With a clear focus on transport, energy and real estate, London mid-sizer WFW tempts with its guaranteed overseas seat and rising profile.
What you sea...
Sometimes perception is slow to catch up with reality, and our sources here felt that this was the case with WFW: “When I first applied it was very much 'this is a shipping firm,' but I would class it now as a general finance firm, and I think that it's being seen that way more broadly too.” A look at WFW's sector focuses shows that alongside maritime work, lawyers here also specialise in energy & infrastructure, natural resources, real estate and transport matters; across these areas the firm picks up Chambers UK rankings for its lower mid-market corporate, asset finance, litigation, capital markets and renewable energy expertise.
However, sources did concede that “shipping is probably the sector that we have the strongest knowledge in, and we won't ever lose our roots in the area.” Both a consistent top UK-wide ranking in shipping finance and recent high profile work backs this up: WFW recently advised a group of 29 banks that together financed a $14 billion merger between Hapag-Lloyd and the United Arab Shipping Company – creating one of the largest container shipping lines in the world. That's not the only success story emerging from WFW of late: the firm also had a place at the table during Shell's $3.8 billion sale of its North Sea oil and gas assets, and posted an enviable 20% increase in global turnover for 2016/17, which came in at £159.8 million. It also has a new pair of hands manning the deck: shipping finance partner Nigel Thomas took over from long-serving chairman Frank Dunne, who will be joining the firm's New York office.
Commenting on the firm's recent financial performance, co-managing partner Chris Lowe says “we have benefited from having an international office network, as more than 60% of our income is non-sterling.” This network consists of 13 overseas offices across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the US. Despite its success, WFW won't be resting on its laurels. “We will stick to developing our sector strategy,” Lowe informs us. “Our two prominent sectors are transport and energy, and we also have a real estate focus; our strategy is to continue building the strength of our practice groups within those sectors.”
The most important pull factor for our trainee sources was the collection of industries that WFW specialises in: “It's a slick, focused firm. My training contract won't be as varied as others elsewhere, but I'll be working areas that I want to work in.” After that, the firm's intake size figured: “I didn't want to be one of 150 trainees. In my intake there are 15 trainees and everyone knows one another.” Finally there was the perk of “going through six seat rotations, with a guaranteed overseas secondment – there are quite a few trainees this year who are going abroad twice!
Sovcomflot with ice
So what is the six-seat system like? With eight seat options in total “it's great, as it means that everyone gets to go almost everywhere!” It's compulsory for trainees to visit the litigation department and undertake an overseas seat; if they want to work in asset finance while they're abroad, trainees must complete a London-based stint in the department before jetting off. Before changing seats trainees meet up with HR “for a little ten minute chat and submit three preferences.” Many felt that “if you put good arguments down for why you've chosen those seats, you're more likely to get them.” Sources estimated that “usually around 85% of people are happy with what they get.” If someone isn't going to get one of their top preferences “HR calls you to explain, and it usually means that you will get your first choice next time around.” We heard that the energy and projects department is increasingly popular, as is an overseas stint in one of the firm's Asia offices.
The asset finance department is split into three groups: shipping, aviation, and commodities and export finance. Trainees work across all three. Asset sales, structured securitisations and leasebacks are all covered here, so luckily there's three days of training to get newbies up to speed. After that, “you're straight into it; trainees get relied on more as it's a busy department, so you're expected to step up.” Sources explained that “you can ask questions, but at the same time they expect you to have a certain amount of intellectual flexibility and work with the scenarios you're given.” They reported getting “loads of good experience” in the form of overseeing CP checklists for entire deals; doing the first draft of various securities documents; and liaising directly with clients. One source even reported running a deal on their own, with support, towards the end of their seat. However, “no one will give you substantive work unless you show you can take it on and are willing.” Interviewees also praised the way “clients know us and know our names; you feel more valued.” Recent highlights here include advising Russian shipping company Sovcomflot on a $339.7 million loan facility to finance the acquisition of three 'Ice-Class' tankers; they also acted for two banks (France's Credit Agricole CIB and Japan's Sumitomo Mitsui) on a $63.8 million financing for two Boeing planes for Netherlands-headquartered leasing company AerCap.
“I would class it now as a general finance firm.”
Energy and projects is “definitely a rising department in the firm.” It is becoming even more popular with trainees who want in on the more “glamorousdeals occurring in the renewable energy space.” The department also covers oil and gas work, as well as mining and minerals projects. For clients operating in these areas the team provides help with the likes of joint ventures, project finance, commercial contracts and construction procurement. Of late lawyers here have advised Danish pension fund PKA on its £900 million investment (a 50% stake) in the Teesside Renewable Energy Plant; wind developer DONG Energy on the £660 million sale of its stake in a UK offshore wind farm; and Gibraltar-headquartered exploration outfit Wishbone Gold on its acquisition of UAE-registered company Precious Metals International. Interviewees cited classic trainee tasks such as due diligence and doc review, but also tried their hand at putting together first drafts of agreements and liaising with local counsel. As with asset finance, a big component was running CP lists: “It's a large task because there are often multiple sites in one deal, with corresponding CPs for each one.”
WFW's sector focuses are again evident in the corporate department, which oversees a lot of cross-border M&A and private equity work. There are exceptions to the rule though, and some matters relate to industries like insurance and technology: the group advised investor Aurelius and its portfolio company as they snapped up a cloud computing business from telecommunications outfit Colt; insurance intermediary Global Risk Partners also came knocking when it needed advice on on its investment programme in UK-based insurance companies. “They're quite focused on giving you proper work to do,” interviewees here reported, adding that they'd enjoyed a 70/30 split between substantive and more admin-oriented tasks. The latter involved due diligence and “secretarial stuff, which is good for aiding your understanding of how companies work.” Meatier tasks included drafting board minutes, terms of transactions and documents for IPOs. “On one matter I also got to liaise with the other side and negotiate the terms of one of the documents – it was really full on!
“...an interest in languages and the international aspect of the firm.”
A mix of investment banks, large corporates, shipping lines and global energy outfits await trainees in WFW's commercial litigation department. Recent laterals have boosted the department's real estate and construction expertise; a recent example saw the team act for Cyprus-based Vatounio Investments as it disputed various clauses in a joint venture project to develop a site in Berlin. Another case that's kept lawyers busy here involved representing an international oil supplier, Conapro Dena BMS, as it brought a $32 million breach of contract claim against the Government of The Gambia. Sources found “the adversarial stuff different: it's less procedural than the transactional seats, and requires more research, drafting and understanding of complex things – you can't write instructions to counsel unless you understand what's going on!” One source had been given a small case to manage, but more common tasks included “gathering evidence, organising filings for court, drafting letters to clients and research memos, and taking notes at meetings.”
With a guaranteed overseas seat on offer, many WFW trainees share “an interest in languages and the international aspect of the firm.” Not that the firm's fledgling lawyers will have to master another language before boarding a flight – most of the work overseas is conducted in English. However, the firm does provide up to 20 hours of language lessons if trainees do want to brush up on the local lingo. Trainees have jetted off to the likes of Paris, Hamburg, Athens, Singapore, Bangkok and Dubai. Most international seats are finance-focused, although there is the opportunity to do a litigation or corporate stint in Bangkok, and a litigation seat in Singapore.
With its roots in the male-dominated world of shipping, we asked trainees how traditional they found the firm. “It doesn't feel that traditional,” interviewees agreed. “Things have definitely changed and this is a firm that's moving on: lateral hires in the energy department have revitalised the atmosphere, while in shipping new partners rise up every year, and that changes the dynamic of the department. Plus there's a strong group of up-and-coming women in that group too.” Any further talk of culture kept coming back to the firm's size: “Because we're mid-sized there's not much anonymity here. I did some work experience at some of the larger firms in the City and I couldn't believe the difference – at those firms I didn't really know anyone, but here I know the guys in IT, the people in printing, everyone!” This, others highlighted, lends “a more collaborative and inclusive vibe” to the atmosphere.
While there's “no face-time culture, you are of course expected to pull your weight.” The average day starts at 9am and finishes by 7pm, with sources highlighting that “most people have a good work-life balance.” They added, however, that these standard hours can be “variable depending on how busy a department is. If you're on a big transaction, for instance, you can have a run of late nights.” Trainees revealed that “everyone has done the odd 3am, but a late night in the office would usually wind up by 11pm.” In some of the smaller departments (like employment and competition), trainees are sometimes “out of the door by 5.30pm.” Sources added that they'd never been told to work at the weekend; “I've only ever done so because I thought it was the best thing to do to get the work done.”
”Things like that show how well the offices are connected.”
The social scene is very much alive and well at WFW. The firm boasts multiple sports teams, with a healthy dose of inter-office competition generated by an annual firm football tournament: “A different office hosts the tournament each year, and teams from every location travel to it to take part for a couple of days. Things like that show how well the offices are connected.” There are also team away days once a quarter. One revolved around “a crystal maze challenge; the teams were made up of trainees, associates and partners, and everyone went out for a drink after.” Trainees can also quench their thirst and unwind with associates at the end of a long week: “There's an email that goes out every Friday, nudging people to come to the pub for drinks.”
The majority of our interviewees wanted to stay on at the firm as NQs. A jobs list is usually released by the end of March, and “the process typically follows this pattern: you have a weekend to think about it, and then you schedule in a meeting with HR the following week to tell them your preferences. Next you're sent on to be interviewed.” The style of interview can vary by department: “The litigation department, for example, gives you a more academic, knowledge-based interview, while others will focus on more competency-based questions.” Sources also explained that “there are always enough jobs, but they're not necessarily all in the departments that everyone wants.” In 2017, the firm retained all 15 qualifiers.
The recent refurb of the London office (which is based near Liverpool Street station) was a hit with our trainees: “It marked a good turning point for us. The office looks a lot more professional and externalises the fact that the firm has entered a transition stage in terms of growth and focus.”
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How to get a Watson Farley & Williams training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2018): 26 January 2018 (opens October 2017)
Training contract deadline (2020): 27 July 2018 (opens October 2017)
Watson Farley & Williams receives around 600 applications each year: about half are for the firm's vacation scheme, while the other half are from applicants gunning directly for a training contract.
Both types of application start with an online form that asks for details of an applicant's academics and work experience. “Legal work experience is important for those applying directly for a training contract,” says graduate recruitment & development manager Lucie Rees. “We need to see that these candidates really understand the profession and the role of a trainee at a commercial firm, as well as having identified us as a firm they want to train at.”
The form also includes various open-ended questions. “It's difficult to get an accurate feel for a person from an application form,” Rees admits, “so we also ask about their involvement in extracurricular activities. This is a chance to talk about activities that have provided you with some life experience and some useful skills.”
For vac scheme and training contract applicants alike who impress on paper, the next step is a video interview and then an assessment centre. Rees is reluctant to reveal many details about the day, but she does tell us: “It's fairly typical in that it involves group and written exercises. We've tried to make these as close as possible to the sorts of things trainees do daily at the firm. We don't ask people to take any form of standard verbal reasoning test or off-the-shelf psychometric test.”
The day also involves lunch with the current trainee cohort. Rees insists that “the trainees are not briefed to feedback to HR, as we want people to be able to relax and ask questions,” though we suggest keeping to your best behaviour regardless. At the end of the day, assessors give candidates group feedback on their assessments. “We feel it is important to recognise the efforts candidates have put in up to this stage and give them something to take away from the day,” Rees explains.
The vacation scheme
Following the assessment centre, WFW chooses its vac schemers. Rees encourages trainee hopefuls to apply for the scheme: “Generally we find vac schemers are better informed about us and what we do, and as a result tend to perform better in their final interview. Ideally we aim to offer training contracts to a high percentage of our vac schemers, as they have spent time seeing the firm first-hand, and we've seen what they can do.”
That said, “we deliberately leave some places for those who apply directly,” she points out. “We find we're fishing in a different pool of applicants at this point – we often pick up people who attended magic circle vac schemes and then decided it wasn't for them.”
The firm runs three placements – Easter, June and July – and each lasts two weeks.
The firm aims to interview around 25% of those who have attended an assessment centre, including vac schemers, who undergo their interview during the second week of their placement. Direct applicants, meanwhile, attend theirs in either August or September.
The interview is conducted by a partner and a member of the graduate recruitment team, and opens with a chat about the interviewee's motivations and interest in law.
The rest of the interview is split between competency-based questions and those designed to eke out a candidate's personality. “We want to ensure that they understand the work we do and are motivated to work for us in the long term,” says Rees, adding: “We especially want to see an interest in the sectors we work in, though we don't expect them to be sector experts at this stage.”
Trends in the energy sector
Interview with managing partner Chris Lowe
Watson Farley & Williams
15 Appold Street,
- Partners 149
- Associates 400+
- Total trainees 37
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 13
- Graduate recruiter: Lucie Rees, graduate recruitment and development manager, [email protected] wfw.com
- Training partner: Christina Howard, corporate partner, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 18
- Applications pa: c.600
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or equivalent
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: ABB or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places pa: Up to 30
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: October 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 27 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: October 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 26 January 2018
- Open day deadline: 16 November 2017
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £43,000
- Second-year salary: £46,000
- Post-qualification salary: £70,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £6,500/£5,500 dependant on location
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
- Overseas seats: Guaranteed in either Athens, Bangkok, Dubai, Hamburg, Paris or Singapore
- Client secondments: None
Main areas of work
In the firm’s chosen sectors it competes successfully with some of the best law firms in the world. Building on WFW’s origins in ship finance, demand for maritime work remains as strong as ever. At the same time the firm has seized opportunities to excel in related areas where its finance expertise has most relevance, such as energy, natural resources, transport, real estate and technology.
Training contracts will be hands-on, with as much experience of clients and challenging, high-profile work as possible. Trainees will benefit from plenty of exposure to senior lawyers, many acknowledged leaders in their field.
WFW believes that only total immersion can provide trainees with the experience they require.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2017
The firm’s representatives would be delighted to meet potential applicants and answer questions in person.