Watson Farley & Williams - True Picture

Every trainee at this shipping finance specialist gets to set sail to one of its exciting overseas locations.

Around the world, around the world



Watson Farley & Williams is famous for its expertise in shipping finance. Both Chambers UK and Chambers Global award the London-headquartered outfit top marks for this line of work, and its aviation finance and trade finance teams don't mess around either, each achieving nationwide rankings in the UK. But while specialist finance work does dominate much of this firm's undertakings, it's not just number-crunching that goes on here; WFW is home to a handful of practices more associated with its bigger, full-service counterparts, including employment, capital markets, energy, litigation and property. The main sectors covered are energy and infrastructure, maritime, real estate, natural resources, and transport.

Chris Lowe, who took over WFW's managing partner post in early 2014, tells us: “Our strategy is relatively simple. We want to be involved in complex cross-border transactions, contentious and non-contentious, and support our clients' businesses wherever they may be. The most difficult thing any management has to figure out is where to play and how to win.” The firm's done a decent job of this so far, carving out a network of 14 offices across major ports and financial hubs in Europe, Asia and the US. It opened its latest branch in Dubai in September 2014. "We've already laterally recruited a partner there, and we've got some associates moving from London," Lowe says. "It's important to us to see our lawyers moving around the system; we encourage them to work in all our offices." It's this global outlook that won over many of our trainee sources. "The firm requires all trainees to go overseas for a seat. I think that demonstrates how truly international it is," said one. Some were also lured by WFW's transactional slant and shipping expertise, while others came for the smallish trainee intake, which they felt "lends itself to better support and more responsibility than somewhere huge like a magic circle firm."

Trainees rotate through six seats during their two years, and are required to visit litigation, asset finance, energy, and corporate finance, plus an overseas office. "Ideally everyone does their asset finance seat before going abroad. It's the firm's bread and butter and what you're most likely to be doing overseas.” Before their training contract starts, new joiners are asked to list three preferences for their first seat. “They give you brochures with details about all the available practice areas, and we're also invited to talks at the firm to learn more about each one.” Almost everyone we spoke to had been assigned their first choice. The decision “is explained in a meeting with HR,” and trainees are treated to another meeting with HR in their early days to “discuss what we want out of our training contract seat-wise and why.” Halfway through subsequent seats “you give a new set of three preferences. They're pretty accommodating.” The logistics of overseas seat assignments are similar: “Around Christmas time in your first year, you give preferences, and within a few months you know where you'll be going.” Click on the 'bonus features' tab above for more details on the experience abroad. 

Ship off the old block



Asset finance was WFW's sole focus when it opened in 1982, and most of the departments it's established since act in support of this practice, which brings in around a third of the firm's revenue. A good whack of WFW's asset finance transactions involve the maritime and aviation industries. The team generally works on behalf of banks; recent clients include RBS, Lloyds, Crédit Agricole, Citibank and BNP Paribas. Since the credit crunch, it's been handling an increasing amount of ECA(export credit agencies)-backed deals – for example, lawyers recently advised Crédit Agricole on a $200 million loan to liquefied petroleum gas logistics specialist Petredec for the purchase of 84,000 LPG carriers.

Compared with other seats, “there are a lot more tasks that can be allocated to juniors" in asset finance, "which means you get more work and more responsibility," trainees told us. "Client contact is considerable, and sometimes there's so much to do that you have to turn things away, especially in the run up to Christmas.” Typical trainee tasks include drafting powers of attorney, gathering conditions precedent ahead of a closing, and attending closing meetings. The latter "involves meeting buyers or sellers and the solicitors on the other side to make sure everyone's signing the right documents and that procedural things run smoothly. Often we go on our own, which can be quite daunting, but people are good about clearly explaining things before you go do that.” Those focusing on shipping finance matters often find themselves “dealing with ship delivery, liaising with foreign counsel, handling international registries and writing due diligence reports.” On the aviation finance side, “the transactions are smaller and you can really take the lead as a trainee, managing some yourself.” Sources across the department said: “Generally you can expect a full-on working day in this seat, and there are especially long hours during busy periods.”

Gone with the wind farm



A stint in energy and projects sees trainees tasked with “a lot of due diligence and proofreading, as well as a bit of photocopying and courier duties,” particularly if it's their first seat and they're working on big matters. “On smaller matters you're a lot more involved – you get to do some drafting and email clients directly, which is exciting.” Lawyers here either work on construction matters – "for example, large energy providers looking to build wind farms" – or finance-oriented ones, like the firm's recent representation of RBS in one of the largest solar financings to date. We hear the former line of work “is quite niche – it takes some time to familiarise yourself with the documents and transactions." One trainee elaborated: "In some respects you feel like you're starting from the beginning. I found it a brilliant seat in the end, though. The team is so friendly and interested in your welfare – the head of department even pops in now and then to check on you.” Among the department's major clients are Danish-based DONG Energy, Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and the government of Pakistan, which the firm is currently representing in several gas import matters.

Over in litigation, it's mostly large-scale international disputes, usually finance-related ones. Lawyers here recently advised BDO on a £20 million insolvency matter regarding mis-sold interest rate hedging products, and represented Teekay in debt enforcement proceedings brought against Diamond Pacific International. Trainees are tasked with the court run once a week, “and when a case is going to trial, you handle trial prep, bundling, memos of advice and other general case management.”

On the real estate front, WFW's expertise centres on commercial conveyancing and real estate finance and closed-end fund transactions. A recent client is Liberty Syndicates, which the firm advised in relation to its occupation of the Walkie Talkie building in London. Alongside licences for alterations and "the odd commercial transaction," trainees who'd sat here reported involvement in "a lot of residential transactions. That's not what you necessarily expect to do at a City firm, but you do get lots of responsibility on such matters. There's a fair amount of drafting – leases, client letters, contracts, Land Registry applications...” They confessed that “the team can be a bit disorganised at times, with everyone doing a bit of everything,” but acknowledged: “The group is expanding, so it might just be teething issues.”

There's a trainee induction for each seat, which can be anything from a quick overview to a whole day of talks. Beyond this, training varies by department. “In asset finance there's a monthly workshop – you have to prepare for it, and they even give homework afterwards to make sure you get lots out of it." Meanwhile, in energy and projects, "everyone is assigned a training lawyer who gives you talks on the practice. It's a really detailed and technical field, so they want to make sure we get a solid understanding."

High steaks



Last year we heard rumours of an impending refurb of the firm's Liverpool Street digs, a development which is now under way. “It's a long time coming,” one insider admitted. “The office is a bit dated, though it's definitely in a great location.” One thing that doesn't sound like it needs much improving is the canteen, headed by French chef Philippe, beloved for his "wonderful" canapés. Of course there's always a Debbie Downer or two in any bunch: “I just don't think it's right that a steak is £3 while anything from the salad bar comes to £6," one lamented. "If they want to encourage healthy eating, they should subsidise the salad bar!” 

Some of our interviewees noticed a divide between “old-school” partners and the leadership's younger members, identifying the former as being slightly more daunting to work for. Still, everyone characterised the day-to-day atmosphere at WFW as a positive one. “Whenever I go to the canteen or a drinks reception, I know the majority of people,” said one source.“The smallish size here gives it an almost regional feel. The work is high-level, but the people are very approachable.” Another bonus we heard about the size is that "it means the firm can afford to recognise trainees as individuals."

Naturally, hours vary by seat, with tax deemed "the most reasonable," and asset finance and energy and projects "the most up and down. E&P is growing, so it's really busy at the moment – until recently, I was working until 10pm or 11pm every night." Luckily the Watson Farley social scene does a decent job at keeping morale high. “We have a Christmas party and raffle, charity fundraisers and quiz nights, a summer ball, a trainee supper club, football teams, last-Friday drinks trolleys, a fee earners' dinner...” We hear this last event, in which new partners are announced, is called the 'Promotions Party'.

Our interviewees had this advice to pass on to anyone considering applying to WFW: “Understand the core business of the firm. You don't necessarily need to have a ton of knowledge about finance and shipping beforehand, but you do need to have an interest in these areas and show a willingness to learn more about them. And know that coming here likely means working in one of these areas too. Thinking you might get a job in one of the smaller departments could turn out to be a naïve expectation.”

And finally...



In 2014 WFW only retained ten of its 14 NQs, and it kept on just nine of 13 in 2015.

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Our practice area features on Shipping and Banking and Finance

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These mid-size commercial firms in London: 

- Bird & Bird
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- Mishcon de Reya
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- Watson Farley & Williams

How to get a Watson Farley & Williams training contract



APPLY HERE

Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2016

Training contract deadline: 31 July 2016

Applications 

“The numbers of applications we receive varies each year,” Watson, Farley & Williams' graduate recruitment manager Lucie Rees tells us. “In 2014/15, we saw them increase to over 700 received in total.”

Half of these were for the firm's vacation scheme, and half were from applicants gunning directly for a training contract.

Both types of applications start with an online form that asks for details on an applicant's academics and work experience. “Legal work experience is essential for those applying directly for a training contract,” Rees says. “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.”

Assessment centre 

For vac scheme and training contract applicants alike who impress on paper, the next step is 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 “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 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.

Assessment centre 

For vac scheme and training contract applicants alike who impress on paper, the next step is 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 “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 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.

Final interviews  

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 August.

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.”

Spotlight on overseas seats



All interviewees mentioned the guaranteed overseas opportunity at Watson Farley & Williams as one of the major draws to the firm, both because of the exciting prospect of living abroad for a few months, but also because the opportunity was considered indicative of the firm's genuinely international identity and capabilities.

A chat with HR gives newbies the opportunity to present their preferences for overseas destinations ranked in order, and to justify them. “It's a real discussion, they take personal stuff into account,” we heard. Overseas seats tend to happen towards the end of the training contract but “you know where you're going from early on; the process starts around Christmas of your first year.” Because “most of the overseas seats are in asset finance,” it's the norm for trainees to do a seat in this department in London to gain some experience before jetting off to either Paris, Athens, Hamburg or Singapore.

Paris is a popular choice, so not everyone who expresses an interest gets to go to the city of love. “Everyone wants to do aviation finance, which is what the office is known for” one trainee reckoned. (The office is ranked in band one for shipping finance and band two for aviation finance in France by Chambers Europe.) Sources commented on the long hours in Paris, with one telling us: “We never left before 9pm, not even on Fridays, but it wasn't a chore because the work is exciting: you're right on the front line. The head partner there is keen to teach trainees and he's a really nice guy.” The Paris office isn't really into organised fun, sources commented, “but there are usually trainees from other firms in the city so you hang out with them.” One non-Francophone source expressed surprise at “how much of the work was in French – luckily you do get language lessons though.” This will come in handy while scouting for vintage goodies in the city's charming Marais district, where WFW's trainee flat is located.

The Athens office is best known for shipping finance (it's top-ranked by Chambers Europe), and trainees who had done a seat in this practice before are “able to hit the ground running.” The office has a staff of around 60 and we hear that “everyone is lovely and the atmosphere is very supportive.” Don't expect to spend your days sipping ouzo and eating moussaka though –“the deals have a very quick turnaround so there's a heavy workload, but that also provides a great opportunity to hone your existing skills.” And you might be surprised to hear that the Greek working lifestyle is “similar to London: there isn't much of a face time culture. You get in at 9.30am and around 6pm, or whenever you're done, you go home.”

WFW's Hamburg office is located directly adjacent to the Inner Alster, the smaller of Hamburg's two pretty artificial lakes. That means it's right near the old town and the opera house. A trainee reported: “Hamburg is a great place to live. The firm's flat is in a lovely area and you can cycle along the lake to get to work.” We also heard that “there are only a couple of English-trained lawyers in the office. Everyone else's English is very good, but I did also take German lessons.” Another source told us: “The lead partner in Hamburg is keen to give you as much work and responsibility as you're willing to take on.”

The Singapore office houses “loads of English expats,” and trainees enjoy the ease with which the social side of things develops. The office covers most of the firm's main areas of expertise; it has six rankings in Chambers Asia-Pacific for aviation finance, banking, dispute resolution, projects, restructuring and shipping.

Interview with managing partner Chris Lowe



Student Guide: Are there any highlights from the past year you'd like to draw our readers' attention to?

Chris Lowe: One big highlight was the opening of our Dubai office in September 2014. It's now up and running and already making a positive contribution to the business. We've already laterally recruited a partner there, and we've got some associates moving from London. It's important to us to see our lawyers moving around the system; we encourage them to work in all our offices.

We've seen improved profitability and growth in turnover across the firm. This acts as a driver of quality and performance, but it also reflects the quality and performance of our offices and our people: with quality and performance comes increased turnover and improved profit, which in turn allows us to continue to invest in our people.

We've done this by refreshing the quality of our website, an important step that's gone very well. We've also got a programme for refurbishment underway in London to lift the look and feel of the place.

Finally, we're investing in the hardware of the firm and giving people the tools they need to do their job. We're currently running a pilot project to give our lawyers remote access – and not just from laptops – to the firm's file site and IT support from anywhere in the world. 

SG: What's been your focus since taking up the managing partner role in 2014, and to what extent have you seen your plans realised so far?

CL: Behind our culture and strategy we believe there need to be some core values: respect, sharing and communication. Stemming from that, I'm committed to investing in feedback on a more continuous basis.

This doesn't just mean an annual appraisal. We'll be running 360 programmes on a consistent basis. Everyone's getting an input. Every two or three years, we have formal partner appraisals, which are more than just soft and comfortable chats. We're looking to have partners continue to prove themselves through an appraisal process that's not just based on remote analysis of figures but on real feedback. We are running a staff survey and believe this will be well received.

We're also realising the strap-line of our website, which is client care. That's not a value; it's performance based on good behaviour, investment in people, industry focus, sector drive and focus on the business. It's about legal excellence and great people. 

SG: Can you give us a breakdown of WFW's business? Which practices are growing?

CL: Our expertise is broken down into sectors and services, and 25% of our turnover comes from this sector work. There are five main sectors: energy and  infrastructure, maritime, real estate, natural resources, and transport. Energy and maritime are the biggest, and both continue to grow. We've seen some very strong growth in real estate over the past year, especially in New York, Germany and London. This is in response to the funds that flow into these jurisdictions from Asia and the Middle East. Natural resources has been a major focus, though it's slowed down slightly due to slow-downs in the economy. Aviation, meanwhile, is growing. We've seen our capability in Hong Kong expand a lot in particular, and we want this to happen on a global basis.

SG: WFW is unusual in that it offers overseas seats to all its trainees. What do you hope they'll gain during their experience abroad?

CL: I think it's about bringing the knowledge, the ideas, and some of the culture and strategy outside our London offices back into London. Likewise, we want them to return with improved drive, ambition and strategy. It's important to us that our culture and strategy is joined up across all our offices. You get a stronger brand that way, and we increasingly realise this is the strength of our brand.

SG: What's the firm's strategy for the coming years?

CL: Our strategy is relatively simple. We want to be involved in complex cross-border transactions, contentious and non-contentious, and support our clients' businesses wherever they may be. The most difficult thing any management has to figure out is where to play and how to win.

Knowing where to play and how to win is what differentiates us, so we continue to play within our core sector strengths and in the jurisdictions where we're strongest to grow our sector strength on a global basis. That's essential.

Watson Farley & Williams

15 Appold Street,
London,
EC2A 2HB
Website www.wfw.com

  • Partners 130+
  • Total fee-earners 400+
  • Total trainees 30
  • Contact Lucie Rees, graduate manager
  • Email graduates@wfw.com
  • Method of application Online application
  • Selection procedure Assessment centre and interview
  • Closing date for 2018 31 July 2016
  • Application training contracts p.a. 16
  • Applications p.a. 700
  • % interviewed p.a. 30%
  • Required degree grade Minimum 2:1 ABB or equivalent
  • Training salary  
  • 1st year (2015) £41,000
  • 2nd year (2015) £45,000
  • Holiday entitlement 25 days
  • % of trainees with a non-law degree p.a. 50%
  • No of seats available abroad p.a. 16
  • Post-qualification salary (2015) £65,000
  • % of trainees offered job on qualification 72%
  • % of assistants who joined as trainees 47%
  • % of partners who joined as trainees 13%
  • Overseas offices New York, Paris, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich, Rome, Milan, Madrid, Athens, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Dubai

Firm Profile



 WFW was founded in 1982 in the City of London. It has since grown rapidly to over 130 partners and a total staff of over 800. The firm has offices in London, New York, Paris, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich, Rome, Milan, Madrid, Athens, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Dubai.

Main areas of work



WFW is a distinctive law firm with a leading market position in international finance and investment, maritime and energy. In our chosen sectors we compete successfully with some of the best law firms in the world. Building on our origins in ship finance, demand for our maritime work remains as strong as ever. At the same time we have seized opportunities to excel in related areas where our finance expertise has most relevance, such as energy, natural resources, transport, real estate and technology.

Trainee profile



Although there is no typical WFW trainee, there are certain attributes that we look for. You will need a 2:1 or above and at least ABB – from A-level results, or their equivalent. We also particularly value applicants with initiative, drive and commercial awareness.

Training environment



At WFW we deal with training and ongoing development in an individual way. During each seat we discuss with you plans for the next one to ensure you gain valuable insight from the six seat programme, including one seat in either Paris, Singapore, Athens, Bangkok or Hamburg. Your training contract will be hands-on, with as much experience of clients and real, high-profile work as possible. You’ll also benefit from plenty of exposure to senior lawyers, many acknowledged leaders in their field. The firm has a reputation for challenging work. Yours will be no exception as we believe that only total immersion can provide you with the experience you require.

Benefits



Various benefi ts are available to trainees after a qualifying period of service e.g. 25 days holiday, bank holidays, income protection scheme, life assurance, employee assistance scheme, pension scheme, private medical insurance, interest-free season ticket loan and £250 contribution towards a sports club.

Vacation placements



Our vacation scheme is the best way to familiarise yourself with WFW. The two-week placements are at our London office, throughout the year. To appreciate first-hand the kind of work trainees undertake day to day, you will work with solicitors in one of our practice groups for the whole period. To complement this focus on one area, you will also participate in a variety of training and social events designed to give you a general overview of the firm. Deadline to apply: 31 January 2016.

Sponsorship & awards



GDL and LPC fees are paid depending on point of offer plus a maintenance grant of £6,500/ £5,500 dependant on location.