three-day stint at the Royal Courts of Justice, as well as “interviewing clients, taking witness statements and attending a meeting with a company's directors – that was a complete baptism of fire, but I felt better about meetings after that, and I was pleased to be asked to do it!”
“Helping to plan and think strategically about the cases.”
WM's REBL department covers both real estate and banking litigation. Trainees concentrate on one or the other during their time in the group; on the real estate side they can expect to work for a mix of private and public sector clients, including the Post Office, Starbucks, the Department of Health and the Coal Authority. Trainees here felt they had more responsibility than elsewhere, citing “quite a few supervised and unsupervised court visits; working with heads of the department; instructing counsel; and meeting with clients.” According to one insider the seat involved “helping toplan and think strategically about the cases as opposed to just churning through claims.”
WM’s construction team handles both contentious and non-contentious work for the likes of listed companies, developers, contractors, funds and education providers. Lawyers here have been kept on their toes advising Skyline Parking – a Swiss company specialising in automated parking systems – on its first project in the UK, while on the contentious side they've been defending national contractor Kier Construction against three adjudications involving delay and disruption claims. Trainees focus on either the contentious or non-contentious side of the department, but did note that “there is some overlap between the two strands.” Sources added: “As a trainee you do a bit of everything. Non-contentious tasks usually involve quite a bit of drafting and chasing parties for information, while contentious usually covers drafting statements and instructing counsel – a lot of the cases are tied to defective work and goods.”
The intellectual property team is a small team at WM and so seat availability varies year-by-year, but trainees found it offers “a really broad experience.” Contentious work covers all manner of spats tied to patents, copyrights, trademarks and designs, while non-contentious matters could cover sage investments by big banks, image rights agreements and day-to-day trademark portfolio management for businesses; the group has been doing just that for electronics distributor Premier Farnell, which has over 400 trademarks, requiring WM to form a 'global trademark watching service' to ensure the company's brands are ship-shape across Europe, the Americas and Asia. Typical tasks include drafting correspondence, licence agreements and letters of claim, as well as the inescapable bundling. “Client exposure is drip-fed to trainees on an increasing level so that you’re well equipped to deal with your own clients later on.”
WM will rock you
Back at the office, trainees always share an office with their supervisor – either a partner or director. “I couldn’t imagine not sharing an office with a supervisor,” one trainee said. “It can be a bit daunting sometimes but overall it’s a massive help.” Appraisals are given at the end of every seat and are “broken down into different competencies,” which sources found helpful. Mid-seat appraisals, however, “can be very unofficial depending on your supervisor. They're planning to introduce a compulsory mid-seat appraisal to improve feedback – a more formal system would be better.”
Despite the single-site structure helping to “make the firm more cohesive,” there can slight variations in atmosphere, with some departments pegged as more traditional (like construction) and others a bit more lively and social (like real estate). Sources also pointed out that WM's offices are actually split between two buildings next to each other: Bank House and the recently refurbished King's Court. The latter in particular “is more formal and quieter – you can sometimes hear a pin drop!” But on the whole “a strong sense of identity prevailed,” with “an all in it together” stance taking centre stage: “The whole team does everything they say they'll do – this isn't a place where the trainees are here all night after everyone else has cleared off.”
“The managing partner dressed as Freddie Mercury.”
Which brings us to the hours: they were generally deemed fairly stable, with an average day lasting from 8.30am to 6.30/7pm. A late night in most departments was classed as a 9pm exit, but completions in corporate can lead to some taxing hours, as this trainee explained: “On one deal I stayed until 2am and was back in the office by 8.30am, but the senior partner on the deal stayed the same length of time and I was given time off in lieu.”
With better working hours interviewees felt that WM lived up to its reputation for being “themost sociable of the Big Six.” There are a number of departmental get togethers throughout the year (“CDR hosts regular 'Fridge Fridays' where we have a few drinks in the office”) as well as two annual firm-wide events: a formal dinner and a summer party. One trainee told us: “My first summer party was 80s themed and the managing partner dressed as Freddie Mercury. This year we did WM’s Got Talent and some of the property guys appeared as the Village People.” The trainees also gather for two events each year, which future WMers are invited to, as well as the firm's paralegals.
When it comes to recruitment, sources told us that “they want bright people but also someone you can just go to the pub with and have a normal conversation.” Another added: “You’ve got to have the right combination of personality, ability and enthusiasm. It’s important to gain people’s trust and get along with clients without boring them with jargon.” A connection with Leeds was also flagged as a bonus, as “WM invests a lot of time and effort into its trainees, so they want people who genuinely want to stick around.”
The qualification process varies between departments. “Some people are given handshake qualification jobs while others go through very in-depth interviews, which some people found unsettling.” The firm explained that the "handshake" jobs are only where there is a one-for-one vacancy. Ultimately, sources called for a more universal “and transparent qualification system.” But the firm has made good on the grumbles, as retention rates have been high over the past couple of years and 2017 was no exception, with all 14 qualifiers staying on at the firm.
Several trainees get to complete a client secondment each year. “On secondment people think you’re a qualified lawyer. You’re encouraged to have a go at everything.”
How to get a Walker Morris training contract
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2018 (opens 1 October 2017)
The application form
Around 800 applicants in total apply to Walker Morris through the vacation scheme and direct training contract routes. Both avenues kick off with an online application form where candidates are asked to describe their proudest achievement. Be warned though: "Your individuality needs to be reflected on your form. We quite often read that a candidate's greatest achievements are gaining a place at university or passing your driving test, so think a bit differently – why are you unique? What will make you stand out against the rest?" HR and graduate recruitment advisor Heather Bradburn tells us. “In the past, we've heard from people who've travelled around Europe with only a small amount of money in their pocket, or by staying solely in monasteries and cooking and cleaning in return for food and shelter.”
The vac scheme route
Around 100 vac scheme applicants are invited to attend a half-day assessment with the firm. This involves a group exercise on a non-law topic. Throughout the assessment, “we're looking for teamwork, communication and presentation skills and some commercial awareness,” outlines Bradburn.
Walker Morris offers three, one-week vac schemes in April and June with up to 16 places available on each. As well as tackling various trainee-level tasks within their assigned department, vac schemers attend social events, presentations about firm life and also complete two assessments, the contents of which are kept tightly under wraps. Depending on a candidate's performance throughout the week, offers are either made directly or after candidates attend a further interview with graduate recruitment partner Duncan Lole.
Bradburn advises that in order for participants to get the most out of the scheme they should “be themselves during the week. We're looking to recruit them as a person, not the person they think we want to see, so candidates should enjoy the experience and use the time to observe what we're like.”
Direct training contract applicants who successfully leap the application form hurdle are also invited for a half-day assessment centre. This is largely similar in format to the vac scheme assessment, although the group task is usually longer and more detailed and the number of attendees varies depending on how many training contract positions are filled by vac schemers.
Candidates who are successful at this stage progress to an interview with two partners to discuss their CV, experiences and interests. Bradburn tells us: “Although it's a formal interview, we're trying to get to know you as a person and observe how you interact with others, so the tone often ends up quite chatty and relaxed, although you are still asked some challenging questions!”
What they're looking for
Work experience is given considerable weight although Bradburn acknowledges that “it can be quite hard to get legal work experience and we do appreciate that. We ask candidates without legal experience to illustrate how they would apply transferable skills at a law firm. For example, someone who's worked as a waiter might have developed their client interaction skills.”
The firm is open to recruiting trainees from its paralegal pool and welcomes those changing careers –“we've taken on army veterans, events managers and even an ex-rugby player”– but it's also not averse to those who've come straight through from university. “We take on a real mix of personalities with different skills and previous experiences,” concludes Bradburn.
Yorkshire's legal market
Walker Morris LLP
12 King Street,
- Partners 49
- Assistant solicitors 150
- Total trainees 32
- UK offices Leeds
- Training partner: Duncan Lole, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 15
- Applications pa: 750
- Minimum required degree grade: ideally 2:1 or other
- Vacation scheme places pa: 48
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 December 2017
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £27,000
- Second-year salary: £29,000
- Post-qualification salary: £41,500
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: yes
- GDL fees: yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £5,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Leeds
Main areas of work
Duration: One week
Remuneration: £175 p.w
Closing date: 31 December 2017
Application eligibility: Second-year law, third-year non-law and GDL/LPC students.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2017