Happy 30th birthday to Fox Williams, the City firm that flaunts its foxy fusion of fashion, financial services, technology and professional practices expertise.
I want to break free
The year was 1989. Margaret Thatcher was still prime minister, the internet age was just around the corner, and shoulder pads and ill-advised perms were still very much the fashion. Against this backdrop, a sextet of savvy City partners decided to break away and begin their own firm. Their vision: a smaller, less intense alternative to the large, humdrum City firms they had left. “We set out to continue to do high-quality work for the high-quality clients we had and knew we could attract,” says training principal and founding partner Mark Watson, “and to do it among friends, because that's what we were when the firm started, and continue to be.” The result? Fox Williams.
“It’s essentially a firm made up of partners who’ve left other firms,” said trainees. Five of the six founders still work at the firm, while “others came from various magic circle, silver circle and City firms.” Their expertise came with them, so “you end up with a funny group of practice areas, but it does mesh together and work in its own way.” Specifically, it meshes together by way of a set of keen-eyed sector focuses: fashion, financial services, natural resources, professional practices, and technology, media and digital. On the fashion front, the firm can proudly show off clients like Superdry, Riri's favourite BOY London, and Mackintosh (inventor of the original Mack). Chambers UK recognises the firm’s particular prowess in partnerships, financial services regulatory, employment work for executives, and lower mid-market M&A and real estate.
“It’s essentially a firm made up of partners who’ve left other firms.”
FW celebrates its 30th birthday in 2019; it's grown a fair amount in that time – who knows what the next 30 years may hold? For now, Watson describes the firm’s three-year plan: “Two of the main pillars of it are our culture and our ambition. By 2021 we’re looking to have built stronger client relationships, attracted premium work with an international flavour, and to be continuing to provide good-sense legal advice as an independent firm.”
Through its vacation scheme, FW hires up to six trainees. But if the hopeful interns don’t shine brightly enough, they’ll make do with five: “Last year they took one out of 12. It’s bold, but they’re not taking the best of a bad bunch.” The small intake is faced with an equally petite number of seats – roughly one per trainee. “Once you’ve gone round four seats you know pretty much everyone.” Being the lone trainee meant sources could “showcase our abilities much better.” Initially trainees are “put where you’re put” – they can express preferences for later seats, but “nothing is guaranteed."
If the hat counterfeits
The commerce and technology department advises “designers and high street brands,” plus a range of companies from other industries, on distribution and supply agreements. The work covers non-contentious general commercial, IP and data protection matters, but there's also some contentious IP and fashion law work available. Trademark and copyright infringement is a big concern for clients: “A lot of retailers are selling counterfeits online. It could be anything – shoes, bags, hats…” Trainees had to don their detective caps on such matters: “Due diligence means going out to buy the infringing item and taking pictures.” One such example saw Swiss client Fenix Outdoor call on the firm because counterfeits of its Fjällräven Kånken backpack were being sold at Camden Market: “I’d get sent to take pictures of stalls selling them. It got to the stage where I'd be out and about and notice them – I saw someone selling them in Piccadilly Circus last weekend. They’re everywhere!” The IP litigation team also covers data protection, which “went absolutely crazy when everyone realised they’d better do something about GDPR.”
“The client was a huge, well-known name in the market, which was a buzz.”
The corporate professional practices group (PPG) advises law and accountancy firms on structuring, strategic management, disputes, regulatory issues, employment, and tax. US firms like Reed Smith and Holland & Knight “add an interesting dynamic – you’ve got to factor in time zones.” The group often advises on their establishment in the UK market, and sometimes the reverse, like when the now-defunct Sedgwick closed its London office. The department also handles team moves, recently advising US firm Greenberg Traurig on the acquisition of a 30-strong team from King & Wood Mallesons. On a restructuring, “the client was a huge, well-known name in the market, which was a buzz itself. I was drafting documents to go to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.” Client contact on matters concerning law firms could be hard to come by, because clients “know what a trainee is and are unlikely to want our advice!” But founding partner Tina Williams, who works in this team, was “good for asking me to pop along to client meetings.”
In dispute resolution, the team tackles civil fraud, investment banking disputes, financial services regulatory, commercial litigation and international arbitration. Recent highlights include defending car rental company Hertz Europe against a €40 million claim brought by Ryanair regarding a car rental supplier agreement. The firm also acted for Salem Mounzer (a director of AttockOil International) in $240 million proceedings brought against him over allegedly fraudulent West African oil transactions. Attending court was a highlight for trainees, as were “some interesting research secondments for a couple of weeks to the British Library.” One trainee was tasked with “drafting an application to set aside a default judgment, and putting together the exhibits to support witness statements.”
“I had the press trying to ask me questions.”
The employment team advises financial services, insurance and professional services firms as well as senior banking figures. FW recently acted for Eric Daniels, former chief executive of Lloyds Bank, in a £1.5 million breach of contract claim that resulted from him not being awarded shares by Lloyds. Our interviewees got drafting experience in the form of employment contracts, handbook policies and letters to raise grievances. In the place of a partner, one trainee attended “a round table at the Confederation of British Industry to discuss the impact of the Taylor Review.” Others worked with the group’s immigration team for clients seeking to relocate or second employees. “I drafted the application form for a replacement biometric residence permit, compiling letters from the client’s employer and evidence of residence, like council tax bills.” Attending the Chelsea Football Club tribunal case – in which the firm represented the club and José Mourinho against discrimination claims made by Dr Eva Carneiro – was a particular highlight: “I had the press trying to ask me questions. You certainly didn’t want to be standing in the lobby with a sensitive document which could be snapped by a long-range lens! It was good fun even though I was putting in a lot of hours.”
Wine to five
There were steadier days of 9.30am to 6pm in real estate, while corporate PPG and commerce and tech wound down at about 7pm. Like employment, commerce and tech occasionally featured runs of 9pm finishes, while dispute resolution consistently kept trainees until 8pm or 9pm. We heard of one 3am extreme in DR, but overall, complaints were minimal: “They’re usually good at respecting our time, so you don’t begrudge the days you do work late.”
The biggest sticking point was retention, with reviews ranging from “not fantastic” to downright “diabolical.” At FW, “getting on the training contract is only the first hurdle.” As qualification approaches, HR speaks with departments to see if there’s a need for an NQ. One qualifier each year tends to be kept on, as was the case in 2018. The firm tells us that it endeavours to retain its trainees, but does not always have NQ vacancies in the departments that second-years may want to join. It's not all doom and gloom for those who don't make the cut: we heard of former FW trainees going on to the likes of Allen & Overy and Dentons: “That gives you confidence regardless of what happens.”
The firm’s office in Finsbury Square sits next to the Honourable Artillery Company: “Sometimes a helicopter flies down and the windows start shaking.” It’ll take more than that to crack this “tight group” of trainees though. Although they were somewhat disgruntled about the lack of a social budget – “there’s no social aspect unless we make it happen” – the firm still has its fun. During the World Cup, “someone set up a table football tournament. There were 64 people involved!” Otherwise, a Friday night wine club provides an opportunity to try out new wines. “It’s good to learn,” slurred one studious source.
Ask and you shall receive at Fox Williams, thought trainees: “This is a firm where you get a lot out of it if you're willing to put the effort in.”
How to get a Fox Williams training contract
Training contract deadline (2020/21): 31 March 2019
Fox Williams' recruitment process for its training contract begins with an online application form on the firm's website, which asks for personal details and work experience. Applicants also have to answer several competency questions. HR manager Liz Blight tells us: “We want applicants to tell us a story about themselves. Everyone at Fox Williams has their own unique story and so we want to hear what a candidate's story is.”
When it comes to the competency questions the firm expects candidates to use the STAR technique (which stands for situation, task, action and result). “If an applicant hasn't used it their answers won't be as effective,” says Blight. “Candidates have to be really thorough and tell us what makes them different compared to other applicants.” The firm receives around 200 applications every year, and all are read by a member of the graduate recruitment team, so a chance to impress (or underwhelm!) is guaranteed.
The top 40 candidates who ace the application form are invited to attend a drinks and canapés event in the firm’s offices to meet with some of the partners. Candidates also have a 30 minute interview with HR which can be done by Skype or video conference. The top scoring 12 applicants are then invited to a week-long vacation scheme in July. Fox Williams typically runs two schemes every summer, and there's usually room for up to six candidates on each. “It's really an extended assessment,” Blight explains, “but it's a good way to assess people and it gives applicants a chance to really see how we work and check that we are the right firm for them.” And if you get a place on the vac scheme but not a training contract at the end of it, it gives you some nice work experience to refer back to later.
During the scheme candidates get a taste of life in two different departments and attend various presentations, which are delivered by members of HR, partners and associates. Candidates also undertake various assessments, including a technical written exercise, a group presentation and a practical group exercise. There’s also time for socialising with the current batch of trainees, so candidates get a chance to ask the trainees what it is really like at the firm. At the end of the week, all participants “have a short 30-minute interview with two partners,” Blight explains, “which gives us a chance to delve a bit deeper into a candidate's intellectual rigour and commercial awareness.”
By the end of July or early August candidates will hear whether they've been successful or not – the firm usually offers training contracts to three individuals a year.
For those hoping to wow, training principal Mark Watson tells us FW is looking for “someone with good academics [ABB at A level and a minimum 2:1 degree], but more than just that: we want to see those who can demonstrate that they have the raw material required to become lawyers of the future who will stay and thrive at our firm.” Those who may not have come to the law fresh from university should take note, says Watson: “We're not put off by somebody who might have an atypical career path. For example, someone may have come out of university with a good degree, worked in publishing for two or three years, decided they weren't being stretched and signed up for the GDL and LPC.” A stint paralegalling also goes down well.
Watson is also “looking for someone with personality” and a good sense of humour. “We want someone who will join in our social and charity committee events, the type of person – for example – who might enjoy a lunchtime game of table football in our staff area or join a team for our annual charity quiz.” Watson is quick to add that this doesn't mean all future trainees should be extroverted table football enthusiasts: “We have many different personalities here. Everyone has their ‘story’.”
Fox Williams LLP
10 Finsbury Square,
- Partners 34
- Associates 42
- Total trainees 6
- UK offices London
- Graduate recruiter: [email protected]
- Training partner: Mark Watson
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 3
- Applications pa: 200
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or equivalent
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: ABB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 12
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: December 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2020/21 start: 31 March 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £36,000
- Second-year salary: £38,000
- Post-qualification salary: £62,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
Main areas of work
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Corporate/M&A: Lower Mid-Market (Band 2)
- Employment: Employer (Band 4)
- Employment: Senior Executive (Band 2)
- Real Estate: Lower Mid-Market (Band 3)
- Commercial Contracts (Band 4)
- Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Corporates) (Band 4)
- Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Individuals) (Band 2)
- Partnership (Band 1)
- Partnership: Large International Structures (Band 1)