Withers is anything but withering away, thanks to a period of international expansion that's brought its private client credentials to the world stage.
A Forbes to be reckoned with
Withers has more clients in the Sunday Times and Forbes rich lists than you can shake a diamond encrusted stick at. The Duke of Marlborough, Vera Wang, Jade Jagger and John Galliano are just a few of the moneyed individuals that have turned to Withers for legal advice. But what is it that drives the rich and famous to Withers in droves? Well, the firm's long-held reputation (nurtured since it opened in 1896) as a private client powerhouse no doubt helps, as does its blend of personal and business services. Accordingly, the hot new Chambers High Net Worth Guide holds the firm in the highest regard.
Withers has the international coverage required to serve the globalised elite. And it largely has its current managing director Margaret Robertson to thank for that. As strategy partner, Robertson oversaw the firm's 2002 merger with Connecticut-based firm Bergman, Horowitz and Reynolds, and since she took the reins as managing director in 2007, Withers has opened ten offices across the US, the Caribbean, Europe, Asia and Australia. 2015 proved to be a particularly busy year for the firm: it entered into an alliance with a Singaporean firm to further tap into Asia's growing private wealth market; it launched three new offices in California with the help of ex-McKenna Long lawyers; and opened a tax practice in Tokyo. Now the firm boasts 19 offices, over 1,000 employees and a global revenue of over $200 million.
But let's superyacht-it back to the London HQ and examine what it has to offer future trainees. “We're one of the best firms in London for private client and family work,” sources told us, and both practices come top-ranked by Chambers UK, alongside the employment, Court of Protection and contentious trusts groups. Admirable nods also go to the agriculture and rural affairs, tax and charities practices. Most of our interviewees had completed stints in both wealth planning (aka private client) and family, and were glad to get the chance to list three seat preferences before each rotation. However, business need means that “sometimes you get a preference, and sometimes you don't – it's a bit of a mixed bag.” Sources also warned future newbies to choose wisely if they're looking to complete a commercial seat, as only one turn in the department is allowed. It's broken down into corporate commercial, IP, banking and charities seats, “so you can't complete a corporate commercial seat and then try to do one in charities because you think they're unrelated.” For those looking to expand their horizons beyond London, there are overseas seats available in the firm's Geneva and Milan offices, and sometimes in Hong Kong too.
“It's not all about who's going to get the pony stables!”
Wealth planning is Withers' biggest practice. The department used to be split into three subgroups, with a separate seat in each: family and business (FAB); funds, investment, tax and trusts (FITT); and international. These days, the department operates under “a 'left leg/right leg' structure” (the firm's building is shaped like a pair of trousers), and trainees tend to work with just one section, though the firm encourages you to do a mix. “The 'left' is what was historically FAB and generally covers domestic work, like drafting wills and working on estates and tax issues,” one insider explained. “The 'right' is a combination of FITT and international, where offshore and international tax issues are dealt with, as well as future UK residency claims. This branch includes the US team where all the dual-qualified lawyers sit.” Quite a few matters here involve the US, Italy and the Cayman Islands, but plenty of other jurisdictions crop up too. For example, some newbies had been “helping to advise on the tax and estate planning considerations tied to Lebanese assets held in Spain.”
Within the department, there's also “a growing tax investigations team, which deals with the fallout from negligent tax planning.” One source had been assisting “a client who was being investigated by HMRC over capital gains tax issues.” Typical trainee tasks in wealth planning include “drafting wills, settlements and trust deeds,” as well as helping international clients with estate planning and advising non-doms on offshore trusts. Future wealth planners must be partial to a bit of research: “You'll spend time looking into really old families with complicated set-ups, who have properties in five different countries and want you to make a will that takes care of everything. It takes a lot of pondering!”
“Wealth planning gives you an amazing foundation to then go into the contentious trust and succession group [CTSG].” The department handles contentious private client work, like probate litigation and disputes over wills and trusts. Both trustees and beneficiaries comprise the client list here, including a handful of charities – these call on Withers when relatives dispute wills that have left estates to charitable organisations. There are also a lot of Inheritance Act 1975 claims, where relatives have either been cut out of a will or the deceased has died without making one; those left behind then apply to the court to redistribute the estate. Some partners focus on offshore cases involving Guernsey, Jersey and the Cayman Islands. Overseas work is also provided by “a lot of Russian clients and individuals that have trusts in Singapore and are dealing with cross-jurisdictional inheritance tax issues.” Trainees here get to spend a fair amount of time in court, and busy themselves by taking notes. However, they also devote their energies to all the stuff that needs to be done before anyone steps into the courtroom, “so we draft witness statements, draw up cost schedules and usually do a lot of bundling!”
Withers' family practice regularly handles divorces, prenups, postnups and child custody cases. Some of the divorces on Withers' books are so costly they'd even make Johnny Depp and Amber Heard think twice: the firm represented billionaire Chris Hohn as he paid out a £377 million settlement to his ex-wife – it's still the costliest divorce in UK history. Quite a few of our sources had been privy to the more acrimonious side of things, with one “attending mediations with partners to split complex property portfolios and investment funds.” Another recounted working on a custody case where one parent wanted to take their child out of the UK while the other tried to block the move. “It was a very emotionally charged situation and everyone in it was so vulnerable. It's impressive to watch the partners tactfully navigate all of that while advocating for our client.” A seat here isn't light on drafting either: our sources had tackled the likes of cohabitation agreements, asset schedules and financial disclosure forms. “The meaty contentious bit often centres on a couple's finances. There's usually a lot of money at stake, but sometimes – surprisingly – there's not, and you wonder why they're arguing over such a small amount. But at least it's not all about who's going to get the pony stables!”
“You're in the deep end, but there's a lifeguard on duty.”
The real estate department is home to a commercial team that handles restaurant, hotel and retail store sales and purchases; a rural team that negotiates leases on behalf of wealthy landowners, many of whom have farm tenants or managing estates; a residential team that oversees costly home purchases; and “a growing real estate disputes team.” Trainees had been involved in “the purchase of a large country estate in the North of England, which had belonged to a family for hundreds of years. They were selling off small pieces of the estate and cottages in the village, so I had to draft a report on various historical title deeds.” Other tasks on the rural side had seen sources draft titles, licences and easements. Trainees can get their feet wet on lots of smaller matters, “like small cottage purchases where you liaise with the clients and draft sale contracts with supervision. You're in the deep end, but there's a lifeguard on duty.” Meanwhile, larger commercial matters had newbies “drafting anything from leases for luxury hotels in London, to sub-leases for a power plant and a car park in Kent.”
With Italian fashion house Max Mara and Scottish designer Christopher Kane on the books, Withers' corporate practice is known for its work in the luxury brands sector. But it's also capable of handling a mix of public and private M&A deals in areas like renewable energy, IT and financial services. Big-name charities like Cancer Research UK, the British Red Cross and the Salvation Army all fall under Withers' commercial remit too. Most of the work revolves around “setting up new charities,” which provides lots of corporate-like tasks for trainees, who “draft resolutions, board minutes and articles of association,” as well as “applications to the Charities Commission and HMRC.”
With its 'Withersworldwide' branding and slew of overseas hubs, sources told us “you can't fail to feel the international network in London – a lot of the work we do is multi-jurisdictional.” So it makes sense that Withers is “really big on languages. There's a strong Italian practice here, and if you can speak the language it will go in your favour at the application stage.” Contact with the other offices is only on the up: “We're taking on a lot more offshore work, so we always email the other offices like Sydney and Hong Kong to use their international know-how.” When asked whether the firm's global chairman, Ivan Sacks (the firm's first US leader, appointed in 2013), had ushered in any American influences, trainees responded: “Withers is still very much a UK firm, but we just feel more international – not American specifically. It's not like you come into the London office and ask, 'Why am I in New Haven, Connecticut?' London is the HQ.” And despite an ever-growing network, trainees were adamant that “we're really working hard on becoming one big firm. Whenever we have monthly updates, we video-link with the other offices and there's a new weekly email format where three lawyers from around the world introduce themselves to the network.”
You'd think that with time zones stretching from the US to Australia, trainees would be reporting some gruelling hours. Au contraire, my friend, as our sources regularly clocked off by 7.30pm. “I can recall all the times I've stayed past 9pm on one hand, which I think is a good thing,” said one. Another added: “You're not always able to leave at 6.30pm, but we don't work the hours trainees do elsewhere in the City.” With a less intense work schedule, trainees have taken to organising casual drinks and “BBQs at people's houses.” However, on the formal social side, “Withers lacks a little bit. There's not a huge amount going on, and it's not because people aren’t friendly, it's just more down to us to organise things ourselves.” Yet annual summer and Christmas parties are put on the firm's tab, and no expense was spared making last year's Christmas party live up to its Charles Dickens theme. “It was really strange to see all the waiters in Victorian costumes running round the office with Cockney accents. But a few drinks in, it was really funny and everyone was on board.” Trainees clearly weren't that bothered by the slight social deficit, as many wanted to stay on as NQs. In 2016 Withers retained ten out of its 12 qualifiers.
“We have a lot of high-powered women here. The head of family and co-head of wealth planning are both female, and there are many women partners.”
How to get a Withers training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2017
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2017
In an average year Withers receives around 1,000 applications total for its three vacation schemes and eleven training contract positions. The online application form includes the standard 'Why law?' and 'Why Withers?' questions alongside several competency-based questions. “These ask for examples of how someone has demonstrated communication or commercial skills,” recruitment manager Jaya Louvre tells us, “and are a key part of the application form. Don’t just give a three-sentence answer; be specific and thorough.”
Two online tests – one numerical, one verbal reasoning – round off the initial application.
Those who impress on paper are invited in for a first interview, which takes place with a partner who quizzes recruits on their application form and various competencies. There's also a written test. “They give you a poorly worded letter and ask you to revise it,” one trainee revealed. From here, vac schemers are chosen.
Meanwhile, training contract applicants who make the cut go on to complete an assessment centre. Candidates are asked to give a ten-minute presentation on one of four topical subjects sent to them a week beforehand (A recent example of one such topic is corruption in sport). Louvre's advice for impressing? “Put the research in and make sure you're knowledgeable about your subject – the partners will grill you about it!”
They go on to tell us Withers is looking for candidates who are “bright, enthusiastic and personable.” They also mention the firm warmly welcomes those with language skills – Italian, Russian and Mandarin speakers are especially in demand. And remember that “if you put language skills down on your application form, expect to be tested on them.”
Withers runs three two-week vacation schemes, usually at Easter and over the summer. Participants split their time between two departments and are assigned a supervisor for each. “You don't know what it's like to be solicitor in practice before you actually spend some time in a firm, so it's a good opportunity to get an inside view,” reflected one trainee. “I was trusted with taking attendance notes and completing some research tasks.”
In addition to their supervisor-led work, vac schemers work as a group on a non-live matter. “On the final day you partake in a mediation and negotiation exercise with the other vac schemers,” a trainee reported. “Someone acts as a mediator, and you have to reach a settlement. I found it a really authentic insight into all the processes that go into these matters.”
Transparency in family law
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16 Old Bailey,
- Partners 123
- Total staff 1,000
- Trainees 25
- Contact Jaya Louvre, recruitment manager
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Interview, written exercise and psychometric assessments, followed by a final assessment centre
- Closing dates
- 2019 training scheme: 31 July 2017
- 2017 vacation placements: 31 January 2017
- Training contracts pa 10
- Applications pa 900
- % interviewed pa 20%
- Required grades 2:1, AAB at A level
- Training salary
- First year: £37,000
- Second year: £40,000
- Holiday entitlement 23 days
- % of trainees with a non-law degree pa 50%
- Post-qualification salary £60,000
- Offices London, Milan, Geneva, Zurich, New York, New Haven (US), Greenwich (US), Hong Kong, Singapore, BVI, Padua, Sydney, San Francisco, Rancho Santa Fe, Los Angeles, San Diego and Dubai
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