Having one office doesn't stop this Leeds wonder competing nationally.
Independent Walker Part I
Getting lumped together into a group can be a double-edged sword. Take Destiny’s Child. Michelle will forever benefit from her pop stardom – but in many ways, she’s just a part of the whole (and now a meme). Far better to have something extra – a Beyoncé-esque individuality – that adds to the fame you gained from your group. But you don’t need to tell Walker Morris that. It’s a recognised member of the 'big six' firms in Leeds – decent – but everything you read about the firm also points out its star quality: “We're the only firm that's single-site,” beamed one trainee. “I always used to read about Walker Morris being a single-site office and not really understand what the benefit of that would be. Now I work here, it makes it so much more sociable and inclusive, so you're involved in anything that goes on within the firm.”
Crucially though, just like the national, multi-site firms who constitute the rest of the ‘big six,’ the firm still has the ability to represent national and sometimes international clients. An impressive list of corporate clients now includes Chipotle, Asda, Kraft Heinz, Starbucks and Jet2. Chambers UK ranks it as a national leader in corporate, litigation, real estate and restructuring, while its work in the retail sector is also recognised as being extremely competitive UK-wide.
The firm didn’t have a vintage year in 2016/17 – revenue dropped by 2% – but there has been more positive news of late: a new managing partner, Malcolm Simpson, took the reins in May 2018, and the firm has made the bold decision to move all 500 of its staff to a new office in the centre of Leeds in July 2019. Our insiders had already “seen the brochure for the new office and it looks really swanky.” There’s an outdoors area for events, and the firm will embrace an open-plan set-up which encourages hotdesking.
“You get to try all the different practice areas and meet everyone around the firm.”
Many of the trainees we spoke to had been paralegals with the firm before jumping into the contract. For those taking that route, WM offers a travel bursary “for you to go abroad and do volunteer work in the gap before you start your TC. It's really cool that they invest effort and money into you before you've even started.” The firm opts for a six-seat structure, which “from a trainee perspective is so valuable because you get to try all the different practice areas and meet everyone around the firm. I've not met a single person here who would want it any other way. The only difficulty is that you only find your feet after four months, by which point you get uprooted again. But the benefits outweigh the negatives.” For their first-year seats, trainees “get what you're given,” though they get to submit their preferences as they enter the second year. Second-years also get “first dibs on secondments.” Trainees have previously spent time with Asda and other well-known companies.
Giving it some welly
Real estate is the firm's largest department, and it's likely trainees will do a seat there. The team handles commercial property transactions, plus residential and commercial developments. Clients include Asda, HSBC, US law firms Gibson Dunn and Kirkland & Ellis, and other major high-street retailers. The team recently advised US designer label Tory Burch on its lease of a new flagship store on Regent Street, where the yearly rent is a sizeable £1.5 million per year. It also acted for research firm Pharmaron on its £20 million purchase and leaseback of facilities in Hertfordshire owned by US pharmaceutical giant Merck.
“You do licences, or low-level leases,” explained a trainee. “That's our bread and butter. They tend to just give you your own files to run with. You will get a retail lease, or a licence for alteration, or a licence for access, and take it right through to the finish. You're responsible for drafting it, and then negotiating it.” It's an impressive amount of client contact for a trainee: “Initially it can be quite scary, but there's always someone on hand! Even as a trainee, I did my own direct meetings with clients just to discuss where we're at with the deal and talk through some details.” Overall trainees judged that “you have to get on your feet quite quickly, but that makes you feel like you've mastered something quite early on.” Residential development matters also featured. “If the client identifies a site, I would visit it and literally walk around to see the surrounding land before we'd complete a big title report. The work feels much more casual when you're walking around a field with your boots on!”
“You provide the client with updates over the phone.”
Most trainees had also sat in the real estate and banking litigation seat, “or REBL, as we affectionately call it.” On the real estate side, the team recently defended the Secretary of State for Defence against a claim of possession on underground storage caverns used to store oil in the event of a national emergency. On the banking side there are clients such as the Yorkshire Building Society and the Co-operative Bank. The majority of our interviewees were exposed to both aspects. “I was doing a lot of commercial landlord work, but also worked on repossession matters for banks. I drafted general applications to court and letters before action.” One trainee added that “because it's litigation, a lot of the work is case management, so you provide the client with updates over the phone, and make sure everything is progressing with the court applications.” Trainees also visited court, and undertook some sleuth-like research: “I went through CCTV footage, trying to work out a timeline of events.”
Over in banking and finance, the team advises on property and leveraged financings for a variety of banks and property companies including Santander, Yorkshire Bank and Strata Homes. A recent highlight saw the team advise Evans Property Management on its £240 million investment facilities provided by banks including RBS and Barclay, which will go towards hotel developments. Rubbing shoulders with the corporate division, the team also acted for publicly listed Proactis Group, an IT services provider, on its £45 million loan from HSBC to finance its takeover of Perfect Commerce, an American company. “We draft a lot of loan agreements,” one insider recalled, but there's also “lots of client contact – you couldn't really avoid it if you tried!” Rookies are also involved in “quite a bit of corporate support, doing due diligence when a deal comes through.” That involves “looking through thousands of documents, so it can be quite intense at times. There's a lot of famine and feast in this seat.”
Good, letter, best
Juniors in the commercial litigation team will come across a variety of clients including Persimmon Homes, Capita, Caterpillar Group and Li & Fung Europe, a global supply chain manager. One particular highlight saw the team advise Jet2.com on its judgment against the lead singer of The View (Scottish, sang Same Jeans – remember?) after he was booted off a flight for disruptive behaviour, delaying take-off. The firm also represented diesel engine manufacturer Perkins Engines in a €2.5 million dispute with its former Spanish distributor over payments owed. “There's such a variety of disputes and the clients are so wide-ranging.” Rookies had “come across clients in the fashion industry, construction, education and even a psychic company.” Trainees found that “a lot of the work is behind-the-scenes strategy to try and outmanoeuvre the opponent and decide how heavy to come across with threats of litigation.” This meant trainees “get to draft a lot of letters during pre-action. They're general letters setting out our position before it culminates in a letter before action – it's quite a skill really!” Other trainee tasks include “meeting witnesses and reviewing thousands of documents to decide whether anything is relevant. You need to make sure you're paying attention all the time!”
“I worked on a claim for unfair dismissal and racial discrimination."
Trainees who experience a corporate seat may encounter private equity, M&A, or equity capital markets work. The team has sector specialisms in retail, healthcare and financial services, and recently advised cloud-based solutions provider Data Intensity, along with its American private equity owner, on Data Intensity's sale to EQT, a private equity fund manager. “I did a lot of work managing data rooms,” recalled a trainee. “I'd also manage due diligence reports. Drafting them involved input from lots of different areas of the business, so I'd collate all of that and put it all into one presentable PowerPoint.”
The firm's employment team meanwhile, is one of the very best in Yorkshire, as confirmed by its top Chambers UK ranking. “I worked on a claim for unfair dismissal and racial discrimination, which I was lucky to see from the beginning to the very end. I did lots of pre-action correspondence, listened in to conference calls with the client about tactics, drafted witness statements and particulars of claim, then I attended a preliminary hearing at the employment tribunal.” Regular clients include Crystal Palace FC, Moss Bros, and Asda, which the firm recently helped during its acquisition of a number of stores from the Co-op.
Trainees who opted for a client secondment provided endless praise: “I loved it, you're sat right in the middle of the client's legal team and there's a real buzz. It's a complete change of environment, and it's so good to see the client's point of view. It gives you a better understanding of the bigger picture.” Secondees handled “a variety of commercial contracts, some IP related stuff and even finance – just everything really.” One source believed that a client HQ “is the place you learn the most as a lawyer. You get to see that your legal advice is only good if a commercial angle is taken into account, in accordance with their goals.”
Walking on sunshine
Picking up on the cosy atmosphere that stems from the single-site office, one trainee added that “you can walk into any partner's office and talk about Love Island. It's just so laid back – the chances are they'll know exactly what you're talking about!” WM is also hot on training up its youngsters: “They organise a lot. We have a lot of commercial litigation training and barristers come in to give us talks. We've also recently signed up to a big pool of webinars online that we can watch in our different seats.” All this learning does gives way to some earning – newbies in the REBL department reported occasional 9pm finishes, “but that's only because of bundling nightmares a week before trial.” Real estate lawyers start earlier, often arriving before 8am: “Some partners come in at 6am which is ridiculous.” Hours were deemed pretty stable overall, and an 8.30am to 6.30pm shift was very regular.
Sources were happy to report that “everyone's sound. All the trainees are really nice – there are no big egos or anything.” A programme of trainee socials, sporting events and brunches makes the most of this. “It helps that there are nearly 30 trainees in the same office, because when the firm isn't putting on official events, there's the West Riding pub right next door where you can guarantee a few of us will be on a Friday night.” Department-led events also include Christmas parties and 'fridge Fridays' which dish out beer and wine at 4.30pm. “All the trainees will stand around and have a bit of a catch-up.”
The process of qualification is “fairly straightforward. The firm sends a jobs list out around March time, and you're invited to apply for as many as you want by replying to HR over email.” Trainees are then invited to interview with partners: “It's very department-dependent. Some will have a formal interview, others will just say, 'You've got it.'” Retention rates have been high of late – the firm kept all its qualifiers last year. In 2018 the firm kept 13 of 19 qualifiers. A source said: “The firm can create extra jobs so everyone's sorted, but this year because of how many people were going for the same roles, they couldn't accommodate some.”
“Every time there's a vac scheme on we do a social – there's a good six or eight a year. The best one is always the summer BBQ, where they invite current trainees, NQs and future trainees.”
How to get a Walker Morris training contract
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2019 (opens 1 October 2018)
The application form
Around 650 applicants in total apply to Walker Morris through the vacation scheme and direct training contract routes. Both avenues kick off with an online application form where candidates are asked to describe their proudest achievement. Be warned though: "Your individuality needs to be reflected on your form. We quite often read that a candidate's greatest achievements are gaining a place at university or passing your driving test, so think a bit differently – why are you unique? What will make you stand out against the rest?" HR and graduate recruitment advisor Heather Bradburn explains: “In the past, we've heard from people who've travelled around Europe with only a small amount of money in their pocket, or by staying solely in monasteries and cooking and cleaning in return for food and shelter.”
The vac scheme route
Around 100 vac scheme applicants are invited to attend a half-day assessment with the firm. This involves a group exercise on a non-law topic. Throughout the assessment the firm is "looking for teamwork, communication and presentation skills and some commercial awareness,” outlines Bradburn.
Walker Morris offers three one-week vac schemes in April and June with up to 16 places available on each. As well as tackling various trainee-level tasks within their assigned department, vac schemers attend social events, presentations about firm life and also complete two assessments, the contents of which are kept tightly under wraps. Depending on a candidate's performance throughout the week, offers are either made directly or after candidates attend a further interview with graduate recruitment partner Duncan Lole.
Bradburn advises that in order for participants to get the most out of the scheme they should “be themselves during the week. We're looking to recruit them as a person, not the person they think we want to see, so candidates should enjoy the experience and use the time to observe what we're like.”
Direct training contract applicants who successfully leap the application form hurdle are also invited for a half-day assessment centre. This is largely similar in format to the vac scheme assessment, although the group task is usually longer and more detailed and the number of attendees varies depending on how many training contract positions are filled by vac schemers.
Candidates who are successful at this stage progress to an interview with two partners to discuss their CV, experiences and interests. Bradburn tells us: “Although it's a formal interview, we're trying to get to know you as a person and observe how you interact with others, so the tone often ends up quite chatty and relaxed, although you are still asked some challenging questions!”
What they're looking for
Work experience is given considerable weight although Bradburn acknowledges that “it can be quite hard to get legal work experience and we do appreciate that. We ask candidates without legal experience to illustrate how they would apply transferable skills at a law firm. For example, someone who's worked as a waiter might have developed their client interaction skills.”
The firm is open to recruiting trainees from its paralegal pool and welcomes those changing careers –“we've taken on army veterans, events managers and even an ex-rugby player”– but it's also not averse to those who've come straight through from university. “We take on a real mix of personalities with different skills and previous experiences,” concludes Bradburn.
Yorkshire's legal market
Walker Morris LLP
12 King Street,
- Partners 46
- Assistant solicitors 150
- Total trainees 23
- UK offices Leeds
- Training partner: Andrew Northage, [email protected]uk
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 15
- Applications pa: 750
- Minimum required degree grade: ideally 2:1 or other
- Vacation scheme places pa: 48
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 October 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 31 July 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2018
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 31 December 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £27,000
- Second-year salary: £29,000
- Post-qualification salary: £42,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £5,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Leeds
Main areas of work
Duration: One week
Remuneration: £175 per week
Closing date: 31 December 2018
Application eligibility: Second-year law, third-year non-law and GDL/LPC students.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2018
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
National Leaders (outside London)
- Corporate/M&A (Band 2)
- Litigation (Band 2)
- Real Estate (Band 2)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 2)
North East & Yorkshire
- Pensions (Band 3)
- Professional Negligence: Mainly Claimant (Band 1)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 2)
- Social Housing (Band 1)
- Environment (Band 3)
- Banking Litigation (Band 2)
- Competition Law (Band 3)
- Consumer Finance (Band 3)
- Data Protection & Information Law Recognised Practitioner
- Local Government (Band 4)
- Retail (Band 2)
- Sport (Band 5)
- Banking & Finance (Band 2)
- Construction (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market and Private Equity (Band 1)
- Employment (Band 1)
- Information Technology (Band 4)
- Intellectual Property (Band 3)
- Litigation (Band 1)
- Planning (Band 1)
- Real Estate (Band 1)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 1)