DWF, which completed a £366 million listing on the London Stock Exchange in 2019 and is Big Law’s largest listed law firm, posted record profits for the financial year to April 2022. Its revenue is up nearly 4% to £416.1 million from last year’s £400.9 million, gross profits up 5.3% to £180.9 million from last year’s £171.8 million, and its adjusted profit before tax exceeded expectations, rising 21% to £41.4 million from last year’s £34.2 million. The only cloud on the horizon is an increase in net debt partly due to repayment of Covid-19 pandemic deferrals of VAT and other payments.
Such healthy financials should keep shareholders happy, and they may also be pleased by an increase in dividend to 4.75p per share from last year’s 4.5p per share (44% of post-tax profit). Sir Nigel Knowles, DWF’s CEO, attributed the glowing accounts partly to a re-modelling of the global operating model in May 2021 when DWF streamlined its operations from four divisions into three (Legal Advisory, Mindcrest (see more on this later) and Connected Services).
DWF has 10 offices in the UK ― Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Newcastle ― and 25 offices abroad. Despite only launching its first international office in Dubai in 2015, DWF’s listing spurred the firm on to carry out an ambitious period of geographic expansion. The firm quickly set up shop across the globe in many new locations including Australia, Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and the US and fostered exclusive associations in Argentina, Colombia, Panama, South Africa, and Turkey. It also pursued an aggressive acquisition strategy, buying K&L Gates’ 11-partner Warsaw office for £3 million as well as completing a £42.5 million deal for Spanish law firm Rousaud Costas Duran. The firm would later open its fourth German base in Dusseldorf in October 2019 through its purchase of the corporate boutique Marccus Partners.
Its most recent excursion has been to Hong Kong, where it has signed an exclusive affiliation agreement with five-partner financial and commercial firm Hauzen, which also has an affiliated corporate governance services business, Hauzen Services Limited.
DWF’s post-listing momentum was not just confined to geographic expansion. The firm made significant New Law plays in a bid to further realise its ambitious vision. Most notably, in July 2019 DWF secured a profile-boosting five-year managed legal services mandate for BT’s insurance and real estate work. The firm later completed the acquisitions of BT’s alternative business structure, BT Law, and US-based legal and managed services business Mindcrest.
DWF’s New Law ambitions are reflected in its internal embrace of technology: “We have excellent legal tech,” boasts one insider. “We have developed a number of different softwares over the last few years which are really efficient for carrying out tasks e.g. DWF draft which takes the form of specially created questionnaires that once completed populate a draft based on the answers you have given.” Another explains “we had a really impressive induction on legal tech, and there’s now a legal tech seat”, referring to DWF’s new lawtech seat launched in February 2021 that aims to usher in a new swathe of techy trainees with STEM backgrounds.
More recently, DWF has begun to expand its service offering too. Last year, the firm acquired the compliance training business Zing 365 Holdings for £1.8 million and a Canadian insurance business for £2.2 million with the aim of opening up new revenue streams. It has also created a new business-focused grad scheme offering students new opportunities in finance, human resources and marketing.
In May 2020, former DLA Piper boss Sir Nigel Knowles took over as firm chair from previous long-term leader Andrew Leaitherland.
DWF has suffered its fair share of setbacks. Debt has historically dogged the firm and in March 2020, DWF found itself in talks with its lenders to extend its £80 million credit facility. The firm has also been forced to temper its ambitions. In 2020 the firm announced it was postponing planned expansions in Asia and Europe, while cutting 60 staff members and closing or reducing its presence in Cologne, Dubai, Singapore and Brussels. Last year, it closed offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Newcastle (Australia) and cut its Glasgow office floorspace by half. DWF’s Australian practice has been the most affected with the departure of several partners.
The hope for DWF is that Knowles, who helped shape DLA Piper’s remarkable global rise, can continue to build on the firm’s positive results and enable it to meet its post-listing ambitions. Despite setbacks, insiders at the firm still report DWF as an excellent place to undergo your legal training. “Everyone who I have come across in the business are happy to answer any questions and supervisors provide constructive and useful feedback,” one rookie reveals. “I have improved greatly during my training contract, which is a credit to supervisors and the training received at DWF.”
Insiders describe the training as “varied and interesting with lots of client contact”, although it can be “mixed, depending on what seat you are in”. One trainee reports: “I have had the opportunity to take on a varied workload, and have been given the responsibility of my own caseload. My supervisor and the wider team are always keen to make sure that I am learning and progressing, and that I am enjoying my training contract.” The firm does not disclose its newly-qualified solicitors’ salaries, but trainees in London can start on around £38,000 while rookie pay in the regions sits between £22,000 and £26,000.
The quality of work is also highly rated by trainees. According to one, “there is some work that is more routine than other work, but that is the nature of being a trainee. 99% of the work is extremely interesting, and the workload is varied; no two cases I have worked on have been the same”. Despite DWF’s 35 offices around the world, international secondments are rare to none but there are lots of client secondments with large retailers, water suppliers, contractors on offer.
DWF took the switch to home-working practices in its stride, with equipment rapidly shipped out to stranded trainees. One rookie told Legal Cheek mid-pandemic the firm “adapted excellently and did so almost overnight”. Trainees at the time said they felt valued and supported.
In fact, the firm appears to excel in the areas of peer group camaraderie, supportive supervisors and superiors and ― somewhat unexpectedly for a firm of this type ― work-life balance. The feedback elicited from Legal Cheek’s probing is overwhelmingly positive.
Insiders report top-notch work-life balance with one boasting they have never worked past about 7pm. Some finish at 5.30/6pm, and there is no face-time culture. One spy puts it: “The workload as a trainee is never light, however DWF allows trainees to work from home (depending on client needs), and always encourages trainees to speak up if they have taken on too much work. There are a couple of late nights involved in any training contract, but I have found that it has been easy to maintain a work life balance whilst training at DWF.”
Supervisors are reported to be “all extremely approachable and friendly”, although one rookie sadly notes “a couple have brought the score down”. The office has “an open floor plan and uses a hot desking system, you can be sat with a solicitor and a senior associate one day, and then with a partner the next day. Senior fee earners are extremely encouraging and always emphasise the fact that they are available should we have any questions”.
One trainee enthuses: “The support system at DWF is amazing. The other trainees in my cohort are incredibly supportive and social. Additionally my colleagues and supervisor are also extremely supportive, I know that someone is always available if I have any questions, and we are always encouraged to get involved with as much as possible.”
The enthusiasm drops, however, when it comes to the subject of perks. “There are little to no noticeable perks at the firm,” says one trainee. A training contract veteran moans: “We have a coffee machine but you have to pay. The best perk was probably that we got to tag onto a vacation scheme lunch.” There is also no canteen. These gripes noted, however, others have pointed out DWF offers health insurance as well as “£200ish to spend on physio, massage etc”.
If finding themselves perk-less bothers trainees, they can always look out the window. “DWF’s London office is in the Walkie Talkie Building in London ― the office offers 360 degree views of London, and you even see Windsor Castle on a clear day.” The Manchester office is also “fantastic”. Lawyers in other locations may not be so lucky. According to one, “the office is within its own building which is nice but apart from the reception, it is very dated. We don’t have food options, we have a coffee machine”.