Withers' mission to serve the super rich has taken it on a journey of international expansion.
Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous
There are few worlds as globalised as that of the super rich. If you can barely raise an eyebrow (botox or no botox) at spending a week attending the Grand Prix in Milan, taking to the red carpet at a film premiere in LA, buying a new penthouse in Hong Kong and then relaxing on the beach in Sydney, then you may well be a client of Withers. The firm is highly regarded for its work for wealthy private clients – it wins top-tier rankings in Chambers UK and Chambers Global and is top ranked for family and contentious trusts work too. Withers has decided that if elites are becoming globalised then it must too and in the past decade it's opened ten overseas offices – it has a presence in all four of the cities we mentioned above.
Trainees agreed that “there has been a lot of change over the past ten years” and stressed Withers is “not a UK firm for UK people.” The question is: what next? Trainees were a tad divided with one predicting “a period of consolidation” and another saying “there may be more expansion going ahead.” A few years back the firm was rumoured to be pursuing a merger, so who knows. Training partner Ceri Vokes told us that “the aim of the firm is that, over time, our revenues are derived evenly from the US, Europe and Asia.”
As part of efforts to consolidate its international growth Withers recently restructured into three divisions: private client and tax, dispute resolution (which includes family), and commercial. The commercial arm of the firm comprises corporate, property and litigation practices and quite a number of clients are luxury brands or institutions – Vivienne Westwood, Renault Sport and Soho House for example.
“There has been a lot of change over the past ten years.”
About half of the seats a typical Withers trainees does are on the private client-y side – wealth planning, contentious trusts, family – and half are more commercial: e.g. litigation, property, corporate. Most departments take several trainees at a time – property takes four and litigation three, for example. Trainees gave mixed reviews of seat allocation. “It's not very transparent,” said one, while another felt “it's the only thing at the firm that could be improved.” Some were a little hazy on how seat preferences are taken into account and commented that seats are sometimes only assigned a week or two in advance. Others were more upbeat: “I'm not in a position to complain – my views and preferences have been taken into account.”
Each rotation sees at least one trainee go abroad: someone always heads to Milan for a corporate seat and there are sometimes seats in Geneva and Hong Kong too. Italian-speaking clients are a niche specialism for the firm. Withers recruits at least one Italian-speaking trainee a year and language skills are common across the cohort – over half of trainees speak at least one foreign tongue and a handful speak two. French is common at present, though we're told this isn't as a result of a particular hiring policy. Knowledge of any language is valued, with Mandarin and Russian also being particularly useful.
The 60-lawyer wealth planning practice is Withers' largest; the department operates under “a 'left leg/right leg' structure” (the firm's building is shaped like a pair of trousers) – the left leg deals with more domestic matters and the right leg has an international focus. While some trainees told us things like “I did mostly left leg work, drafting wills and trusts for domestic clients,” many had mixed work from both sides of the britches. Tax advice is a big part of the practice, with clients looking for “the opportunity to save a little money by structuring things a bit differently.” This is an issue that's been in the news in recent years and a trainee told us “clients want to be tax efficient but consider the reputational issues too – they don't want tax structures that are aggressive.” It's not just tax though: a trainee told us they advised on a small private loan, while another had drafted a memo on immigration rules.
The firm's private clients are “people who are self-made and have earned a spectacular amount of money or people who've inherited their money.” The former includes lots of entrepreneurs and business owners but also Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, while in the latter category there's Ben Goldsmith (brother of Zac) and the Duke of Marlborough, who owns Blenheim Palace. We didn't hear of any trainees who'd motored off to Blenheim for work, but one trainee noted they'd “seen some quite nice houses” on client visits. Client contact is pretty frequent (though not one-on-one), and other trainee tasks include witnessing wills, drafting trust structures and writing research memos, which gives you “a really good grounding in black letter law.” Many clients have an international background and one trainee had “drafted advice for a client on where they are officially resident based on their annual travel schedule.”
The contentious trust and succession group handles contentious private client work like probate litigation and disputes over wills and trusts. “When stuff with trusts goes wrong,” as one trainee put it. Both trustees and beneficiaries turn to the firm for advice as do charities – the RSPCA, Dogs Trust, Macmillan Cancer Support and RSPB are all clients. In one unusual case, the firm acted for the Nizam of Hyderabad in a six-party dispute over money his grandfather had handed to the government of Pakistan in 1949, which he claims for himself but the Indian and Pakistani governments both claim too. Trainees said they'd been involved in cross-border trustee disputes, for example “acting for Russian clients and some based in the Channel Islands.” Another source told us: “I was very busy – I dealt with the trial bundles and other court documents, assisted our barristers on preparing their submissions, and did a lot of research and analysis.”
“Occasionally when you meet with a foreign client they feel more comfortable speaking their own language.”
Withers' family practice regularly handles divorces, prenups, postnups and child custody cases. “Often people's conception of family law is that it's like being in a soap opera – that everyone goes home crying,” a trainee reflected. But it's not normally like that at Withers – “cases involve people with massive businesses trying to work out how to deal with them when they divorce.” As well as entrepreneurs the firm acts for doctors, lawyers and many international clients, which reflects the fact “London is the divorce capital of the world, with many people filing for divorce here.” This means speaking a foreign language comes in very useful because “occasionally when you meet with a foreign client they feel more comfortable speaking their own language.” Aside from attending multilingual meetings, trainees “draft court documents like Form E, divorce petitions and schedules of assets. There are the less exciting tasks like bundling too.”
Fast cars and flash bling
A litigation and arbitration seat offers up insolvency, fraud, corporate crime, professional negligence, employment and reputation management work. Clients range from Romanian oil company OMV Petrom to Renault Sport and the Italian province of Brescia. “There's a strong international feel to the work,” we heard. “I conducted a call with a client who didn't speak English, so I was speaking through an interpretor.” Bundling is “part of the daily grind” for trainees, but they also draft witness statements, chronologies of disclosure, replies to defences and letters of demand.
Real estate has 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; a construction group; and a real estate disputes team. Trainees either take work from across the department or focus on one of the first three sub-teams, and “there's crossover work with private client, for instance when people die and a trust wants to sell a property.” Rural-focused trainees work on sales and purchases of “lovely large houses, big estates, some smaller farms and the odd field or two,” and even “the selling of grouse moors.” Trainees work on transactions with a partner or an associate (or both) and spend time drafting reports on title, contracts and transfers or maybe “researching esoteric points about mineral mines.”
“... lovely large houses, big estates, some smaller farms and the odd field or so.”
The corporate seat isn't in “a typical corporate department doing transactions and mergers” – it covers corporate, banking, reorganisation/restructuring, IP and commercial work. “I was involved in drafting partnership agreements, collating all the papers, and talking the clients through what they needed to sign,” a trainee told us. The corporate practice is known for its work in the luxury brands sector – clients include fashion designers Christopher Kane and Olivier Rousteing, clothing labels Self-Portrait and Sacai, and make-up artist Charlotte Tilbury. Sports car makes Renault Sport and Pagani are also clients of the firm, and there's property-related work too: lawyers recently helped farm admin company Map of Agriculture with a reorganisation and advised on the corporate sale of a castle in Herefordshire.
All seats can mean longish hours from time to time. A regular working day for most trainees is 8.30 or 9am to 7 or 7.30pm. When trials loom in the contentious seats or private client work hots up at year-end days of working till 9pm or 10pm crop up. Trainees are encouraged to not work at weekends or from home – and they usually don't. “We don't get work phones; we don't have access to Citrix home office software; and we're told not to put our work email on our personal phone,” said one trainee approvingly.
Sources added that “there's a huge amount of appreciation” when you do work long hours, and all our interviewees spoke very positively about training, support and supervision. “Everyone has a different management style, but so far things have clicked with everyone,” one trainee told us. Trainees' work comes directly from supervisors or from others on the team too, but supervisors always “keep an eye on your capacity and know what you're working on.” Interviewees also praised the “extensive” training sessions at the start of each seat which helped them get to grips with the complexities of each practice area.
Our interviewees were pleased to be learning from “lawyers who have been here for ages” including family partner Diana Parker, who was chairman of the firm from 1999 to 2007 – one of the first women to lead a major UK firm. The current CEO is also a woman and one interviewee observed that “the female power presence stops Withers feeling like a stuffy old-fashioned firm.” A recent panel discussion about women in law for International Women's Day was well attended by both female and male staff members.
“The female power presence stops Withers feeling like a stuffy old-fashioned firm.”
Firmculture varies by department with some teams quieter and some more chatty, but “everyone is very approachable” and “having individual offices means people are keen to have a chat over a coffee or just pop into your room to catch up.” Family is more hierarchical than the other departments, but only in the sense that work is passed from partner to associate and then to trainee. “There are associates and even partners who you can have a laugh with there,” a trainee said.
Trainees also had a laugh in spring 2017 on an outing to play crazy golf at Swingers. The social was organised by the new three-strong trainee social committee with a newly acquired trainee social budget. The trainees are a close-knit bunch and said they consider all their fellow rookies to be good friends. Trainee ties aside, socialising isn't super frequent, but there is an annual Christmas party (held at the Bond in Motion exhibition in 2016) and you may occasionally find Withers lawyers having a drink at the nearby Magpie & Stump or Viaduct Tavern pubs. Happily, these two pubs will remain the firm's locals even after a planned office move in 2018 – the firm is moving next door!
The NQ process “all kicks off in May” with jobs announced, interviews taking place and offers made by the end of the month (or early June). When we spoke to trainees in spring 2017 a few admitted to only having “a vague understanding” of how the process would work. But one sanguine source reported: “HR are constantly battling against trainees wanting to know everything well in advance of when the firm will be able to tell us.” Eventually eight of 11 trainees were retained in 2017.
Withers asks applicants on its application form 'what do you wish you had invented and why?' – so have a good think about that one.
You may also be interested in...
Our practice area feature on Private Client and Charities
These firms with a strong private client practice:
How to get a Withers training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: 31 January 2018 (opens 1 November 2017)
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2018 (opens 1 November 2017)
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 to complete a written test followed by a first interview, which takes place with a partner and a member of HR who will ask questions surrounding the application form and various competencies. Interviewees can expect to be asked an unusual question – 'what do you wish you had invented and why?' Have a good think about that one. Apparently a lot of people say 'Facebook', so maybe that's a reply to avoid. 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, direct training contract applicants who are successful at the first interview go on to complete an assessment centre. Candidates are given a week to prepare for a ten-minute presentation on one of four topical subjects (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!”
Recruiters told us that 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 in the spring 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.”
Interview with training partner Ceri Vokes
Chambers Student: How has 2016/17 been for the firm as a business?
Ceri Vokes: Consolidation has been the theme for us. In the last two to three years, we have opened a lot of new offices – in California, Dubai, Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo, so the past year has been about joining up the dots and incorporating new people into the Withers family.
CS: What efforts is the firm making to integrate internationally?
CV: We have reorganised the firm. It used to be composed of five different divisions and now there are three: commercial, private client and tax, and dispute resolution. Those are managed on a global basis by individuals who now have more time to focus on management and driving our strategy forward.
In addition, teams at the firm with common threads of work frequently collaborate and hold training sessions together. For example, in the wealth planning department we have joint training sessions with our US and Swiss colleagues who practice UK law.
We became a US-UK firm 15 years ago and it became clear pretty quickly it was important to consolidate the firm. I think Withers has proven itself to be effective at doing that and the challenge is now to prove that the firm can do that with a larger network. That is the aim behind the restructuring of the firm into three divisions – it allows us to better spot common strategies between groups and jurisdictions.
CS: What is the firm's current strategic plan? Are you just consolidating or still aiming to grow?
CV: The aim of the firm is that, over time, our revenues are derived evenly from the US, Europe and Asia. We already have a strong presence in the UK, Italy and Switzerland, so at the moment we expect to see a lot of revenue growth from Asia and the US due to our new offices there. That is our focus in the short to medium term.
CS: Why is that the aim?
CV: The firm started off originally as a very traditional UK private client firm. As the world became more globalised, the firm became more international. We have always had clients from jurisdictions where we don't have a physical presence; and currently have clients from 80 jurisdictions, even though we have offices in just 18 locations. It is much easier to service clients from a local base; for example, in Asia the connection between business interactions and personal relationships is much closer and more fluid than in the UK – our expansion in Asia and our alliance with KhattarWong in Singapore is an attempt to capitalise on that fact.
CS: How should trainees expect to notice the firm's increasing internationalism?
CV: I think anyone who trains at Withers will be very aware that it is an international firm. I don't personally have a very large number of purely domestic clients. And even work for clients who are from the UK often has an international dimension: they may have properties abroad or a child who has gone to study abroad. These connections mean that trainees too get a sense of the firm's internationalism.
Having said this, I don't think our international growth is any cause for concern for trainees: they are based in the UK and are managed as such, so there haven't been lots of changes from that perspective.
CS: Does Withers intend to pursue a merger with another firm in the near future?
CV: I think the firm has been opportunistic in how it has bolted on groups of lawyers in the past, such as the ex-McKenna Long team in California. People at Withers are quite aware of how important it is to maintain our working culture, and while we are always alive to new opportunities, we are not currently working on any merger plans.
CS: You became training partner in 2016. Is there anything about the training contract you want to change while in that role or anything you've set yourself as a particular aim?
CV: I want to ensure that the good things my predecessor has done are maintained, and I'm keen to listen to our trainees to find out what they want. For example, one thing they asked for was more business development training, so we recently provided them with training from our marketing team about the strategy of the firm and some soft skills training. Another thing they asked for was a budget for a social committee. The trainees enjoy socialising together and are very good at helping each other out, so it seemed right that they be given a social budget so they can go out and have some fun.
CS: Trainees brought up the subject of seat allocation and a few suggested they are not always given their top preferences (even if it's possible), if they have previously been given their top preference. Is that intentional?
CV: To the extent that we can, we try to give everyone their first preference. But the reality is that with 22 trainees at any one time it's not always possible for everyone to get their top choice. We try to be fair to people, but it's sometimes difficult to give everyone their first choice and we are conscious that if someone didn't get their first or second preference at one seat change, we try to accommodate it the next time. But we don't take the approach that, if you got your first preference last time, this time you are going to get your third preference, even though no one else wanted your first preference.
Trainees should expect to do perhaps one seat that they didn't put down as their top preference, and it can surprise you. For example, I did a seat in tax as a trainee which I didn't want to do at all and then I decided I wanted to qualify there! We don't take a paternalistic approach that someone should do a certain seat because 'it's good for them', but equally we don't want someone to have done four seats which are very niche, as that limits their future career choices.
CS: Trainees seemed a little uncertain about the NQ process when we spoke to them. They said that they had heard about the process after some trainees had asked HR. How do you approach the NQ jobs process?
CV: Information is sent to trainees with a timetable of the process in the spring, as we want to ensure that people have the chance to impress in their fourth seat as they may want to qualify there. This year, we moved the start of the fourth seat forward by a few weeks to give people a bit more time there.
We know it is a stressful time for second-years, so we don't see the benefit of drawing out the process at the beginning. The decision is made in May or June, so talking to trainees about it in March would only add to stress levels. We are also still doing business planning at that point and departments need to decide how many NQs they want to take on.
CS: Does the firm's international expansion mean you will be offering any new overseas seats?
CV: At the moment, Milan's corporate department has a requirement for a trainee almost every seat rotation. We have someone in Geneva at the moment, though we didn't last seat. That is a smaller office and the availability of that seat can depend on how many associates they have. But it's a very busy office, so we often have demand for a trainee there. We haven't had a trainee go to Hong Kong for three or four years now, which reflects the demands of the other parts of the firm. It would be nice to say to every part of the firm, yes, you can have a trainee, but we have had a high demand for trainees in London. We have regular overseas seat opportunities where we have well-established offices: Milan and Geneva. However, as the firm grows internationally it becomes likely that overseas opportunities will increase.
CS: The firm recruits a lot of trainees who speak foreign languages. Why is this? Are people who speak languages just attracted to Withers or are languages something you particularly look for on applications?
CV: Yes, we do ask about it on applications. It goes both ways: people who speak languages are attracted to an international firm and we are attracted to people who can speak different languages, as that means they can speak to our clients in their own language. It's also really useful to have people who can review complex documents in foreign languages and explain them to someone else. The languages we particularly like are Italian (because of our Italian offices), Russian and Spanish. Lots of our clients are international, so actually having someone who can speak to them in their own language and, for example, discuss complex tax systems in that language is very useful. That said, it's by no means universal: we also recruit trainees who don't speak other languages.
16 Old Bailey,
- Partners 167
- Associates 120
- Total trainees 22
- Total staff 1100
- UK offices 1
- Overseasoffices 16
- Graduate recruiter: Jaya Louvre, Recruitment Manager, [email protected], 02075976244
- Training partner: Ceri Vokes
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 11
- Applications pa: 900
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum A levels: AAB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 18
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 November 2017
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 January 2018
- Open day deadline date: 28 February 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £37,000
- Second-year salary: £40,000
- Post-qualification salary: £60,000
- Holiday entitlement: 23 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £5,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Hong Kong
- Overseas seats: Geneva, Hong Kong, Milan
The firm’s mission is to offer a truly integrated legal service to people with sophisticated global wealth, management and business needs. Withers’ reputation in commercial law, along with its status as the largest private client team in Europe and leading family team, sets it apart from other City firms. The firm has been recognised for its great working environment, having been consistantly listed in The Sunday Times’ 100 Best Companies to work for (2012 - 2016). In 2015 the firm won ‘Best Training’ for both vacation schemes and training contract at the All About Law awards. Furthermore, the firm won ‘Best Training Principal’ in 2014, 2015 and 2017 at the lawcareers.net Training and Recruitment Awards.
Main areas of work
Trainees spend six months in four different departments. Working in a team with a partner and an assistant solicitor provides autonomy, responsibility and fast development. Buddy and mentor systems as well as on the job training ensure trainees are fully supported from the outset.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2017
• Cambridge – 19 October
• Nottingham – 23 October
• Warwick – 24 October
• LSE – 26 October
• Queen Mary – 30 October
• Bristol – 31 October
• Oxford – 4 November
• UCL – 14 November
• Exeter – 15 November
• BPP – 16 November
• Durham – 22 November