Gowling WLG (UK) LLP - True Picture

Trainees are set on Gowling the distance at this British-Canadian hybrid, which has offices in Birmingham and London.

The Firm

When you think of Birmingham, international reach might not be the first thing that springs to mind. Mostly, people just make fun of the accent. But this is to do the Brummies a great injustice. The city is home to a number of international success stories, like Cadbury’s, European Cup winners Aston Villa, and the all too bingeable Peaky Blinders… and of course, Gowling WLG, a full-service commercial powerhouse born of a 2016 merger between legacy firms from the UK and Canada. It has 19 offices around the globe, and only two of these are here in the UK – one in Birmingham and the other in London. Birmingham is the bigger of the two, as you might have guessed from the clues that we’ve dropped. It houses the majority of new trainee recruits, while London takes in about a third.

“…in Birmingham and connected to the rest of the world.”

Our interviewees in the HQ office “wanted to be in Birmingham and connected to the rest of the world.” By way of example, one trainee painted us a picture of their day: “I had a call with a Portuguese client, then I jumped on my computer and had an email from the US, and then one from a Swedish client right after that.” Other drawcards were the “very swish” office and the “absolutely lovely” people. Sources down in London meanwhile agreed that the firm’s culture was also a big appeal for them. “I know some people love working crazy hours for crazy money,” one reflected, “but I want a life while still doing good work.”

On a UK-wide level, Chambers UK ranks Gowling top for its life sciences and retail work, while outside of the capital it’s a national leader in construction, corporate/M&A, employment, and intellectual property. The firm gets more top commendations in the Midlands for environment, IT, pensions, and planning. Recent partner additions to Gowling’s real estate and commercial teams have joined from firms such as Eversheds Sutherland, Irwin Mitchell and Higgs & Son.

The Seats

Gowling trainees sit four six-month seats: one contentious, one non-contentious, one with a real estate team, and one ‘option’ seat. Trainees can put down three preferences for each rotation. Two international secondments are included in the list of options: a corporate and commercial seat in the Dubai office, and an IP seat in Guangzhou, China. Getting a spot “is based on how you’ve ranked your preferences and how others have ranked theirs.” Our interviewees were satisfied with their experience of the seat allocation process.

“From personal injury to procurement challenges.”

In commercial litigation we heard of trainees working on insolvency matters, company wind-ups, breach of contract cases, health and safety cases, director disqualification proceedings and cross-border arbitrations. The automotive sector is a key area for the team, with manufacturer, supplier and dealer clients. Gowling recently defended GIC, a Singapore-headquartered sovereign wealth fund, against a £10 million claim brought against it. It’s also acting for Co-op Energy in several disputes that arose from its acquisition of Flow Energy regarding the application of stipulations in the original acquisition agreement. With “massive cases” on the go, “from personal injury to procurement challenges,” you might expect trainees to be stuck bundling forever more. And while there was certainly some of that, trainees also said “there’s a lot of responsibility” and a lot of court deadlines to meet.They described “a very busy team – you’re never going to be sat twiddling your thumbs!” As one put it, “I was stressed but never bored.”

Described as “the beating heart of the firm,”real estate is Gowling’s biggest department by headcount and accounts for a huge chunk of its annual UK turnover. We heard that the teams in the London and Birmingham offices work fairly independently of each other. London clients include insurance and financial services companies like AXA and Legal & General, as well as Lidl, Transport for London and commercial developer Aldgate Developments. Up in Birmingham, the team represents names like Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin, M&S and housebuilder Taylor Wimpey. For trainees, there are several property seat options including commercial development and investments, housing and regeneration, planning, and construction. London trainees can also sit in real estate finance [check list in CB].

We spoke to trainees who’d sat in the housing and regeneration group, which advises developers, funders and local authorities on big development projects such as the £4 billion Brent Cross Cricklewood Scheme, which will provide 7,500 new homes. Trainees pointed out that given the size of these matters, “you won’t see a project from beginning to end.” They took on more of an assisting role in this seat, working on due diligence, legal reports, infrastructure agreements and Section 38 agreements between local highway authorities and developers. “I was billing clients at the end of the seat,” one trainee told us. “Stamp duty is also common” for trainees to take on, as were lease extensions and landlord/tenant matters.

Over in banking and finance, trainee tasks were administrative in nature, such as “drafting corporate authorisations and meeting notes, and sending out bibles” – not the religious kind; bibles are compilations of all the documents connected to a transaction. Trainees reported doing “a mix of some large deals and smaller funding deals.” They said that “on the smaller deals, it’s more hands-on,” with trainees responsible for running conditions precedent checklists. The department works with bank lenders as well as a lot of private equity firms. State Bank of India, BNP Paribas, CBPE Capital, Deutsche Bank and HSBC are all firm clients. The team recently acted for Lloyds Development Capital on its £106 million investment to acquire the brokerage and loan services of a motor finance brokerage business. It also advised social housing provider Sanctuary Group on its £75 million bond issue on the International Securities Market.

“I loved my IP seat.”

Gowling’s got a bit of reputation for intellectual property, picking up several top rankings in Chambers UK. It counts as a contentious seat, but the team works on both transactional and litigious issues across patents, brands, designs, life sciences, and advertising and marketing. In terms of clientele, pharmaceutical giants GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca are on the books, as well as big food brands like Weetabix and Hovis. “I loved my IP seat,” a London trainee gushed. “Work was more hands-on” on the transactional side, but even when assisting on contentious matters, one of our sources felt “my efforts were recognised,” and the team “would look out for opportunities for me to do more hands-on stuff.” On a large tech patent case, a trainee reported doing “some bundling, but more case tracking – following cases and updating the team on that area of law.” The department sees a lot of “newsworthy” patent litigation matters. For example, the firm recently represented Pear Technologies in its successful endeavours to register its trademark, a move which was opposed by Apple – yep, that one.

Trainee Life

“Commercial law isn’t fluffy,” said one candid source, “but the firm is pretty nice.” That’s always a plus. Trainees told us: “People are good at giving clear instructions and they don’t talk down to juniors.” Moreover, they appreciated that the firm is “good about people taking leave,” and letting trainees know: “‘This is for Monday.’” In other words, “people don’t shove stuff on your desk at the end of a Friday, which seems to be an industry standard.” A London trainee also noted that “if I looked exhausted, people would notice and send me home. And one time they told me not to come in the next day.”

It is worth noting that hours can be long. Most Gowling trainees completed our survey while they were on a 20% reduced hours schedule as a result of the pandemic, but their average weekly hours nevertheless came in at around 45 hours a week. As one trainee explained, “the 20% is meant to translate into a day off a week, but it’s mostly a half day.”[run 20% schedule by firm in CB] Not that they were grumpy with their lot. While there were indeed some long hours, we didn’t hear about any all-nighters that trainees at other firms sometimes endure.

Closely tied to the hours was a conversation around money. For some in Birmingham, the £12,500 pay gap [confirm CB form] with their London counterparts was “a bit of an annoyance.” As one said, “yes, London is more expensive, but we work the same hours!” Our survey results reflected that too. Others pointed out that “the money is really good for Birmingham. I don’t think we work long enough hours for it not to be a good hourly rate.” Jury’s out on that one then.

While there is a pay gap between the two bases, trainees said there’s “a lot of emphasis on being one firm across offices,” culturally speaking. For social events, “trainees are encouraged to go between the two cities,” and the firm “pays for transport tickets and accommodation” for them to do so [check in CB]. London lawyers are always invited up to the firm’s annual party in Birmingham, which is normally held in February. Trainees also mentioned department-led social activities, such as “monthly events in the corporate team like axe-throwing and curling.” Trainees in other groups reported “loads of team drinks and lunches.” Our sources also confirmed that “trainees are close,” highlighting that the firm is “into making sure we are able to bond and have a nice time alongside the training contract.” The firm has a dedicated trainee committee where they “can raise queries and concerns.”

If there was one gripe at Gowling, it was diversity at the firm. “By Birmingham standards, it’s not diverse,” one source said bluntly. Some felt there was a “specific problem with hiring black trainees and black senior employees.” However, they also told us that the firm’s D&I network, Embrace, is “outlining proposals that recommend that at least a third of all trainees would have to be BAME.”[follow up in CB] On the plus side, sources said the firm had “made strides with LGBTQ+ people” and praisedits mental health initiatives (we heard the firm was “super supportive” during lockdown too). But gender diversity also got a bit of short shrift: “Itmade me laugh,” said a trainee drily. “In one of my seats I spoke to more male partners called Andrew than female partners.” Female partnership figures currently stand at around 22% [update with new CB figures], and the firm’s latest partner promotion round was an all-male ensemble. There’s much more gender diversity at the junior end of the firm, with women accounting for over 60% of the trainees and associate workforce.

“I really want to be here for a long time to come.”

Also encouragingly, of our survey respondents who wanted to ultimately make partner at Gowling, two-thirds were women. On this note, trainees tend to be quite reserved when we ask them how long they want to stay at a firm, but in the case of Gowling, they were aiming high. Nearly half of our respondents were looking to go all the way and achieve partner status at the firm. “I’m happy I chose this firm,” said one. “I really want to be here for a long time to come.”

But first, qualification. After the firm releases its jobs list, trainees can put forward “as many choices as you want.” Teams will then interview interested candidates, and seat appraisals also play a role in the decision. These reviews take place at the mid and end-of-seat marks. “When you start a seat, you submit a list of objectives,” trainees told us; their performance is then “marked against” these goals. Via an internal system, trainees log everyone they’ve worked with who’ll provide feedback on their performance. “You add not only other fee earners, but PAs, people you’ve done CSR work with, and so on.”  Sources on the NQ track were confident that “we’re all on target to qualify.” In the end, the firm retained XX of XX qualifiers in 2020.

Gowling for Gold

The firm is the legal adviser for the 2022 Commonwealth Games to be held in Birmingham.

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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020

Ranked Departments

    • Information Technology (Band 4)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property: Patent Litigation (Band 2)
    • Pensions (Band 3)
    • Planning (Band 4)
    • Real Estate Finance (Band 5)
    • Real Estate Litigation (Band 4)
    • Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 5)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 3)
    • Construction (Band 1)
    • Employment (Band 1)
    • Environment (Band 1)
    • Information Technology (Band 2)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 1)
    • Litigation (Band 2)
    • Pensions (Band 1)
    • Planning (Band 1)
    • Real Estate Litigation (Band 2)
    • Tax (Band 2)
    • Construction (Band 1)
    • Corporate/M&A (Band 1)
    • Employment (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property (Band 1)
    • Pensions (Band 2)
    • Real Estate (Band 2)
    • Competition Law (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: AIM (Band 2)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Mining (Band 4)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 3)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 4)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
    • Healthcare (Band 4)
    • Investment Funds: Closed-ended Listed Funds (Band 2)
    • Life Sciences (Band 2)
    • Life Sciences: IP/Patent Litigation (Band 3)
    • Life Sciences: Transactional (Band 1)
    • Media & Entertainment: Advertising & Marketing (Band 4)
    • Pensions Litigation (Band 2)
    • Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 4)
    • Public Procurement (Band 3)
    • Retail (Band 1)
    • Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market and Private Equity (Band 1)
    • Real Estate (Band 1)
    • Social Housing (Band 3)