An opportunity to drop anchor in an exotic port isn't the only big trainee draw for these finance experts.
Charting a new course
Like an ancient mercantile empire, Watson Farley & Williams has outposts in most of the world's important ports and financial centres, pointing to its traditional strengths. WFW's shipping finance practice is consistently top-ranked by Chambers UK, while its other areas of specialist expertise – aviation and trade finance – are also duly noted.
There are more vessels in WFW's fleet: over the years it's rounded out its offering with practices like energy, litigation, property, employment and capital markets. Even so, WFW doesn't cast a supertanker-sized shadow on the ocean: its 13 international offices and blend of practices mask a more modestly proportioned outfit with just over 450 lawyers worldwide. “We really do punch above our weight though,” trainees insisted, adding: “Much larger City firms often represent the other side on the matters we work on.”
“A law firm is like a shark – you have to move to breathe.”
Now, shipping finance has never really rivalled areas like tech or media in the trendy stakes, and sources did admit that WFW is “sometimes perceived as a bit old-school.” Enter Chris Lowe and Lothar Wegener – co-managing partners since 2014. They mean business, with Wegener telling the legal press soon after their election that “a law firm is like a shark – you have to move to breathe.” It's still early days in their tenure, but their track record so far suggests WFW is on a steady course. Revenue jumped by a ruddy 14.6% in 2013/14, and again by 7% to £125 million in 2014/15. Recent lateral hires from US firms and heftier City outfits (like Clyde & Co and NRF) have not just boosted WFW's energy and projects department, but also given it a brand-new debt securities and structured finance practice. There's also been an effort to increase transparency and a “major office refurb” of WFW's Liverpool Street headquarters (more on these developments later). “It's all part of a broader attempt to make us look more dynamic and modern,” sources suggested.
When asked to comment on this, Chris Lowe pointed to a recent spate of lateral hires from US and other City firms. “I think the fact that we can attract that kind of talent shows the image that the firm projects.” As for the future, he says: “We will obviously always focus on the transport and energy sectors, but we are also really excited about teams like real estate, where we are hoping to boost headcount in the coming years.” WFW's dynamism is already turning heads – there were reports that Ince & Co recently approached the firm for merger talks, though nothing came of that in the end.
Trainees complete six four-month seats. There are seven seats available, and trainees must fulfil five requirements: stints in asset finance, energy and projects, corporate and litigation, plus a compulsory overseas seat. This is quite restrictive, trainees warned, so make sure you're interested in these practices and their associated strands of expertise. Our sources were happy with the set-up though. A list of practice areas is sent out to newbies before they select their first-seat preferences. Subsequent destinations are decided after “informal sit-down conversations with HR,” about halfway through each seat. We heard universal praise for the system: “We almost always get our first preferences out of the three we list.”
Full steam ahead
Any talk of seats must begin with a trip down asset finance lane. It's still the firm's jewel in the crown and the largest department. Trainees typically work between its three groups – shipping, aviation, and commodities and export finance – but can pick up more work in a particular area if they specify a preference. Much of the work involves acting for big multinational banks like BNP Paribas and Sydney-headquartered Macquarie Bank as they finance various projects. The team recently advised Citibank on a $357 million loan to fund the construction of two oilfield service vessels in South Korea, as well as Swedish bank Nordea as it upsized a $355 million loan facility for the acquisition of LPG vessels. Sounds pretty simple, right?
To start off with, “you predominantly get work from your supervisor,” but after a while “emails circulate asking if anyone is free to work on a transaction.” Early on trainees are tasked with overseeing “the process surrounding the delivery of ships, which involves a few 7am starts at the Liberian ship registry.” After proving their early bird credentials, our sources went on to “manage the conditions precedent checklist on loan transactions, draft ancillary documents and communicate with the other side – you'd never find their trainees writing those emails!” The combo of fast-paced deals and small teams keeps responsibility levels high, but trainees do have to keep their sea legs: one source told of having their head spun by a matter involving “seven jurisdictions,” during which they liaised “with all of the foreign lawyers to make sure they had the most up-to-date drafts of everything.”
Over in the growing energy and projects department, sources had worked on a mix of project finance and construction matters. They’d encountered fossil fuel-related projects, but especially highlighted the team’s strength in the renewable energy space. “You’re heavily exposed to it,” one commented. “It's good because you feel like you're doing something worthy!” Clients include wind farm developers DONG Energy and PNE Wind; lawyers here represented the latter as it sold its UK-based farm to Canadian asset manager Brookfield for £100 million. They also advised funders M&G Investments and AMP Capital on the £247 million financing of a portfolio of 33 solar farms owned by Lightsource Renewable Energy – the UK's largest solar energy company.
“You definitely have to prove yourself to get the higher-quality work,” interviewees found. The lesson? Excel at those “more lowly” tasks (read: due diligence, proofreading and bibling) and graduate onto “managing the CP process like in asset finance.” The complexity of matters can prove to be too much of a barrier for some though: “I was like a rabbit caught in headlights! The construction deals are particularly technical.” Others felt that formal training could be ramped up to get trainees oriented quicker. “Right now we have monthly lecture-style trainings, but we could do with more.”
Every cloud, eh?
Energy deals are common in the corporate department, but other sectors – like ICT and hotels and leisure – are also covered. The group advised Singapore-based Frasers Hospitality on the robust (yet fruity) £363.4 million acquisition of the Malmaison Hotel du Vin group, and also helped German private equity firm Aurelius snap up a managed cloud business from telecoms pros Colt. “You can have a really good time in corporate, as the deals are so varied,” sources enthused. The department's smaller size “means you get to work with most people – you can't do that elsewhere.” There's not as much client contact, but there's still plenty for trainees to do. Verification takes up a decent chunk of time: “We'll receive packs of information about the companies involved in these transactions – it's our job to go through all of the documents, checking everything and flagging any issues.” Other staple tasks include drafting board minutes and updating company books – an ideal mix, sources suggested, for easing first-seaters into the life of a trainee solicitor.
In litigation, the work – usually finance-related disputes – comes thick and fast: “There was never a moment when I was sitting there twiddling my thumbs.” These cases involve a host of investment banks, shipping lines, global energy outfits and airlines. Lawyers here recently helped to secure a High Court ruling for a new – and less burdensome – funding regime on behalf of client Sealion Shipping, closing the lid on a decade-old case. They've also been assisting Hong Kong-headquartered Nan Fung Group during a $500 million dispute over various chartering arrangements with a Middle Eastern shipowner.
"There are people relying on the quality of your work at this level.”
There's “a hefty amount of research and bundle management – one bundle came with over 100 lever arch files and I spent four weeks sorting the index out for it!” These tasks can be repetitive but also empowering: “You really feel like there are people relying on the quality of your work at this level.” Plus, the litigation secretaries do a marvellous job, by all accounts. “They really help you get your head around the admin and go above and beyond to assist you.” As the seat progresses “there's a ramping up of responsibility.” Trainees can turn their hand to writing memorandums and, on occasion, test their advocacy mettle by “going up in front of a master.” Atmosphere-wise, sources noted that this is “a male-dominated” department, with a fair few partners who are “more stereotypically old-school.”
The employment department is home to three partners and four other qualified lawyers, so trainees get a lot of one-on-one time with those in the know. “The cases are much smaller, both in terms of length and value, so you get a lot of responsibility – you attend client meetings and help the partners draft parts of agreements.” There's an eclectic set of clients, including shipping outfit Gearbulk UK, the British Dental Association and property consultants Cluttons. The downside? “The size of the department means qualifying into it isn't necessarily an option.”
ghds and affordable teas
WFW's guaranteed overseas seat continues to be a major selling point for would-be trainees. Sojourns to Athens, Bangkok, Dubai, Hamburg, Paris and Singapore are available. The European secondments are geared towards asset finance, particularly on the shipping side in Athens and Hamburg. Further afield, the Bangkok office offers litigation and corporate work, though its smaller size allows trainees to have their fingers in a few more pies. WFW will pay for 20 hours of language lessons if secondees want to brush up on the local lingo before they jet off. No one's tested on verb conjugation though, “because most of the work you end up doing is in English.” Phew. Trainees are put up in one of the firm's permanent flats, which are conveniently placed “no more than 15 minutes from the office.”
“There's been a noticeable shift in the atmosphere,” sources agreed. Those lateral hires we mentioned have livened things up a bit: “They've brought a younger and more dynamic vibe, especially to the energy and projects department. It contrasts with some of the smaller departments like litigation, property and tax, where the partners are a bit older and more traditional in their ways.” It's created “a vicious circle,” interviewees lamented, “as fewer trainees want to qualify in those areas.” On a broader level, they did praise an improvement in transparency. In 2015, the first associates' conference was held: “Lawyers from across the WFW network were invited to London to talk about the strategy and what's happening at the firm.” The aim, apparently, was to help younger lawyers get their head around the business aspects of the firm and increase their desire to enter the partnership.
“They've brought a younger and more dynamic vibe..."
Unlike bigger City firms, the hours at WFW are relatively kind. As a rule, “if you're here past 6.30pm, it's a bad day.” Preparing for a trial in litigation can lead to “some 1am finishes,” while closings in transactional seats come with a few 10pm exits. If trainees are on early starts at the ship registry, “partners make sure you leave at 5pm the day before.” It's not just a good night's sleep that keeps lawyers ship-shape: there are numerous sporting activities on offer. “You can go to yoga in the office, or join the netball and football teams, which play at lunchtime.” There's a chance to unwind every Friday too, when a group of trainees, associates and (“sometimes”) partners head to a local watering hole.
Qualification rates haven't been especially high in past years; nine out of 13 NQs stayed in 2015, and only ten out of 14 did in 2014. Yet sources had no complaints about the process itself: “We are lucky, as HR gives us a lot of information about qualifying.” Second-years attend a meeting in late March to find out where jobs are available, “then we have interviews in April and are told in May whether we're staying.” In 2016, the firm bucked the trend and retained 13 of 14 qualifiers.
Every year Champagne bottles are popped at a 'promotions party' to honour those who have been elevated to partner.
How to get a Watson Farley & Williams training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 27 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 28 July 2017
Watson Farley & Williams receives around 700 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 on 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 “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 WFW's co-managing partner Chris Lowe
Student Guide: Are there any highlights from the past year that you'd like to draw our readers' attention to?
Chris Lowe: We hired 21 laterals from a variety of quality firms between January 2015 and January 2016. These included US firms like Chadbourne & Parke, Fried Frank, K&L Gates, Katten Muchin and Orrick, as well as firms like Norton Rose, Clydes and Clifford Chance. We also poached a few from good national firms in Germany, France and Norway. So it's generally been a strong year in terms of drawing in quality laterals, which fits in well with our growth strategy – we are planning to double revenue and headcount by 2020.
We've just taken on some new space in New York on West 55th Street, which gives us room to grow that office. We've also taken on more space in London, Madrid, Dubai and we are relocating our Hamburg office to allow for anticipated growth.
There are a lot of good stories to tell about the quality of work undertaken by the firm within our 'super sectors' and that gives us the ability to grow and expand in other sectors. It also powers up our practice groups and attracts good laterals. We're seeing our good work recognised in awards, journals, league tables and the legal press – they endorse our distinctive sector strategy and give us a good feeling about how the market perceives us.
SG: Tell us more about these 'super sectors.'
CL: If you look at the big picture our sectors are transport and energy. Within transport you have maritime, aviation and rail and within energy there's power, oil & gas and natural resources. Then we have our hybrid practice group/sector in real estate. From looking at the global opportunities in transport and energy, we anticipate continued growth and development within these sectors.
SG: What are your plans with regards to the energy sector?
CL: There's a lot to be done, but you can see the investment we're making. John Conlin joined us in London along with his oil & gas team [from Houston-headquartered firm Andrews Kurth]. In Hong Kong we hired Linh Doan, who specialises in conventional power assets. In power we have a market-leading reputation in renewables, especially in Europe. We're also planning to expand our energy footprint in the Middle East, the US and Africa.
SG: Were the recent office and website renovations part of an attempt to modernise the firm's image?
CL: When you are looking to recruit and retain talent you need to recognise that they want to work in a quality shop that provides excellent legal advice and also has a distinctive brand.
The look and feel of the office is essential because people have to work hard and – on occasion – for long hours. We feel the office should be right up to scratch in terms of its environment and our lawyers should have quality infrastructure and business service support. We also believe that having a single client-facing floor in our London office sends a much stronger message to market than before.
The other driver is that we have taken a lease on the London office building up to 2026 – if we have another ten years here we want to make sure we've created an environment that we're happy to bring clients to and have staff operate from.
SG: Guaranteed secondments draw aspiring solicitors to WFW. Do you intend to expand the available options?
CL: Ours is a truly international firm with over 60% of our business undertaken outside of London. Getting our trainees overseas is therefore a big part of our culture and we expect Dubai to be added to the list pretty soon. In addition, our chairman Frank Dunne will be relocating to New York where he will be developing a strong English law practice that will need support at a trainee level. We are very keen for our lawyers to move between our offices and have exposure to different cultures and jurisdictions: you can see that in partner moves from Frankfurt to Hamburg, from Greece to Hong Kong and from London to Singapore.
SG: Do you have any plans to increase the scope of your trainee recruitment drive?
CL: The growth of our trainee intake is prudent and responsibly managed. This year we increased it by three so we had 19 trainees joining.
SG: Do you have any advice for applicants looking to impress during vac schemes and interviews?
CL: We look for people who are interested in industry specialisation; people who show an entrepreneurial approach to growing in the legal profession; people who communicate well; people who are confident and true to themselves; and people who are hard-working.
Watson Farley & Williams
15 Appold Street,
- Partners 150+
- Total fee earners 420+
- Total trainees 34
- Contact Lucie Rees, graduate recruitment and development Manager
- Method of application Online application
- Selection procedure Assessment centre and interview
- Closing date for 2019 28 July 2017
- Training contracts pa 18
- Applications pa 700
- % interviewed pa 30
- % Required degree grade Minimum 2:1 ABB or equivalent
- Training salary (2016)
- First year: £41,000
- Second year: £45,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 60
- % No of seats available abroad pa 18
- Post-qualification salary (2016) £68,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification 93%
- % of assistants who joined as trainees 15%
- % of partners who joined as trainees 10%
- Overseas offices New York, Paris, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Munich, Rome, Milan, Madrid, Athens, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Dubai
Main areas of work
Deadline to apply: 27 January 2017.