Don't forget your passport if you join WFW, a growing finance specialist with a history in shipping, and tasty overseas opportunities.
Watson the menu?
Proud collectors of Chambers Student could look back through previous editions and read all about Watson Farley Williams' historic shipping finance specialism. But times change. The firm has clocked some impressive growth in recent years, scoring a 20% revenue increase in 2016/17, and adding a White & Case partner to its aviation finance team. So these days there's more and more to be said about WFW's other practices. Sure, the firm still receives a top ranking from Chambers UK for its shipping finance work (its highest accolade), but the impressive rankings for its work in energy, aviation finance, corporate M&A and capital markets are fruits borne of a more balanced practice. For the future, the firm lays out its focus clearly: a continued commitment to the transport and energy sectors, combined with a push to build its real estate work.
With 13 international offices, the firm is disproportionately international for its size. For trainees, that's a huge deal-sweetener, since the contract includes a mandatory international secondment. Whereas other outfits have trainees scramble for precious few places each year, WFW guarantees one of a selection of finance seats across Bangkok, Dubai, Singapore, Athens and Paris. You can also do litigation in Bangkok and Singapore. The only requirement (for the finance seats) is that before heading out trainees must complete a seat in the finance department in London.
Along with mandating a stint in its asset finance department, WFW plumps for a six-seat system. Insiders found this system to be "a double-edged sword: you have a more rounded training contract and that gives you more options when you qualify, but only a short while after you get to grips with what you're doing you have to move on. That can be frustrating." The possibility of doing a repeat seat goes some way to remedying this. One source thought "people are quick to make the short seats a negative thing. I know a lot of people at the firm now from having sat on so many floors, which is awesome." After their first seat, which is selected for them, trainees are sent an "email asking us to rank our top three choices. Some trainees don't get what they want but HR always calls them up and explains why. There's always a justification and a logic to it."
Trainees sat in asset finance – the firm's largest department – will find themselves working on cross-border financings related to either shipping or aviation. The asset sales, structured securitisations and leasebacks undertaken in both sectors mean the teams do a ton of business with big banks, such as Credit Suisse, Citibank and HSH Nordbank. But it also represents shipowners like Teekay and China LNG Shipping – the firm recently helped the pair to secure $1.6 billion to add six carriers to their fleet. Most trainees enjoyed their time in the seat, while noting that "it's quite fast-paced, and the hours are long.” On the plus side "transactions here could be over in a month, so it helped develop your ability to be methodical, to manage your emails and stay a few steps ahead." Day to day, trainees described “monitoring and updating conditions precedent, pulling relevant deal documents together for bibles, and you often get sent out to meet clients at ship registries. You can even run a closing."
"Getting everything closed and reading about it in trade magazines is pretty rewarding."
Sources who had passed through the corporate department found that "work can come from anywhere, so one day you can be helping the energy team and the next you're helping a small insurance guy sell his conglomerate." On the larger end of things, the team aided Statkraft – the largest generator of renewable power in Europe – as it sold its stake in a couple of wind farms for a cool £1.1 billion; retailer Fraiser called on the firm as it acquired four UK business parks for £656 million and the firm also stepped up to advise trader RCMA Group as it sold some of its rubber-related businesses for $33.8 million.
Beyond buying and selling, trainees also recalled involvement in AIM placings. Sources admitted that "a lot of the day can be taken up by more minor trainee tasks, like preparing documents for closings and due diligence. Though we did get that chance to do proper legal drafting as well. I drafted bits of a share purchase agreement." Despite it being hard work at times, “after those seven weeks of being busy, getting everything closed and reading about it in trade magazines is pretty rewarding. You realise the stuff that's been driving you mad has achieved something and been noticed by those outside the four walls you are living in."
Lawyering on gas
Things didn't slow down in the "high intensity, high octane" energy, infrastructure and projects team. “It's the firm's golden goose at the moment in terms of big deals." WFW recently helped international oil and gas company OMV on a share sale worth $1 billion. It also advised OMV on its shareholding in Pearl Consortium after the oil group settled a long-running arbitration with the Kurdistan Regional Government. Elsewhere a number of institutional investors (including investment wings of both Aviva and Legal & General) sought advice on the financing of a £2 billion acquisition of a stake in the Cumbrian Walney offshore wind farm.
Given WFW's relatively small size, these big deals “make the department sweat, because everybody is pitching in. Some of the work keeps you there until two or three in the morning." Trainees could get stuck "managing the closing documents and updating spreadsheets,” but beyond more project-management tasks, there was also the chance to draft due diligence reports, or even contracts.Given the intensity, one source felt "if you do the seat early on it can be a bit overwhelming. I was very glad I had sat in finance before; I think energy is something you should try to do in your second year."
In litigation, sources noticed a shift. “It's becoming less of a support department. Sub-groups increasingly get their own clients rather than just relying on the other teams and word of mouth." Along with general commercial work the team picks up construction, property, shipping and banking litigation. To give some examples, Lehman Brothers has asked for help in its claim that it lost out on approximately $1 billion in a derivatives transaction; oil supplier Conapro Dena received advice on a breach of contract claim against the government of The Gambia; and British American Tobacco used the firm to take on a £1.1 million dispute with Factcroft, a former landlord.
Sources had mixed opinions on their time in the seat. One "liked the teamwork aspect – often you would have five trainees checking court bundles page by page, making sure everything was there." For others, the team's working methods led to some frustration. “There are more of the older guys that have been at WFW since its inception. They like things done their way and are not as up to date when using technology. They are also fiercely intelligent so they don't want small talk or to be your friend, they want you to do your work. That being said, they were still happy to sit down and talk through any work you had.”
"There's a lot more substantive drafting and client exposure."
In their overseas seat trainees found a less restrictive experience, and most sources saw it as a clear highlight. In particular, the level of responsibility came in for praise. The relatively small size of the departments saw trainees "expected to do work at an NQ level. There's a lot more substantive drafting and client exposure." The hours trainees work while abroad vary quite a bit from place to place. One source said their experience was more "laid back than in London. Unless people are incredibly busy they leave work at around 6pm and have quite a relaxing evening." Others worked very hefty hours similar to their experience in London.
Back in Blighty most departments (aside from litigation) offered varying types of formal training to help newbies find their feet. For example, shipping has three full days at the start of the seat, while corporate prefers lunchtime sessions. "The full days are an information overload, but when you are doing work it's difficult to find the time to do training. There are pros and cons to both." The informal training and supervision on offer received more consistent praise: “I never really felt alone as there is always someone you can ask, be they a junior lawyer or supervisor. They choose people to be supervisors who are going to be good teachers – it's not like they just pick 20 people out of a hat." The four-month stints, however, did lead one source to advise that the best way to fully learn from a seat was "to do one twice. It can take a while to get going."
As we prompted trainees to muse on the firm's make-up, they gave the impression that the firm isn't one for breaking moulds. "I think people's backgrounds are fairly typical for a lawyer," thought one. "Everyone went to a pretty good university and we seem to have a lot of Durham, Bristol, Manchester and Oxbridge people floating around.” But sources did eventually tease out some differences. "There's definitely something about people that have trained here. I think you can tell who's come across from the American or magic circle firms. The people that trained here would rather you take an extra day and do work properly than rush it." The promise of an international secondment also attracted those interested in international affairs and "people do speak a lot of languages" across the offices.
“A lot of people think because we are not the magic circle they will be leaving at 6pm every day – they will not!" This trainee's stark warning was welcome, though a tad dramatic. We found plenty of people who weren't surprised at being able to leave between 6pm and 7pm. But we heard slightly different stories across teams. Having arrived at 9am, asset finance trainees were used to regular 9–10pm finishes. Corporate is "pretty much the same, though there were a couple of more extreme examples where we had to stay later than that. I had one 5am finish." Energy took the title as “the most unstable” since “you could leave at 6pm, or if it's busy you can be in until the early hours of the morning."
"We have a mini-fridge where we keep beers and champagne for Fridays."
Providing a better reason to stay up, "most teams have Friday night drinks on their floors, where a drinks trolley comes round. In one of my old offices we have a mini-fridge where we keep beers and champagne for Fridays." Lawyers distract themselves further through inter-floor netball – “there's a cup and everything!" – plus an international inter-office football competition and weekly yoga. One area of frustration, however, was the lack of formal trainee events. "On the vac scheme they throw quite a lot of social events and give the impression it's going to continue," grumbled one insider. Another confided that "we had our first trainee social three weeks ago, which is somewhat unacceptable. The first-years have waited a year and a half!"
Qualifying starts with trainees getting "a jobs list in early March, then we have a meeting in mid-March where we discuss where we would like to apply. Interviews take place around the end of the month.” Although most were keen to stay on, there was some disquiet surrounding "opportunities in foreign offices. There are some available, but we have no details on the benefits we would get or if we would get help moving our lives out there." A number of insiders were also not too impressed that departments are able to find out where else they had applied to internally, leaving open the potential for awkward interview questions. On the plus side, sources were confident that WFW was committed to retaining as many trainees as possible, confidence that was confirmed – the firm kept 16 out of 19 in 2018.
In helping trainees prepare for their stint abroad the firm offers up to 20 hours of free language lessons.
How to get a Watson Farley training contract
Training contract deadline (2021): 15 July 2019 (opens October 2018)
Open day deadline: 15 November 2018
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.”
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 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.
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.”
Interview with managing partner Chris Lowe
Chambers Student: What should people think when they hear the name Watson Farley Williams?
Chris Lowe: The first thing they should think about is that we are sector-focused, and that our core sectors are transport and energy. Sub-divisions under transport include maritime, aviation and rail; under energy you have oil and gas power and natural resources. Power would further be split into conventional and renewable. In addition to those two 'super sectors' we have a strong hybrid sector/practice group in real estate. We also have an international footprint and our practice is growing which makes this an exciting place to spend all or part of your career.
CS: Are there any highlights from the last year you think are important to mention?
CL: We have had further growth of turnover for the financial year 2017/18 off the back of a record year in 2016/17. On top of this, whilst we don't want to dilute our sector focus we've built a strategy we call 'Services into Sector', in particular around our energy and transport, plus real estate sectors. We recognise that as stronger opportunities arise in sectors such as finance, disputes and corporate M&A, we're also doing more and more work outside these traditional sectors. This 'sector-agnostic' aspect of our business is growing as well. The higher quality transactions and disputes we're working on means we're being recognised more and more as able to deliver high quality both within and outside our traditional sectors.
CS: What are the major challenges the firm faces in achieving those goals?
CL: The biggest challenge is that we are not alone in the legal community and under pressure from accounting firms and potentially artificial intelligence. Where we see our differentiator is that we are in many ways trusted advisers and enhancers of peoples' businesses, and our sector specialisation protects us, as we are able to provide industry-specific advice which is relevant to our client base through all cycles of their markets.
There is also a threat from growing consolidation and competition within the industry. That is why our growth strategy is delivering not just in terms of career advancement and improved profitability, but it also gives us a defence in being able to deliver investment initiatives to the market and be more recognised as a global brand.
CS: What experience do trainees get here that they would not find elsewhere?
CL: They have an opportunity to take an overseas seat and operate out of their comfort zone in those jurisdictions. Alongside this trainees have far more client facing activity than at peer firms. The level of responsibility and involvement they get is something I hear a lot of positive feedback about.
CS: What sort of person thrives at the firm?
CL: We are conscious that we're recruiting trainees for two years in the future, so they need to be confident and engaging throughout the recruitment process. It's important to be self-assured without being arrogant or delusional about your capabilities.
The people who do well are those that relax and be themselves at the assessment centre; those that do well concentrate on the task rather than worry about showing us the skills they think we want. We give our training contracts to those who make the most of the opportunity because the market is so competitive right now.
However, there’s no one answer to what a person should be, trainees are all individuals and they bring different backgrounds and experiences to the firm. In some sense we also like to see people who post-qualification have an appetite for work outside the UK market. We've recently offered NQ and associate positions in Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai.
CS: What are the key differences in your mind between working in a mid-sized City firm and one of the large behemoths?
CL: Trainees get to be free range rather than battery. We have never worked from a highly leveraged model, which should attract individuals at the junior end who want to work closely with key advisers and specialists in their industry sectors rather than in a large battery hen environment. Trainees get a wide variety of work rather than being stuck on a single large financing or corporate transaction, and only dealing with the clean-up elements at the end.
CS: What advice do you have for readers who are about to enter the legal profession?
CL: My daughter is going through this consideration at the moment! Don't underestimate the commitment and investment that needs to be made to succeed in the legal profession. That's in terms of time, the intellectual demands and, in some senses, handling pressure.
Trends in the energy sector
Watson Farley & Williams
15 Appold Street,
- Partners 157
- Associates 400+
- Total trainees 36 (18 first years and 18 second years)
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 13
- Graduate recruiter: Lucie Rees, Graduate Recruitment & Development Manager, [email protected] wfw.com
- Training partner: Christina Howard, Corporate Partner, [email protected]
- 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 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 15 July 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: October 2018
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 14 January 2019
- Open day deadline: 15 November 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £43,000
- Second-year salary: £46,000
- Post-qualification salary: £70,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £6,500/£5,500 dependant on location
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London
- Overseas seats: Guaranteed in either Athens, Bangkok, Dubai, Hamburg, Paris or Singapore
- Client secondments: Ad Hoc
Main areas of work
In the firm’s chosen sectors it competes successfully with some of the best law firms in the world. Building on WFW’s origins in ship finance, demand for maritime work remains as strong as ever. At the same time the firm has seized opportunities to excel in related areas where its finance expertise has most relevance, such as energy, natural resources, transport, real estate and technology.
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.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2018
The firm’s representatives would be delighted to meet potential applicants and answer questions in person.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Construction: Purchaser (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 3)
- Commodities: Trade Finance (Band 4)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 2)
- Shipping (Band 4)