Where there’s a will there’s a way, and for high net worth individuals it's frequently at Withers.
Withers thou goest, I will go
“It has a bit of a glamorous reputation,” said Withers trainees on what attracted them to the firm. “All the wealthy clients, the luxury brands...” Some recognisable names the firm has worked for include Vivienne Westwood, Novak Djoković, Marriott Hotels and Ascot Racecourse. The firm has advised one in five of the top 100 of the US Forbes Rich List and just over half of the top 100 in The Sunday Times' Rich List. “Even if you’re working on something fairly routine, the client make it intrinsically more interesting and exciting,” felt one source. The firm also works for “some families going back decades and decades and even to the 18th century.” Chambers UK, Chambers Global and Chambers High Net Worth recognise Withers as one of the top private client firms in the UK and in the world. Chambers UK also dishes out sparkling rankings for family, employment and charities.
Withers’ London office recently moved, but not too far – “just ten metres down the road!” With barely a new postcode, a bigger change was the shift from working in offices across six floors to an open-plan layout across two. At the time of our calls, trainees were looking forward to the change, anticipating “much more mingling” across departments. Already across different groups trainees described “lots of overlap because one client has several needs.” The firm's website url, withersworldwide.com, and its 16 overseas offices are a reminder that Withers very much considers itself a global firm.
“A lot of the time emails go round asking: ‘Can a trainee translate this?’”
There can be an international element to the work in London too, “as you’d expect in a city full of international workers." In particular, "walking around the office you hear a lot of Italian, and where I’m sitting Russian is always being spoken.” Withers attracts a lot of multilingual trainees – the firm particularly likes French, German, Spanish, Italian and Russian speakers. “A lot of the time emails go round asking, ‘Can a trainee translate this?’” we heard. There are overseas seats on offer in Milan, Geneva and Hong Kong; speaking a foreign language is not a prerequisite for going abroad.
The firm has a commercial practice too and the presence of this alongside private client and family was a draw for trainees too. One said: “At some firms you might do three seats doing different types of finance, but here you could do one seat in family, then end up in corporate or real estate.” When submitting seat preferences, trainees put forward “three or four options in order of preference, along with a little blurb on why you’re interested in them.” With seven seat options to choose from, trainees found that by the time they got to their final rotation they ended up “putting the rest in preferred order.” Some felt the process could “cause a bit of frustration if you spend six months in a department you literally have no interest in,” but “the idea is you get your number-one choice at least once, so if you don’t get what you want you’ll be prioritised next round.”
Every trainee is assigned a partner mentor for the duration of the contract who’ll “argue your case for you” around the time of rotation. As well as “genuinely caring” supervisors, trainees also have an HR mentor who sits in on end-of-seat appraisals and a trainee ‘buddy’ in the year above who’s there to help navigate the firm. Retention is usually typical of the market average and in 2018 tenof 11 trainees were kept on.
Wealth of Withers
For many trainees wealth planning is “the jewel in the crown” at Withers. As the firm’s biggest department globally, it has “a diverse range of clients with different forms of wealth. Sometimes you’d be working for the Duke of Marlborough and his estate [Blenheim Palace], then you might be working for Novak Djoković” – Withers has been negotiating an endorsement with Lacoste for the Serbian tennis ace. One source told us they had worked on a matter for “a Lady – an actual Lady – whose husband had died, so we were reorganising assets held in trust in much more tax-efficient ways.” Wealth planning lawyers also handle probate, wills, trust administration and the establishment of family limited partnerships. A trainee reported “helping to draft a research note about how best to hold a London property. The client then considered it and decided which option they wanted.” Trainees do all kinds of research: into tax changes, different types of bonds and even "where someone should be buying a holiday home for tax efficiency." Sources pointed out that as well as these exciting tasks, they may be called on for “less interesting things, like trying to get someone a new passport.”
“I got to go to a client’s house to collect some diamond earrings.”
The contentious trust and succession group (CTSG) is dedicated entirely to contentious trusts work; spots in this seat were in high demand. “You do feel you’re at the forefront of research – a lot of clients come to us with knotty issues because Withers has the expertise and clout to manage them.” Disputes may be tied to succession, will validity, inheritance claims, and “naughty trustees who’ve behaved badly.” Withers advised Naxos Art in a dispute over £13 million worth of paintings belonging to a company owned by a family trust which were then sold by a beneficiary of that trust. Trainees were occasionally called on for tasks with a bit of glamour: “I got to go to a client’s house to collect some diamond earrings that were the subject of a settlement dispute.” Another trainee told us: "It's a good mix between being academic but also having the human element of dealing with people and their families. I met lots of clients and went to lots of client meetings. I also went to court twice – once on my own, which was quite exciting!" There is some "more administrative" work too. Withers’ charities practice crosses paths frequently with CTSG: “The classic scenario is that someone left all their money to a charity, and then an estranged child or partner comes out of the woodwork to contest the will or make a claim under the Inheritance Act. I like that side of the work because I feel like I’m helping put the money where it’s supposed to go to.” Among the firm’s charity clients are the British Red Cross, the RSPB and Macmillan Cancer Support.
A third “flagship seat,” according to trainees, is family, where rookies are exposed to “a number of big cases.” The group is “especially strong on sorting out disputes over finances” – there are "a few children cases but not as many." The trainees we spoke to had also been involved in “non-contentious work like pre-nup agreements." We heard that "there’s often an international element to the work, as a divorcing couple may have assets spread across various jurisdictions. There may also be a corporate element to a financial settlement or trust.” Here too clients are not short of a bob or two, which means matters usually have a high price tag. It was “one of the busier seats I’ve had in my contract,” a trainee told us, with “constant client interaction.” They acknowledged: “It’s not for everyone. It can be challenging to see someone distressed, but it’s part of the job.” That said, "family law can have a rep for being quite emotional and sentimental, but our work actually has a strong commercial element, and you do need decent financial and numeracy skills."
Withers of Whitehall
Four trainees at a time sit in one of the real estate team’s four sub-groups: residential, rural, construction and real estate disputes. You can pick up work across the groups as “trainees are a bit of a free-for-all.” A highlight in the construction group was “working for a private client but the deal was £100 million,” while in residential a trainee was on a team that “won a bid for the buyer of a very high-end property. The seller was a foreign government so we went to the embassy to make our case.” Recent work includes advising State Bank of India on its £300 million loan to the Hinduja Group in partnership with a Spanish industrial company for the acquisition of the Old War Office on Whitehall. Withers also recently acted for two tenants of South Kensington properties worth approximately £8 million, whose landlord claimed possession on the grounds of Crown immunity.
“You’ll often work for a single shareholder or a family company.”
The work of the commercial team was described as “corporate with a twist. It still has a private client flavour because you’ll often work for a single shareholder or a family company.” For example, Withers recently helped brother and sister entrepreneurs Richard and Mary Bhullar with their £4.5 million acquisition of the French and UK divisions of the Worldnet courier company, and advised the CEO of tradespeople directory Checkatrade on its £54 million acquisition by Homeserve. Withers does advise some more classically corporate clients too, including Renault, but one trainee commented: “A typical scenario might be a private client whose wife wants to set up a clothing brand.” A trainee said that by the end of the seat they were “trusted to work on three or four small matters by myself with someone checking in with me once a week.” Trainees felt the pressure a bit more in this seat when it came to hours and seniors’ expectations: “It can be stressful but at the same time you learn an absolute ton.”
In most departments the hours are pretty reasonable: 8.30 or 9am to 6.30 or 7pm most days. "You rarely stay past 8pm," one source said. Corporate is "toughest"– a trainee here reported having "a bad week last week," staying till 10pm. "The latest I've stayed?" another added. "Probably in corporate, till about 1.30am." One source concluded: “You’re not going to be working nine to five here. I wish I had known the hours would be slightly longer than I’d anticipated.”
Withers, hither and thither
Trainees didn’t feel their hard work was taken for granted: “A partner bought me some cakes because I’d been working really hard on a matter.” Another said that when they were working late “people come over and were like, ‘Thank you so much, you’re a lifesaver,’ and that makes the late nights okay.” As for what people are like more broadly, one interviewee told us straightforwardly: “Everyone is very nice. You don’t need to be nasty to get ahead.” Instead the Withers feel is “unpretentious and accessible with an extra layer of friendliness.” Sources attributed this partly to the private client side of the firm: “There’s always a face to the client, as opposed to a panel of lawyers, so it’s quite a different interaction. If you’re helping a client who’s had a horrible time, you need a little more empathy than at a corporate firm.” One trainee reflected on getting feedback and support: "Often you'll even see partners struggling to come up with solutions and getting together to think things out. That makes you much more comfortable asking questions!"
There are a smattering of social events throughout the year plus football and cricket teams. Trainees also get a “healthy” budget for socials, which a four-person committee has put to good use with events like bowling and a Christmas dinner at Jackson and Rye. Trainees also congregate on a Friday afternoon every other month for 'trainee club' with the training principal to “discuss interesting things we’ve been working on while drinking prosecco and beers.” The trainee group itself was for many one of the best parts of life at the firm. “I absolutely love them,” one source said of their peers. Another admitted: “You get some bad apples every now and then, but Withers has a track record of taking on good trainees. We’ve got a really tight-knit group.” So tight-knit in fact that when we spoke to trainees, the second-years were looking forward to a hard-earned weekend break in Dublin to celebrate the end of their third seat. “It isn’t a problem for us to all go away at the weekend – I haven’t had to do any weekend work since joining!”
It’s firm policy that every trainee takes on one pro bono matter over the course of the training contract.
How to get a Withers training contract
Training contract deadline: 31 July 2019 (opens 1 November 2018)
The online application form includes the standard 'why law?' and 'why Withers?' questions alongside several competency-based questions. “These ask for examples of how someone has demonstrated communication or commercial skills,” recruitment manager Jaya Louvre tells us, “and are a key part of the application form. Don’t just give a three-sentence answer; be specific and thorough.” Applicants can also expect to be asked an unusual question – 'what do you wish you had invented and why?' Have a good think about that one; apparently a lot of people say 'Facebook', so maybe that's a reply to avoid. Two online tests – one numerical, one verbal reasoning – round off the initial application.
Those who impress on paper are invited in to complete a written test followed by a first interview, which takes place with a partner and a member of HR who will ask questions surrounding the application form and various competencies. There's also a written test. “They give you a poorly worded letter and ask you to revise it,” one trainee revealed. From here, vac schemers are chosen.
Meanwhile, direct training contract applicants who are successful at the first interview go on to complete an assessment centre. Candidates are given a week to prepare for a ten-minute presentation on one of four topical subjects (a recent example of one such topic is corruption in sport). Louvre's advice for impressing? “Put the research in and make sure you're knowledgeable about your subject – the partners will grill you about it!”
Recruiters told us that Withers is looking for candidates who are “bright, enthusiastic and personable.” They also mention the firm warmly welcomes those with language skills – Italian, Russian and Mandarin speakers are especially in demand. And remember that “if you put language skills down on your application form, expect to be tested on them.”
Withers runs three two-week vacation schemes, usually in the spring and over the summer. Participants split their time between two departments and are assigned a supervisor for each. “You don't know what it's like to be solicitor in practice before you actually spend some time in a firm, so it's a good opportunity to get an inside view,” reflected one trainee. “I was trusted with taking attendance notes and completing some research tasks.”
In addition to their supervisor-led work, vac schemers work as a group on a non-live matter. “On the final day you partake in a mediation and negotiation exercise with the other vac schemers,” a trainee reported. “Someone acts as a mediator, and you have to reach a settlement. I found it a really authentic insight into all the processes that go into these matters.”
Interview with training partner Ceri Vokes
CS: What is the firm's current strategic plan? Are you just consolidating or still aiming to grow?
CV: The aim of the firm is that, over time, our revenues are derived evenly from the US, Europe and Asia. We already have a strong presence in the UK, Italy and Switzerland, so at the moment we expect to see a lot of revenue growth from Asia and the US due to our new offices there. That is our focus in the short to medium term.
CS: Why is that the aim?
CV: The firm started off originally as a very traditional UK private client firm. As the world became more globalised, the firm became more international. We have always had clients from jurisdictions where we don't have a physical presence; and currently have clients from 80 jurisdictions, even though we have offices in just 18 locations. It is much easier to service clients from a local base; for example, in Asia the connection between business interactions and personal relationships is much closer and more fluid than in the UK – our expansion in Asia and our alliance with KhattarWong in Singapore is an attempt to capitalise on that fact.
CS: What efforts are the firm making to integrate internationally?
CV: We have reorganised the firm. It used to be composed of five different divisions and now there are three: commercial, private client and tax, and dispute resolution. Those are managed on a global basis by individuals who now have more time to focus on management and driving our strategy forward.
In addition, teams at the firm with common threads of work frequently collaborate and hold training sessions together. For example, in the wealth planning department we have joint training sessions with our US and Swiss colleagues who practice UK law.
I think Withers has proven itself to be effective at consolidating and the challenge is now to prove that the firm can do that with a larger network. That is the aim behind the restructuring of the firm into three divisions – it allows us to better spot common strategies between groups and jurisdictions.
CS: How should trainees expect to notice the firm's increasing internationalism?
CV: I think anyone who trains at Withers will be very aware that it is an international firm. I don't personally have a very large number of purely domestic clients. And even work for clients who are from the UK often has an international dimension: they may have properties abroad or a child who has gone to study abroad. These connections mean that trainees too get a sense of the firm's internationalism.
Having said this, I don't think our international growth is any cause for concern for trainees: they are based in the UK and are managed as such, so there haven't been lots of changes from that perspective.
CS: Does Withers intend to pursue a merger with another firm in the near future?
CV: I think the firm has been opportunistic in how it has bolted on groups of lawyers in the past, such as the ex-McKenna Long team in California. People at Withers are quite aware of how important it is to maintain our working culture, and while we are always alive to new opportunities, we are not currently working on any merger plans.
CS: You became training partner in 2016. Is there anything about the training contract you want to change while in that role or anything you've set yourself as a particular aim?
CV: I want to ensure that the good things my predecessor has done are maintained, and I'm keen to listen to our trainees to find out what they want. For example, one thing they asked for was more business development training, so we recently provided them with training from our marketing team about the strategy of the firm and some soft skills training. Another thing they asked for was a budget for a social committee. The trainees enjoy socialising together and are very good at helping each other out, so it seemed right that they be given a social budget so they can go out and have some fun.
CS: The firm recruits a lot of trainees who speak foreign languages. Why is this? Are people who speak languages just attracted to Withers or are languages something you particularly look for on applications?
CV: Yes, we do ask about it on applications. It goes both ways: people who speak languages are attracted to an international firm and we are attracted to people who can speak different languages, as that means they can speak to our clients in their own language. It's also really useful to have people who can review complex documents in foreign languages and explain them to someone else. The languages we particularly like are Italian (because of our Italian offices), Russian and Spanish. Lots of our clients are international, so actually having someone who can speak to them in their own language and, for example, discuss complex tax systems in that language is very useful. That said, it's by no means universal: we also recruit trainees who don't speak other languages.
20 Old Bailey,
- Partners 180
- Associates 213
- Total trainees 34
- Total staff 1087
- UK offices 1
- Overseasoffices 16
- Graduate recruiter: Jaya Louvre, recruitment manager, [email protected], 02075976244
- Training partner: Ceri Vokes
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 11
- Applications pa: 900
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum A levels: AAB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 18
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 November 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 31 July 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open 1 November 2018
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline 31t January 2019
- Open day deadline date 28 February 2019
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £37,000
- Second-year salary: £40,000
- Post-qualification salary: £60,000
- Holiday entitlement: 23 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £5,000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Hong Kong
- Overseas seats: Geneva, Hong Kong, Milan
The firm’s mission is to offer a truly integrated legal service to people with sophisticated global wealth, management and business needs. Withers’ reputation in commercial transactions and litigation, along with its status as the largest private client team in Europe and leading family and trust disputes teams, sets it apart from other City firms. The firm is consistently ranked amongst the top international law firms in its major practice areas.
Main areas of work
Trainees spend six months in four different departments. Working in a team with a partner and an assistant solicitor provides autonomy, responsibility and fast development. Buddy and mentor systems as well as on the job training ensure trainees are fully supported from the outset.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2018
• Cambridge - Thursday 18 October 2018
• Nottingham - Monday 15 October
• Warwick - Tuesday 23 October 2018
• LSE - Tuesday 30 October
• Queen Mary - Monday 22 October
• Bristol - Thursday 4 October
• Oxford - Saturday 3 November
• UCL - Monday 29 October
• Exeter - Tuesday 13 November
• BPP - Wednesday 7 November
• City, University of London - Wednesday 10 October
• Durham - Tuesday 20 November
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 2)
- Employment: Senior Executive (Band 1)
- Family/Matrimonial (Band 1)
- Professional Negligence: Legal (Band 3)
- Art and Cultural Property Law (Band 2)
- Charities (Band 2)
- Court of Protection: Property & Affairs (Band 1)
- Defamation/Reputation Management (Band 4)
- Financial Services: Contentious Regulatory (Individuals) Recognised Practitioner
- Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
- Tax: Contentious: Fraud (Band 2)