Having begun life in 1982 as a breakaway from Norton Rose’s shipping practice, Watson Farley & Williams’ (WFW) raison d’etre remains all things high seas-related — and that is reflected in trainees’ workflow — but it has also expanded into many branches of corporate law. Shipping, aviation finance and renewable energy are also key specialities.
The work is highly international, and around half of WFW’s staff are based overseas. As such, all WFW trainees are required to do an international secondment of at least four months. Popular destinations include Athens, Singapore, Paris, Dubai and Bangkok. As well as these locations, and the HQ in London, the firm also boasts offices in Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Madrid, Milan, Munich, New York and Rome.
There’s a nice vibe among trainees, who (pre-pandemic) got together some Fridays for drinks at one of two local bars and pubs close to WFW’s offices near Liverpool Street station. The gatherings can turn into a night out. But there is some distance in the relationships with some partners, even though there is close contact through the two-person offices that rookies share with their supervisors.
Pay levels (see below) are seen as reasonable in view of the fairly good work/life balance offered by the firm. As one trainee sums it up: “Working past dinner — uncommon, working at night — rare, working weekends — very rare.” The firm doesn’t offer the most exciting perks. One trainee tells us “we get free toast in the office and free fruit was introduced recently” and of course there’s the standard gym grant, cycle to work and health cover.
In normal times the firm holds a variety of social events (including quiz nights, a rooftop summer party, an “escape room” away-day and a ping-pong tournament) but some trainees perceive there to be “not as many firm-sponsored drinks/social events as at some other firms”. However, the refurbished office is seen as a major improvement. The client floor is said to be “very smart”, while the firm’s decision to stick with offices over open-plan has been well-received overall. There has been some criticism, though, of the heavy use of the colour grey and ban on sticking things on the walls. And a decision to remove lawyers’ personal bins “means everyone has to trundle to the communal bin with their hours-old banana peel and box of wastepaper at the end of the day”.
A lingering gripe is the firm’s decision a couple of years ago to part ways with legendary French chef Philippe, under whose supervision the firm’s canteen was widely recognised as the best in London, apparently reaching levels that would have brought Michelin stars if WFW were a restaurant rather than a law firm. The current canteen is “cheap and cheerful, but everything is so beige” one insider tells us, with another adding: “Sometimes good, but it’s hard to enjoy knowing that Philippe the amazing French chef used to work here!”
In other respects, the firm performs solidly. Training is said to be “generally good”, but “could be improved by more structured training sessions”, while “in the smaller departments, and in particular the international seats, the work is very stimulating”. One insider adds, “the workload can vary from the fascinating to the mundane fairly easily, though on balance it remains high quality and engaging”. Others reckon that the training experience is dependent on the department and your supervisor. “Some are great at getting you stuck in and pushing you, others just think you’re another secretary to run mark-ups and collect items from the printer,” one rookie reports.
Following strong financials for the 2019/20 financial year, the firm’s most recently disclosed revenue results, released in July 2021, saw a dip of 1% to £177 million, whilst profit per equity partner fell 4% to £577,000. The firm puts this stagnation down to investments it has made over the past 12 months, including opening two new offices in Düsseldorf and Sydney and welcoming ten lateral partners.