Watson Farley & Williams - True Picture

If you’re looking to dive into sector-focused work and overseas opportunities, then it’s (mari)time to get to know WFW.

Watson Farley & Williams training contract review 2024 

The Firm 

If you tell people you’re at Watson Farley, they'll associate you with maritime work,” explains training principal and asset finance partner Kavita Shah. It’s a reputation Watson Farley & Williams has upheld since it was founded in 1982, as an asset finance boutique specialising in shipping and aviation. Although still firmly anchored in these sectors, WFW's work has broadened in the past 40 years. Continuing to take a sectoral approach to practice, the firm has additional expertise in energy, infrastructure, oil and gas, and mining and commodities. Chambers UK tells the same story, with WFW’s UK-wide shipping asset finance team earning its highest ranking. The firm is also recognised by the guide nationally in aviation asset finance and alternative energy and natural resources. “It’s exciting to be part of a firm like WFW amongst people who are passionate about our sectors,” Shah enthuses. “We’re working in evolving sectors at different stages of a journey. There are lots of challenges ahead, but we have decades of experience in our industries.” 

“People are very invested in your development – you're not just one of the numbers.” 

One trainee neatly summarised WFW as “a firm that’s clear about what it does and does it well.” A no nonsense approach, then, but that’s not to say that WFW is all work and no fun. For instance, trainees can get some travelling done during their training contract with guaranteed international secondments. “It might be in a glamorous jurisdiction, so you get the chance to explore an exciting city,” Shah enthuses. “It’s also a wonderful opportunity to get to know the colleagues you’ll probably work with in the future.” Trainees also valued the personal side of life at WFW, claiming it’s a place where “you get to form relationships with other trainees while also getting individual attention from the firm. People are very invested in your development – you’re not just one of the numbers.” 

The Seats 

Trainees at WFW complete six four-month seats, which are allocated following an informal chat with grad recruitment. Simply put, you tell them your preferences, and they’ll do their best to accommodate. It’s common for trainees to repeat seats and many spend their sixth seat with the department in which they’ll qualify. All trainees do a rotation with the asset finance department, typically “as soon as possible in your first year – it's what the firm’s about.” Another insider explained that “it’s a finance-heavy training contract. You’ll likely do more than one finance seat and you'll have to do a finance seat before going abroad.” 

International secondments follow a similar track, but sources suggested, “it’s generally best if you either suggest a destination and be flexible with the timing or suggest a time and be flexible with the destination.” Our interviewees had been or were set to go to a range of WFW’s international destinations, including Madrid, Athens, Paris, Dubai and Bangkok, and they can cash in up to 20 hours of language learning in advance of their trip. Newbies aren’t limited to just one secondment and some might take two or even three trips abroad during their contract. Though, sources advised “you have to be strategic when choosing when to go. You want to be known in the London office before fifth seat qualification interviews.” 

“Closings happen so quickly it’s exciting!” 

WFW’s well-known asset finance practice mostly deals with shipping matters, along with a sizeable aviation sub-team and some rail work too. Even though the department deals with specialised finance work, its client base is surprisingly diverse, with the likes of TUI Cruises, HSBC and Eurazeo Sustainable Maritime Infrastructure on the books. Trainees mentioned that the work involves refinancings of existing facilities, on the delivery of new builds, and the sales and purchases of vessels. “Even though it’s focused, I liked that there’s quite a bit of variety,” a trainee enthused. Interviewees felt that the work was largely administrative, with a lot of transaction management and emails to send to local counsel and opposition lawyers, making sure everyone’s on top of what needs to be done. Tracking conditions precedents is another familiar task for asset finance trainees, but there are opportunities for drafting as well. “I enjoy that the most,” an interviewee reflected. “It’s an opportunity for lawyers to be creative and succinct in their writing.” Others highlighted the speed of transactions, reveling in the fact that “you can definitely be involved from the start to finish. Closings happen so quickly – it’s exciting!” 

The projects department at WFW mainly focuses on project finance, with a smaller sub-team that specialises in project development, regulation and construction contracts. The trainees we spoke to had done plenty of work in the mining and renewable energy sectors, including the financing of solar power and wind farms. The group recently worked with Palestine Power Generating Company on the development of Palestine’s first project-financed gas-fired power plant, which is set to account for 45% of the region’s electricity generation needs. However, it has also represented plenty of domestic clients and banks, such as NatWest, Lloyds and Santander. On the finance side, trainees do similar tasks as those in asset finance, such as running conditions precedent checklists and drafting ancillary documents. The drafting was highly rated by our interviewees, who appreciated that “you have to think about the commercial aspects of the projects, why they’re being done and what’s going to come from them.” Trainees involved in project development work take charge of due diligence reviews and draft reports where “you have to understand the lender’s perspective and what they’re trying to get out of the deal.” Sources mentioned that there’s a fair amount of client contact as well, as trainees can join meetings and calls with them and email them directly. 

“There’s a great library on the first floor where I often go to dive into textbooks.” 

Dispute resolution covers the firm’s core sectors, including shipping, construction, aviation, transport and energy, with an array of real estate disputes and international arbitration matters to boot. To give you a flavour of the scope of the work, the firm has been advising the international commodity training company JE Energy regarding a multi-million-dollar oil trading dispute. Trainees loved the variety of matters and tasks on offer, explaining that a newbie’s main task is general case management but there’s scope for more responsibility on top of that. Some had more client contact than others and learned through taking attendance notes at meetings, while others spent a lot of time doing legal research. “There’s a great library on the first floor where I often go to dive into textbooks,” an interviewee explained. “Legal research lets you dig deep and really get into the law.” We heard there are also some drafting responsibilities, disclosure tasks and bundling, as you’d expect from a contentious seat. 

The corporate team at WFW sits across three different floors, supporting various practice areas across the firm’s core sectors. As a result, trainees get different experiences of the seat as the group services the corporate needs of other departments in the firm. The group works with clients across its main sectors, including Green Investment Group, NYK Shipping, Beacon Energy and InfraRed Capital Partners. Our interviewees were involved in public and private M&A deals, general corporate restructurings and even some advisory work for clients’ one-off requests. There’s quite a bit of document management for newbies, such as tracking the necessary signatures, sending out signing instructions and compiling the transaction documents after closing. Trainees also run due diligence, take part in verification processes, draft smaller agreements and review corporate authorities, the latter of which, according to one trainee, “reminded me most of the content you learn on the LPC business modules.” 

Trainee Life 

Interviewees explained that the hours fluctuated between departments - and overseas offices, for that matter - but generally felt that it was manageable. According to one source, “when you start the training contract, you go in with the mindset that it won’t be a 9 to 5 job. A 7pm finish is reasonable for trainees in our mindset.” Point taken. Trainees had different ideas of what an average day adds up to in terms of numbers, but we heard that some generally finish around 6pm and others around 7.30pm. Some longer hours are part and parcel of the job, but an interviewee assured that “later nights are recognised, not a given.” On the flip side, “if you’re done at 5.30 or 6pm, no one’s expecting you to sit around and wait for work.” The decent work-life balance meant trainees were generally satisfied with the compensation, explaining that it’s comparative to other midsized London firms. (Info on salary) WFW also matches the market with an official hybrid working policy where trainees are expected to be in at least three days a week. 

One interviewee referred to this flexible working policy whilst discussing the firm’s DE&I efforts: “Having a policy allowing very talented associates to work from home and balance families while practising is great. It’s the kind of thing that encourages more women to stay in law.” In fact, our interviewees felt WFW really pushes the boat out when it comes to gender representation. At the time of writing, the latest trainee intake was majority female, and sources felt optimistic about this representation improving at the higher levels. The firm also has a number of diversity networks, including MOSAIC for ethnic and racial diversity, PROUD for LGBTQ+ and allies, and a women’s initiative called We Further Women. Trainees were also involved in a D&I book club which meets every few months to discuss a text relating to a different D&I topic.

“Amongst the trainees, there’s always someone that’s up for having a pint.”  

There are also a bunch of social events at WFW, which range from trainee and team-specific socials to cross-office, large-scale events. The annual dodgeball and football tournament is a highlight for the European offices and will be held in Athens in 2023. If you’re lucky, your international secondment seat will align with the location and timing of the event but, if not, about 20 or so lawyers can attend as part of the London office’s team. Back home, the firm has the classic spread of activities like Christmas parties, summer parties, away days and drinks trolleys. Informally, an interviewee mentioned that “amongst the trainees, there’s always someone that’s up for having a pint.” That said, secondments mean that some trainees will be away from the London office, so the cohort’s always switching up. However, even though this has an impact, sources felt that it wasn’t enough to spoil the fun: “Because of the work you do you’ll often be communicating anyway, so you never feel like you lose contact with them.” 

Team-specific socials can vary, especially since, according to one interviewee, “there’s almost a separate culture within every team. Some are just a bit more social than others.” More generally, sources described the culture as friendly, supportive, and cohesive across offices. “When you’re a trainee in a smaller department, you get the sense that you know everyone in the department,” an insider explained. “That means there are no strange feelings about dropping into someone’s office and asking them about work.” For trainees, the more easygoing culture meant that there are no barriers to training, and sources appreciated the humility of the partners. “People will always sit you down and explain stuff to you. It’s so rare to get turned away from someone if you have a question.” 

Sources also praised the structured training, explaining how official training sessions are held by departments and the grad recruitment team. We heard that the style of learning “depends on the team. Some will frontload the training in the first week, while others have more regular sessions throughout the seat.” While departments teach practice area-specific knowledge, trainees explained that the grad team’s training has included sessions on time recording, business development, and even grammar and punctuation. “It’s really thorough,” said one interviewee. Adding that, “I was going through some past training today as I now have to use what I learned. They’ve got a very comprehensive precedent bank which I’m constantly referring to.” 

Qualification at WFW was consistently described as informal and transparent by trainees, who explained that the first step is a chat with grad recruitment on where you’d like to apply. Once the job list is released, candidates formally apply and then interview with the teams they want to join. “The interview style depends on the team,” said a second-year. “Some have a very prescriptive interview with specific commercial or technical questions, while others might be more like a conversation.” Although trainees can apply for more than one role, departments aren’t aware of how they have been ranked, so “it’s in your court and you can pick preferences, but you’ll only get one offer.” Although WFW gets the process done early so trainees can apply elsewhere if necessary, sources explained that the firm typically does well with retention. In 2023, WFW retained 14 out of 18 qualifiers.

Up close and personal 

WFW trainees share an office with their supervisor, meaning “you get contact with a senior associate and can observe their calls.”

How to get a Watson Farley & Williams training contract 


  • Vacation scheme deadline (2024): 8 January 2023 (opens 2 October 2023) 
  • Training contract deadline (2026): 24 June 2024 (opens 2 October 2023) 

Watson Farley & Williams receives around 900 applications each year: about two-thirds are for the firm's vacation scheme, while the rest 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. “Although we recognise the value of legal work experience, especially for those applying directly for a training contract, we understand that it can be challenging to gain this, so we encourage candidates to instead focus on the transferable skills that they may have developed through legal and non-legal work experience, and to use these skills to demonstrate that they understand the role of a trainee solicitor at a commercial firm,” says a member of the early careers team.  

The form also covers motivational questions you would expect such as ‘Why do you want to work at Watson Farley & Williams?’ “Given we’re a sector-focussed firm, it is really important that candidates at least demonstrate an interest in some of our sectors – we’re not expecting candidates to be experts, but just to have and show an interest,” adds the early careers team member.  

The form also includes various open-ended questions, including questions about extracurricular activities. The early careers team member notes that these questions give candidates “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. Following the success of the format which had to be introduced during the pandemic, assessment centres will continue to take place online. The assessment centre is fairly typical in that it involves group and written exercises. The early careers team member shares: “We clearly brief candidates ahead of each exercise, and we have tried to make the exercises and tasks as realistic and as close as possible to the sorts of things trainees do daily at the firm.” 

There is also an opportunity to chat with some of the current trainees to find out more about their experiences at the firm. The early careers team member 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,” the early careers team member explains. 

The vacation scheme

Following the assessment centre, WFW chooses its vac schemers. The early careers team member 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 or people, who for various reasons, were unable to apply for a vac scheme.” 

The firm runs three placements – one in spring and two in the summer in June – and each lasts two weeks.  

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.  These interviews will be conducted in person. 

The interview is conducted by a partner and a member of the early careers 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 the early careers team member, adding: “We especially want to see an interest in the sectors we work in and some commercial awareness around these, though we don't expect them to be sector experts at this stage.” 

Watson Farley & Williams

15 Appold Street,
Website www.wfw.com

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 associated infrastructure. 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), and transport (aviation, maritime and rail) plus associated infrastructure, we provide a full suite of legal services including capital markets, construction, corporate and M&A, dispute resolution, employment, finance, private equity, public law, real estate, regulatory and competition, restructuring and insolvency and tax. 

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, high profile 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. 

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. 

Contact us


This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2023

Ranked Departments

    • Construction: Contentious (Band 4)
    • Construction: Non-contentious (Band 5)
    • Corporate/M&A: £10-100 million (Band 2)
    • Asset Finance: Aviation Finance (Band 2)
    • Asset Finance: Shipping Finance (Band 1)
    • Commodities: Trade Finance (Band 4)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 4)
    • Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 2)
    • Hotels & Leisure (Band 3)
    • Shipping (Band 2)

More from Watson Farley Williams:

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