A premium private wealth practice is the jewel in the crown of this international outfit.
Private client law’s appeal lies in “helping individuals and practising with a more personal angle,”according to trainees at Withers. For those looking to kick-start their practice at “the very highest level,” this firm is well worth a look. The Chambers High Net Worth guide has long ranked Withers among the top firms for private wealth advisory and disputes; this is also one of very few firms to earn a top spot from Chambers Global for its private client work on an international level. Appropriately enough, the firm markets itself as WithersWorldwide: you’ll find 15 of its offices overseas in New York, Singapore, the British Virgin Islands and other exotic destinations, complementing the London HQ.
This global identity is a rarity in the private client world and tells us this is a firm with a more dynamic client base. Interviewees were quick to extol the benefits of this network: “As the world becomes more globalised, people are increasingly moving themselves and their assets across multiple jurisdictions, especially if they’re wealthy. It’s vital to have an international footprint.” Conscious of a few unsavoury stereotypes attached to the secretive world of private wealth management, our sources were keen to state that “it’s absolutely not just about helping stuffy, old, rich men push their wealth into offshore trusts to avoid tax. For example, you might be assisting entrepreneurs fulfil philanthropic goals with their millions.”
“It’s absolutely not just about helping stuffy, old, rich men push their wealth into offshore trusts to avoid tax.”
What’s more, there’s more to Withers than private client work. As one source summarised: “You have a huge breadth of seat options for the training contract.” The corporate side of the business has “continued to expand rapidly” following Withers’ acquisition of boutique JAG Shaw Baker in 2018, “bringing a lot of IP, tech and start-up work into the firm.” Sources noticed this had kick-started a “revolving door of business” between the firm’s corporate and private client arms, with “constant cross-referrals going both ways. After all, when someone trusts you to manage their affairs on a personal level, why wouldn’t they trust you to help run their business as well? It’s a natural progression.” In 2018/19 the firm’s revenue increased past the £190 million mark (although profits per partner decreased due to a growing global headcount).
Looking at the firm’s commercial side, Chambers UK ranks Withers highly for family, employment, art and cultural property law, charities, Court of Protection work, fraud, tax and defamation. Highlighting the pace of the firm's growth, one insider pointed out that “the international arbitration team didn’t even exist a few years ago, but in the time that I've been here it’s become massively successful, representing states and large financial institutions.” Our sources unanimously reasoned that the firm has made great progress “moving away from its image as a private client giant towards being a full-service outfit,” adding that “it’s significantly broadened the pool of candidates that Withers can appeal to.”
Before each rotation, trainees submit three preferences for the next seat. “If you put down employment or IP, HR typically asks you to submit a fourth because they don’t always take on a trainee at every rotation,” trainees shared. As well as being required to complete at least one contentious seat, a source reasoned that “statistically you’re also likely to complete a seat in private wealth and in one of the real estate groups.” An assortment of international secondments are available, which in recent years has included spots in Singapore and Hong Kong. Some felt the Milan seat was particularly sought after, with “opportunities to work with high-profile fashion brands” and Italy’s uber wealthy. As one way of smoothing the process, trainees can rely on partner mentors “who help walk you through how to best build your training contract – not just in terms of what you enjoy, but what is best for your development.”
More than 200 lawyers make up Withers’ private wealth team globally; nearly half of the firm’s fee earners are dedicated exclusively to this area of law. Matters run the gamut of the private client spectrum including landed estates, immigration, probate, international trusts, tax, pensions and philanthropy issues. “A typical case might be a probate issue where a collection of valuable artworks or multiple properties spans four different jurisdictions; or perhaps helping a client set up a complex family limited partnership… something a regional firm couldn’t handle,” one source explained. The specifics of clients and cases are confidential, but the firm claims to have worked for well over half of the Sunday Times UK Rich List in the past. Cases are also often measured in the hundreds of millions and even billions of pounds… “As a trainee, I probably worked for around 25 different fee earners by the end of the seat,”one source said, while another similarly recalled “being staffed on around 20 matters at any given time.”Plenty of drafting opportunities are available for newbies to cut their teeth on in the form of wills, letters of wishes and lasting powers of attorney, on top of some occasional opportunities to travel for client meetings. “The most interesting meetings are when you get to visit the client’s home,” one source revealed. “I’ve been to a few exciting places where I’ve walked in and felt super out of place!”
“A dispute may arise if someone dies and leaves their estate to their cats and dogs instead of the family…”
The firm has a trusts seat that’s distinct from private wealth, albeit with some overlap. “It’s a similar area of law and is mainly there for when some aspect of wealth planning has gone wrong. You deal with a lot of Inheritance Act 1975 claims,”one trainee explained. “A dispute may arise if someone dies and leaves their estate to their cats and dogs instead of the family, for example. It can be frustrating because the main witness you need to question is dead!” Perhaps you could call on a medium? Trainees here had a range of responsibilities from preparing papers for High Court claims to drafting applications for the removal of a trustee. One source added: “A lot of the time we’re required to consult barristers for advice on various issues, which is great exposure for us trainees.”Withers also acts on cases with historical slants, such as representing the Nizam of Hyderabad (an Indian state that hasn’t existed since 1948) in a claim to £35 million that was held by banks since its dissolution.
If there’s anything more stressful than inheritance claims, it might be divorce proceedings – especially when they involve millions of pounds of assets spread over multiple jurisdictions. Step forward, the familyteam. “It’s a great seat and the one thing that stood out for me was the level of client contact,” a trainee told us. “There wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t have face-to-face contact with the client, in court or in a meeting.”Another added that “partners are aware there’s a risk of you ending up in bundling hell, and they make efforts to include you on cases. I’ve drawn up attendance notes, asset schedules, costs and witness statements.”Though the majority of work is divorce-related, it’s certainly not all the team tackles: interviewees also spoke of opportunities to work on immigration, children's and sometimes even rare domestic violence cases. In all the different matter types, sources emphasised the importance of "showing empathy and some emotional awareness when you’re in the room with a client.”We can’t disclose any names – the wealthy do like to keep their privacy.
“There wasn’t a week that went by that I didn’t have face-to-face contact with the client, in court or in a meeting.”
Withers’ corporate team advises a mix of fashion, sports, luxury brands and tech clients on public and private M&A, joint ventures, financings and more besides. Trainees pointed out that “you’re often still working with individual clients as owners of the business rather than the business itself. It means you still have that personal angle.”Insiders also described opportunities to work “on huge deals with publicly listed companies,”including the likes of Racing Point UK and Evolve IP. The team recently acted for the selling shareholders of tech consultants Symphony Ventures during the company’s £52 million sale to Sykes Enterprises. While some found their time in team corporate dominated by “one huge transaction,” others spent their seat engaging with more start-up and early-stage business work. One such source explained that “you deal with a lot of the foundational corporate law including the directors’ duties and articles of association you learn about at law school.”
The litigationand arbitrationdepartments are “functionally separate,” but both fall under Withers’ disputes umbrella. “If one team is particularly busy you might get pulled in to help, but generally you only work within one of the teams,” sources explained. Here’s one trainee’s experience of the arbitration practice: “It’s a lean team so it feels like you can really sink your teeth into the cases. We’ve recently been representing a company suing a sovereign state: I’ve helped draft memos, interpret the enforcement of an award in a country, and prepare research.” The firm has recently represented 79 Russian private individuals suing for over $27 million after a bank’s collapse; and Juventus footballer Paulo Dybala in arbitration brought against him by Maltese company Star Image over the player’s image rights. Reputation management and data protection cases also find their way into this department.
Keen to thoroughly address any preconceptions of what working in the private client sector entails, our interviewees described their firm as “made up of a younger partnership than you might expect,” complete with a “modern office and modern approach to working.”Withers’ office space on 20 Old Bailey is open-plan and encourages hot-desking. Looking back to their beginnings at the firm, one source recalled: “In both my interviews, there was much more of a calm, conversational feel. I get the sense that good humour goes a long way when applying.”
Our insiders explained that “Withers is not a firm with a culture of going out every night.”That said, there are plenty of sports teams for trainees to sign up to and several departments run fairly regular drinks events. More sober activities include “a competitive chocolate-making class between two trainee cohorts”(everyone’s a winner!) and a mid-lockdown “virtual breakfast club.” Ultimately, sources characterised Withers as a firm that “respects the fact that people have lives outside of work and that sometimes you do just want to go home and see other people that aren’t your colleagues.”
“In my opinion, if you can’t survive – or even thrive – on a £68,000 NQ salary, something is wrong with you.”
With most trainees finishing their work day between 6.30 and 7pm, there’s plenty of time left for out-of-office galivanting. One trainee provided a frank assessment of the working culture: “For me to be consistently billing ten chargeable hours a day, I’d have to work 14 hours – I don’t do that. The firm is very clear at the beginning of the training contract that they don’t expect us to work all hours under the sun because they don’t pay us enough to justify doing so.” Another source had a similar perspective, suggesting that “if you want to join a firm that will provide you with a sky-high bank balance and have you working until 11pm every night, look at other firms. In my opinion, if you can’t survive – or even thrive – on a £68,000 NQ salary, something is wrong with you.” That told us. Withers trainees aren’t wholly exempt from busy periods, with some logging finishes close to midnight. We did hear that “if you’re consistently working past 8pm, partners will often approach you and ask why you are working so late.”The message – don’t try toohard.
During their final seat, trainees roll through a series of meetings with training principals and HR before listing up to three departments as qualification options. Everybody then gets to interview with their departments of choice, as long as there’s potential space for them. Withers doesn’t provide a general list of jobs, “which isn’t fun,” one of our sources deadpanned. The firm tells us it opts for a flexible approach in order to accommodate qualifiers' preferences. Trainees were reassured by the idea that “the firm definitely tries to keep on as many people as it can.” And in 2020, Withers retained all eight qualifiers.
Private wealth to public wealth
Withers is one of a handful of law firms that helps fund the Law Society’s Diversity Access Scheme, aiming to help candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds into the legal industry.
How to get a Withers training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2021): 31 January 2021
Training contract deadline (2023): 31 July 2021
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,” head of talent acquisition and diversity (EU/Asia) 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.”
20 Old Bailey,
- Partners 189
- Associates 258
- Total trainees 32
- Total staff 1,129
- UK offices 1
- Overseasoffices 16
- Graduate recruiter: Graduate Recruitment [email protected] 02075976244
- Training partner: Rachel Hawkins
- 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 2020
- Training contract deadline, 2023 start: 30 June 2021
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 November 2020
- Vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 31 January 2021
- Open day deadline date: 28 February 2021
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £38,000
- Second-year salary: £40,000
- Post-qualification salary: £68,000
- 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
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020
- Agriculture & Rural Affairs (Band 2)
- Employment: Employer (Band 5)
- 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 2)
- Defamation/Reputation Management (Band 4)
- Fraud: Civil (Band 4)
- Tax: Contentious: Fraud (Band 2)