Watson Farley & Williams - True Picture

Is it a boat? Is it a plane? If it’s transport, WFW knows what to do – and with an overseas secondment guaranteed, trainees get to know transport rather well too.

Watson Farley training contract review 2021

The Firm

“I wanted to be at a corporate law firm. I wanted international exposure. I wanted a sector-specific training contract… and I wanted to go abroad.”This interviewee certainly knew what they wanted – thankfully for them, WFW ticked all their boxes. Originally set up as a boutique maritime and aviation asset finance firm, Watson Farley has expanded into rail, energy – particularly renewables – and real estate. With 15 offices worldwide and a guaranteed secondment to one of them for all trainees, the firm is ideal for wannabe lawyers with wanderlust. An interest in moving money helps, as the training contract can be “very finance-heavy. I did four finance and one corporate seat and that’s not atypical,”a source said.

Watson Farley Williams’ Chambers UKrankings ram home that this is a firm that knows where to drop its anchor: it’s top nationwide for shipping finance and scores well for shipping, renewables, capital markets and aviation finance, plus for lower mid-market M&A in London. There’s been some to-ing and fro-ing in the partner ranks lately: an energy and infrastructure quartet left for Orrick in 2020, but the firm has also made lateral hires into its growing aviation practice.

“I wanted a sector-specific training contract.”

As for recruits at entry level, Watson Farley takes on 18 trainees a year, making it ideal for those seeking a “medium-sized firm” doing large-scale international work. Because WFW does a ship tonne of shipping, aviation and (some) rail asset finance, a seat in the department is mandatory for all trainees, as are a litigation seat and at least one overseas secondment – some do more than one. Unusually for London firms, Watson Farley rotates trainees through six seats of four months each, “though people often repeat a seat”to get more experience in a department prior to qualifying there. With energy and projects, real estate, and corporate (which houses tax and employment) rounding things out, many trainees concluded that they don’t get much choice over their rotations. “It’s likely you’ll sit in all the seats, the trick is to get the order right,”some savvy sources suggested. “By the time you start your last seat in May you already know if you’re going to qualify and stay at the firm.”

The Seats

As all the firm’s trainees complete a seat in asset finance, it’s a logical first port of call: eight to ten sit here at each rotation, and typically split their time between the shipping and aviation finance practices. Interviewees described working on “financing for cruise companies, including for new builds, and second-hand financings and loan transfers”on the shipping side of the practice. “We also do a lot of smaller things: ships looking to change their flag, adding a ship to a securities package and so on.” The firm recently advised MSC Cruises on a debt financing facility to fund building four new luxury class ships at the Fincantieri shipyard in Italy. As for aviation finance, along with what trainees described as “bog standard asset finance,” the department also handles “slot-based financing” where airliners trade take-off and landing slots, “which are worth a lot. A single weekly slot can sell for $75 million.” J.P. Morgan’s asset management wing recently called on the firm’s counsel for a warehouse facility to help finance the cost of aircraft acquisitions. Trainees may also see rail finance work in this department.

Our insiders in the seat were largely impressed with the responsibility levels on offer – they spent their time on “drafting documents and face-to-face negotiation meetings,” as well as more regular trainee tasks like “emailing, filing and coordinating with foreign lawyers. The downside of being a trainee is there’s a lot of project management,” one of our sources lamented. With deals often involving “several different parties” across multiple time zones, transaction management can be “quite long and difficult.” Sizing up the volume of work, most of our sources averaged ten-to-12-hour days, with a few later ones thrown in. In addition to fairly regular hours, several sources rated “the level of training” (high) and the nature of people in the department (approachable).

“A single weekly slot can sell for $75 million.”

The firm’s projects department is essentially the rebranded energy practice, another WFW flagship. “80% of our projects work is energy, and most of that is renewables,” trainees explained – WFW works on groundbreaking matters, such as advising multiple parties involved in what will be one of the world’s largest offshore wind farms, and one of the first few Taiwanese offshore wind farms. Clients include Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, Investec, Lightsource BP and National Westminster Bank. Sources said: “The projects are so much bigger in project finance,” describing “huge” matters as a “baptism of fire. We might have multiple lenders in the syndicate and multiple export credit agencies backing the loans.”

This is therefore another seat where time zones are a force to be reckoned with – “I was taking calls at 11pm,” one source admitted. Another confirmed that the “hours can be crazy. There was a one-week period before a signing where I was working 9am-4am.” The team is split between financing, corporate, construction and planning wings, but our sources weren’t siloed into one area. Trainees therefore got a varied task load of “managing conditions precedent, writing first drafts, and liaising with the export credit agencies.” We also heard that “in the early stages of the seat you do some research, plenty of admin and document review.” At the time of writing, Orrick had nabbed “four quite senior partners” from the group and trainees were “unsure how many associates will be going with them,” leaving confusion over whether the department would slim down from its current five trainees per cycle (the firm suggested numbers would stay steady).

Litigation also traditionally takes five trainees at a time. They’re more likely to tackle one larger case at a time, rather than several smaller ones at once – interviewees focused on a big case, adjudication or arbitration. “The intensity is a level above” in this seat, more than one suggested. “Supervisors in litigation impressed upon me the importance of getting everything right.” To ensure perfection, trainees unfortunately “do not get client contact. All my emails went through an associate, which I found very stressful.” What is in the trainee diet is bundling, case management, writing witness statements and disclosure. The last of those can be a “mammoth, mind-numbing task,” a source said. “I’ll be reviewing a thousand documents every day.”

Hopefully you kept your life jacket – ships are back on the agenda in a litigation seat, “mostly in the form of contractual disputes.” For example, “there’s a lot of talk right now about the amount of sulphur that can be used in ship fuel,” following new shipping regulations aimed at lower carbon emissions. “Who pays for the changes in terms of the hardware of the ship? Do you put in a filter? Or buy cleaner fuel?” Clients in the department include shipping firm MSC, and the firm’s acted for banks like NatWest and RBS on shipping finance disputes; away from the ocean, WFW advised renewable energy projects developer Bester UK in a claim and counterclaim (totalling £24 million) over a sub-contract for the construction of the Wrexham biomass plant in Wales. Trainees told us there’s a “big construction bent” within the litigation department. “Disputes arise if there’s been a delay, or if what you’ve ended up with looks nothing like the design.”

“The firm makes it so easy: it does all the admin, you just get on a flight.”

A guaranteed international secondment (or two, or even three as in the case of one trainee we heard about) can be a double-edged sword. Clearly, the opportunity to work and live abroad is priceless, even more so when “the firm makes it so easy: it does all the admin, you just get on a flight.” The potential drawback is less time getting to grips with the work and environment in the London office. Of Watson Farley’s 14 overseas bases, trainees can score a seat in six: Bangkok takes two trainees a rotation (one litigation, one corporate); Paris another two (aviation and shipping finance); Dubai welcomes one trainee into finance, who also acts as a general resource; Athens takes two into shipping finance; one goes to Hamburg for general asset finance; last but not least, Singapore takes two trainees into finance, but one remains more generalist to handle “whatever the team needs.”

If you’re picturing strolling down the Champs-Élysées, or sipping ouzo in a Greek café, allow our trainees to put you straight: “Lawyers abroad work extraordinarily hard,” a source who’d been to Athens found. As a trainee overseas, you typically get a “lot more responsibility. The teams are smaller than in London so there’s more substantive work.” A source arrived to find things “very, very busy. Pre-Christmas always is; add the overseas factor and it gets a bit manic at times.”Greece was one of the most popular destinations: “For a trainee, Athens is the best place to go. You’re left to deal with things on your own, but I’ve never felt like I didn’t have the support or guidance I needed. Everyone was on top of things despite it being busy.”Trainees were similarly hectic in Singapore, working 18-hour days for two weeks running on a “huge deal involving banks around the world. So many parties, so many documents…”

Trainee Life

Back in London, each seat comes with its own cultural quirks according to our sources. “The culture does differ between departments”– projects is perhaps most notable for “having a beer fridge they open on a Friday,”marking the group out as one of the most sociable. Team real estate got good reports from trainees; one dubbed them “incredibly friendly. I had department drinks in my first week; the people all make an effort to get to know you.”Pinning down a universal WFW vibe was harder, though we heard that “any negative press about the firm’s culture”is totally wide of the mark. “People are friendly. Normal,” trainees agreed. “I’ve never really noticed anything strikingly bad.”

Our sources said that “people socialise after work, but there’s not much organised for the whole company.” We heard about “monthly teas which are firmwide and welcome new starters,” along with an annual summer and Christmas party. Trainees revealed that a culture committee has been set up “to make more of an effort in terms of putting on firmwide social events.” In the meantime, they’ve taken it upon themselves to ramp up the community spirit: “Trainees in the same year group tend to get in touch relatively regularly. We’ll grab a cup of coffee or a drink at the end of the week, depending on work commitments.” All new arrivals complete the Professional Skills Course three weeks before starting, “that’s a good opportunity to get to know your intake.”

“You’re constantly working in other jurisdictions, so you are expected to be on call.”

Across departments, trainees were likely to work between ten and 12 hours a day on average. One notable trend was a dramatic increase in the lead up to Christmas, which appeared to be anything butthe most wonderful time of the year at Watson Farley. “I’ve had two Christmases here and the firm does technically shut down, but you’re constantly working in other jurisdictions, so you’re expected to be on call,” a second-year told us. The festive period tends to be the busiest at many City firms and WFW trainees confirmed that “between January and the middle of February you’re quiet.” Our sources liked that “there’s not much of a culture of presenteeism. If you’ve finished, you can go home earlier.” Some suggested “there’s an element that depends on your supervisor and if they work really late hours, that means you do too.” An increased dinner budget is available for night owls; other office perks include free fruit until lunchtime and a dress-to-your-day policy in the London office.

Committing to “regular meetings between HR and trainees via a forum,”interviewees were largely impressed with the support and training available to them. They noticed the firm “seems to be actively taking on board trainee feedback.”HR is also responsive throughout the qualification process, which kicks off early in February: trainees can submit as many department preferences as they'd like, and decisions are made in April. “Your post-qualification sixth seat helps you build a more holistic view of full-time practice. It didn’t feel like a dead end to me,”a trainee clarified. The firm retained 17 of 18qualifiers in 2020.

Brave new world 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, WFW continued to get trainees overseas where possible; if they couldn't travel, trainees were able to complete a 'virtual' overseas secondment remotely with an additional London supervisor.

How to get a WFW training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2021): 8 January 2021 (opens October 2020)

Training contract deadline (2023): 9 July 2021 (opens October 2020)

Watson Farley & Williams receives around 700 applications each year: about half are for the firm's vacation scheme, while the other half are from applicants gunning directly for a training contract.

Both types of application start with an online form that asks for details of an applicant's academics and work experience. “Legal work experience is important for those applying directly for a training contract,” says graduate recruitment & development manager Lucie Rees. “We need to see that these candidates really understand the profession and the role of a trainee at a commercial firm, as well as having identified us as a firm they want to train at.”

The form also includes various open-ended questions. “It's difficult to get an accurate feel for a person from an application form,” Rees admits, “so we also ask about their involvement in extracurricular activities. This is a chance to talk about activities that have provided them with some life experience and some useful skills.”

Assessment centre

For vac scheme and training contract applicants alike who impress on paper, the next step is a video interview and then an assessment centre. Rees is reluctant to reveal many details about the day, but she does tell us: “It's fairly typical in that it involves group and written exercises. We've tried to make these as close as possible to the sorts of things trainees do daily at the firm. We don't ask people to take any form of standard verbal reasoning test or off-the-shelf psychometric test.”

The day also involves lunch with a couple of the current trainee cohort. Rees insists that “the trainees are not briefed to feedback to HR, as we want people to be able to relax and ask questions,” though we suggest keeping to your best behaviour regardless. At the end of the day, assessors give candidates group feedback on their assessments. “We feel it is important to recognise the efforts candidates have put in up to this stage and give them something to take away from the day,” Rees explains.

The vacation scheme

Following the assessment centre, WFW chooses its vac schemers. Rees encourages trainee hopefuls to apply for the scheme: “Generally we find vac schemers are better informed about us and what we do, and as a result can make an informed decision about whether we are the right firm for them. Ideally, we aim to offer training contracts to a high percentage of our vac schemers, as they have spent time seeing the firm first-hand and we've seen what they can do.” That said, “we deliberately leave some places for those who apply directly,” she points out. “We find we're fishing in a different pool of applicants at this point – we often pick up people who attended other vac schemes and then decided a firm wasn't for them.”

The firm runs three placements – Easter, June and July – and each lasts two weeks. There may also be opportunities for shorter, virtual, placements in the future.

Final interviews

The firm aims to interview around 25% of those who have attended an assessment centre, including vac schemers who undergo their interview during the second week of their placement. Direct applicants, meanwhile, attend theirs in either August or September.

The interview is conducted by a partner and a member of the graduate recruitment team, and opens with a chat about the interviewee's motivations and interest in law.

The rest of the interview is split between competency-based questions and those designed to eke out a candidate's personality. “We want to ensure that they understand the work we do and are motivated to work for us in the long term,” says Rees, adding: “We especially want to see an interest in the sectors we work in, though we don't expect them to be sector experts at this stage.”

Watson Farley & Williams

15 Appold Street,
Website www.wfw.com

  • Partners 171
  • Associates 400+
  • Total trainees 36 (18 first years and 18 second years) 
  • UK offices London
  • Overseas offices 14
  • Contacts 
  • Graduate recruiter: Lucie Rees, Graduate Recruitment & Development Manager,uktrainees@wfw.com
  • Training partner: Kavita Shah, Assests & Structured Finance, uktrainees@wfw.com
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contracts pa: 18
  • Applications pa: c.600
  • Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or equivalent
  • Minimum UCAS points or A levels: ABB or equivalent
  • Vacation scheme places pa: Up to 30
  • Dates and deadlines 
  • Training contract applications open: October 2020
  • Training contract deadline, 2023 start: 9th July 2021
  • Vacation scheme applications open: October 2020
  • Vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 8th January 2021
  • Open day deadline: 20th November 2020
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £43,000
  • Second-year salary: £46,000
  • Post-qualification salary: £74,700
  • Holiday entitlement: 25 days
  • Sponsorship  
  • LPC fees: Yes
  • GDL fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £8,500/£7,500 dependant on location 
  • International and regional 
  • Offices with training contracts: London
  • Overseas seats: Guaranteed in either Athens, Bangkok, Dubai, Munich, Paris or Singapore
  • Client secondments: Ad Hoc

Firm profile

WFW is an international law firm advising on complex transactions and disputes through local knowledge and an integrated international network. We have a strong sector focus, combining our technical excellence with deep industry knowledge across energy, transport and real estate. We strive for excellence in all that we do and view investment in our people as key to achieving our business goals and values, which rest on developing deep and long-lasting relationships externally and internally through respect, sharing, communication and integrity. Our teams are integrated across legal disciplines and offices delivering consistently high levels of service in combination across borders and locally through a deep understanding of local business customs and culture.

Main areas of work

Within our core sectors of energy (conventional and renewable power, oil and gas, mining and commodities), real estate and transport (aviation, maritime and rail) plus associated infrastructure, we provide a full suite of legal services including finance, capital markets, corporate, construction, planning, employment, public law, regulatory and competition and dispute resolution.

Trainee opportunities

WFW deals with training and ongoing development in an individual way. During each seat the firm discusses with trainees plans for the next one to ensure they gain valuable insight from the six seat programme, including a guaranteed overseas secondment.

Training contracts will be hands-on, with as much experience of clients and challenging, highprofile work as possible. Trainees will benefit from plenty of exposure to senior lawyers, many acknowledged leaders in their field.

WFW believes that only total immersion can provide trainees with the experience they require.

Vacation scheme

The firm’s vacation scheme is the best way to familiarise yourself with WFW. The two-week placements are at WFW’s London office in Spring and Summer, and are open to anyone applying for a training contract in the current recruitment cycle. To appreciate first-hand the type of work trainees undertake day to day, participants will work with solicitors in one of the firm’s practice groups for the whole period, where possible. To complement this focus on one area, they will also attend a variety of talks and social events designed to give a general overview of the firm. Participants will receive a payment of £325 per week during the scheme. Applications must be received by 8th January 2021.

Other benefits

These include 25 days holiday, income protection scheme, life assurance, employee assistance scheme, pension scheme, private medical insurance, interest-free season ticket loan, £250 contribution towards a sports club or exercise classes, and a flexible benefits scheme.

Open days and first-year opportunities

The firm currently runs Winter Open Days. Applications for these open in October, closing the following month. Anyone in their first year of university onwards is eligible to apply via the online application form.

University law careers fairs 2020

Please come along and see WFW at one of the following law fairs: AllAboutLaw, Legal Cheek, Kent, Queen Mary London, Exeter and Durham.

The firm’s representatives would be delighted to meet potential applicants and answer questions.

Social media

Twitter @WFW_UKTrainees

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020

Ranked Departments

    • Construction: Contentious (Band 5)
    • Construction: Non-contentious (Band 5)
    • Corporate/M&A: Lower Mid-Market (Band 2)
    • Asset Finance: Aviation Finance (Band 3)
    • Asset Finance: Shipping Finance (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: AIM (Band 4)
    • Commodities: Trade Finance (Band 4)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 4)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 3)
    • Shipping (Band 3)

More from Watson Farley Williams:

Visit the firm's graduate recruitment page.

Follow the firm on Twitter.