This Leeds stalwart sets out its stall with a tight-knit standalone office, and wins itself a spot in the national marketplace.
Seats, suits and Leeds
Keen legal beans may well have come across the roll call of top Leeds firms referred to as the 'Big Six'. Well, Walker Morris is one of these. But unlike the other firms populating that list which have gone national, WM maintains a single office in the centre of Leeds: why build an empire when you have God's Own County? We aren't holding our breath for that to change either. Trainees were adamant: “If we were to change we would lose our whole identity; to add another office, it just wouldn't work.” Graduate recruitment partner Duncan Lole sold it to us like this: “Not only do we have a strong presence within the Yorkshire market but we also have a national and international client base."
Chambers UK bestows a shedload of regional and national rankings on the firm, giving it top-tier recognition in Yorkshire for its litigation, planning, real estate, restructuring, corporate and professional negligence practices, plus national recognition for those and other areas. The firm also has a growing sports department which acts for football teams, but corporate, real estate and litigation remain the firm's core practice areas. One slight sore spot is the relative decline of the Leeds legal market as a whole in recent years in comparison to Manchester. The latter has now just overtaken Leeds as the UK's second legal hub after London in this legal War of the Roses. Duncan Lole reassured us this development does not tarnish Walker Morris's position: “Certainly the legal market has become increasingly competitive and recent events have caused some uncertainty in the economy. But we believe that there will always be opportunities for law firms which can offer high calibre, commercially focused legal advice at a competitive price."
Trainees gain experience in six departments. “I was drawn by the six-seat system more than anything else," said one trainee. "That's largely because I didn't know what area of law I wanted to work in.” Another source elaborated: “Doing six seats allows you to experience as many areas as possible before making your qualification decision. I did some seats I thought I wouldn't like, but I really enjoyed them.” Another trainee pointed out another benefit of the system: “If a seat is naff, you're only there for four months.” On the downside you get to spend less time in each department, but trainees saw a silver lining to this: “Having your life effectively start again every four months can be disruptive, but I think it makes me a better lawyer to have to earn the respect of my colleagues in each seat again and again.” Many trainees won't experience six different seats. “It's common to repeat a seat, heading back to the one you want to qualify into.”
WM's real estate team is one of the biggest in the region and acts for a raft of Yorkshire-based property investors, like the Moorgarth Group, which the firm aided with the £65 million purchase of the Broad Street Mall shopping centre in Reading. International businesses such as Starbucks and manufacturing giant Caterpillar also use WM for property matters. There's residential and commercial work plus some activity in more specialist areas like energy. As a trainee, “you can be pigeonholed in one of these areas or spread yourself across the whole team.” Most work mainly on commercial property, running low-value files or drafting documents like lease reports for multimillion-pound transactions. One source told us of another strand of work: “Receivership matters involve acting for clients on auction sales. You run the file from start to finish, dealing with auctioneers, fielding questions from potential bidders, releasing charges and dealing with completion.”
Corporate “is so busy you have to hit the ground running fast.” The firm has both private equity and joint venture expertise and the former was brought to bear during WM's role advising shareholders in the multimillion-pound private equity-backed buyout of Yorkshire's Seabrook Crisps. A trainee told us: “On a big private equity deal I produced first drafts of ancillary documents, disclosure letters and contracts. Then I prepared for the completion, which meant a lot of printing and organising documents.” They added that “mentally the workload isn't more challenging than in other seats, but you don't have the same control over your workload; you have to be there when people need you.” That's the nature of a corporate seat.
The banking wing of the real estate and banking litigation (REBL) department primarily handles mortgage fraud and real estate-related professional negligence cases; the smaller real estate side looks after contentious property cases. Trainees sit in one group or the other and “there's not much crossover.” The banking arm acts for the likes of Lloyds, Bank of Scotland and the Yorkshire Building Society. One interviewee reported: “I ran files myself, working on the pre-action protocols, drafting responses to the letter of claim, and getting wordy letters sent off to the other side and to court.” It wasn't just documents that made it to court either –“I went to two court hearings to observe and take notes for my supervisor,” reported one trainee. Such day trips aside, “the work is paper-heavy with a fair amount of bundling.”
"You could join just as something is going to trial."
We hear there "isn't a typical client profile" in the disputes team, which handles everything from banking to construction tiffs. Contract disputes make up a lot of the work. For example, the firm recently defended Perkins Engines, an engine manufacturer and subsidiary of American corporation Caterpillar, against a claim made by a Turkish distributor that it had wrongly terminated a €15 million distribution contract. Cases come in all shapes and sizes, but many last more than four months, so “it's really pot luck what you get, depending on when you join.” Trainees “could be unlucky and get stuck on disclosure” or “you could join just as something is going to trial, so you get to instruct counsel, draft witness statements and work on claim forms.”
The energy, infrastructure and government department is “like a commercial contracts seat but with local governments and councils as clients.” The team specialises in private finance initiative and public-private partnership work, with particular strengths in the waste and energy sectors, plus housing and education expertise. For example, the firm recently advised MVV Environment on an energy-from-waste PPP project for Dundee and Angus councils. “These are big matters. They go on for ages,” observed one trainee. Our sources had also had experience of education work. “I was heavily involved with academies," said one. "We worked with schools being converted to academy status instead of being run by local authorities.”
The intellectual property team is tiny (it has just one partner) but the fact trainees can spend time here illustrates the broad range of seats on offer. One recent case saw the firm represent California shoe giant Deckers in its attempts to protect the UGG brand against infringements by various retailers. For trainees day-to-day work consists of “drafting cease and desist letters and reviewing trade marks.”
"We had pizza, sweets and drinks to keep us going."
Client secondments are also available. “Before each rotation we're told what secondments are available, and you can apply. If more than one person applies for a place then the client interviews each person.” The experience is very different from a seat at the firm. “Your job on a secondment is to constantly be putting out fires and the work has a high rate of turnaround. Everyone's very busy and doesn't have much time for trainees, so that builds up your resilience.”
Back at the firm supervision comes at close quarters. “You share an office with your supervisor and in several seats mine was a partner, so I learnt a lot.” Supervisors keep trainees' workloads sensible. “Nobody gives me work without checking with my supervisor first," said one source, "although the more experience you get the more responsible you become for your own time.” In addition, “every department has its own training. For example, real estate has training sessions every other Thursday.”
A trainee's normal hours are 8.30am to 6.30pm. “If I've made plans to meet someone after work, I've never not been able to,” one told us. Most trainees had experienced spells of working longer hours too. “Corporate was unpredictable," said one; "sometimes I'd be working from 8am to 8pm and sometimes there wouldn't be much to do at all.” For some, the long hours provide a welcome injection of exhilaration. “One disclosure exercise in REBL was hell – all the trainees were helping, as were the partners. It was all hands on deck. We had pizza, sweets and drinks to keep us going late into the night.”
Pull the udder one
“Each department has its own culture," was a refrain we heard from our interviewees again and again. "Some are more traditional and hierarchical, while others are more modern, with really approachable partners.” For instance we heard that “real estate is really sociable,” while “construction is old-school and full of big personalities.” The fact that “every department has a very different way of doing things” was mostly seen as a positive, but this autonomy did cause some administrative confusion, affecting processes like retention. “Some departments interview for NQ jobs, some don't. And some make their decisions early and unofficially," noted one trainee. "I think it should be a more uniform process. The official HR procedures can feel like a formality.” Retention rates themselves are usually pretty decent and 14 of 16 qualifiers were retained in 2016.
Socially a lot happens by department too. “Real estate does fridge Fridays, where they stock a fridge full of drinks for everyone. The team also went to Manchester to do an 'Escape Room' challenge." Socialising with colleagues is seen as a real boon. "You get to know people and it really helps to get everyone to work as a team.” Departments also organise socials at Christmas, but when snow turns to sun, festivities turn firm-wide for the annual summer party. “In 2015 we had a 90s-themed fancy-dress party. There was 90s music and 90s food, an open bar and photo booths. The best costume was two people who came dressed as mad cow disease. One was dressed as a cow and the other as an exterminator!”
More regularly “there's always someone around to go for a drink with on a Friday” and sporting appetites are satisfied with netball, football and cricket teams. Trainees believed that “you have to be very socially capable to work at Walker Morris. We have quite an outgoing trainee intake.” Our interviewees gave glowing reviews of the firm's friendliness. “I think we really emphasise the collaborative approach. I know that's what it says on our website but it's really true! Having just one office helps, I think. I've never felt I can't speak to someone in my department.”
Love Leeds and love law? You'll love Walker Morris.
How to get a Walker Morris training contract
Vac scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 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 assistant 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-assessment day. 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 look for 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 48
- Assistant solicitors 150
- Total trainees 29
- Contact Duncan Lole
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Assessment centre and face-to-face interviews
- Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 15
- Applications pa Approx 800
- % interviewed pa Face to face 5%
- Required degree grade 2:1
- Training salary (2015)
- First year: £26,000
- second year: £28,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 30% on average
- Post-qualification salary £39,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification 85%
- % of assistants who joined as trainees 55%
- % of partners who joined as trainees 45%
Main areas of work
Duration: one week
Remuneration: £175 pw
Closing date: 31 January 2017