Two years ago DWF finalised long-mooted plans to reshape its business structure, completing a £366 million listing on the London Stock Exchange and becoming Big Law’s largest listed law firm.
Since then, DWF has continued to catch the industry’s attention. The firm’s revenue has climbed 13%, hitting £338 million for the 2021 financial year, while its adjusted profit before tax exceeded market expectations, bouncing back 120% from £13.8 million last year to £34 million. This year’s encouraging set of financial results are music to investors’ ears, with DWF’s board recommending dividend pay-outs of 3p per share, taking the total annual dividend to 4.5p per share. The firm hopes this is the first step towards comfortably hitting their target pay-out ratio of up to 70% of the company’s post-tax profit.
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.
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. Over the past year, the firm has 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.
But for all this post-listing development and vigour, change was afoot at the very top. May 2020 saw an important switch in leadership as the firm said farewell to its long-term leader Andrew Leaitherland, who was replaced by firm chair and former DLA Piper boss Sir Nigel Knowles.
DWF has suffered a series of setbacks over the past year or so. 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. Currently, DWF’s debt levels remain relatively unchanged, dropping from £65 million to £61 million. The firm argues this is actually a rather positive statistic given that £17 million was spent on acquisition related payments. But the firm has also been forced to temper its ambitions. In 2020 the firm announced that it would be aborting planned expansions in Asia and Europe, while cutting 60 staff members and closing or reducing its presence in Cologne, Dubai, Singapore and Brussels. This year has seen offices in Sydney, Melbourne and Newcastle (Australia) close and the Glasgow office floorspace cut 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. And the signs are good: as of autumn 2021 DWF’s share price is already nearly back at pre-Covid levels as investors recognise the health of the business and potential for sustainable growth.
Despite setbacks, insiders at the firm still report DWF as an excellent place to undergo your legal training. “My training experience so far at DWF has been excellent,” says one trainee. Insiders praise the “very supportive working environment which facilitates trainee learning and development.” 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.
DWF appears to have taken new home-working practices in their stride. The London-listed firm quickly shipped out “desks, chairs, screens and second screens” to trainees who felt “supported and invested in” throughout their training contracts. “I think our firm has adapted excellently and did so almost overnight,” one rookie told Legal Cheek. “There has been great use of Microsoft calls to keep colleagues and teams connected. Overall, there has been a real effort to mirror the working environment experienced in the office.”
And with office life slowly returning, you can expect a good level of work/life balance, with one insider saying: “I have never worked past about 7pm, and there is no expectation to be at your desk all hours of the day if your work is done.” Another adds: “There will be times where you are expected to work late but this is not the norm and in general I would say the firm is very good at ensuring employees have a good work/life balance.” And there’s apparently extra incentive to finish early on Friday in order to make the regular trainee social events. That said, one trainee acknowledged that they had “not really experienced many perks at the firm” beyond budgets for socials and young professional memberships.
Potential applicants should note, however, the work itself is more variable. Trainees report that quality work is dependent on the practice group, but most agree “there are some real opportunities to get involved in some incredibly good work.” Client secondments appear to be prevalent and popular at the firm. Juniors have been able to spend time with companies such as Adidas and Virgin Money which they found “extremely engaging, challenging and stimulating”. Regardless of recent challenges, DWF remains one of the legal industry’s more interesting propositions.