DWF was, until recently, Big Law’s largest listed law firm. But that has all changed. In October 2023, the firm delisted after transferring its public shares to Inflexion Private Equity Partners, and putting an end to its four-year spell on the London Stock Exchange in the process. It posted record profits for the financial year to April 2023. Net revenue grew 9% to £452 million from last year’s £416 million. What’s more, it’s expected to save in excess of £15 million due to its cost reduction programme.
Such healthy financials should keep shareholders happy, and they may also be pleased by an increase in dividends after the group announced in the summer it was planning on going private. DWF’s share price jumped a third from 68.17p to 90.74p shortly after the story broke, and it currently sits at 85.08p (19 July at 10:16am).
Sir Nigel Knowles, DWF’s CEO, attributed the glowing accounts partly to the group’s acquisition of Canadian law firm Whitelaw Twining in December 2022. “We have delivered consistently strong revenue growth and underlying organic growth, with the initial benefits of our cost control programme also coming through,” said Knowles. “Our transaction in Canada has also given us great momentum in North America, which is a geography that continues to be of high importance to our future growth story. In combination, this gives us a high degree of optimism as we begin FY24.”
DWF has 11 offices in the UK — Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton — and 20 offices abroad. Despite only launching its first international office in Dubai in 2015, DWF’s listing spurred the business on to carry out an ambitious period of geographic expansion. It 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, Singapore, South Africa and Turkey, among others. 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 group 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 group later completed the acquisitions of BT’s alternative business structure, BT Law, and US-based legal and managed services business Mindcrest. Mindcrest forms one of three divisions at the firm, the others being Legal Advisory and Connected Services, after it streamlined its global operating model in May 2021.
The corporate team has been exceptionally busy in the past year, advising on deals with a combined value of more than £5.1 billion in 2022 alone. Tech deals drove much of its corporate practice, with more than a quarter of all deals from this sector. Noteworthy deals include advising Connex One on its £93 million fundraising round and the sale of Crisp Thinking Group to Kroll.
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 even a legal tech seat”, referring to DWF’s 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. The firm recently 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 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.
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. 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.” DWF does not disclose its newly qualified (NQ) solicitors’ salaries, but trainees in London can start on around £38,000 while rookie pay in the regions sits around £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 31 offices around the world, international secondments are rare to none but there are lots of client secondments with recent trainees reporting time spent with Barclays and Amazon.
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: “Peers across all levels of the firm are supportive. The culture of the firm is one of its greatest assets. Everybody is ‘one team’ and it does not feel hierarchised.”
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 a “strong pension scheme”, health insurance as well as “£200ish to spend on physio, massage etc.” There are also “regular gym classes and activity clubs”.
If finding themselves perk-less bothers trainees, they can always look out the window. “DWF’s London office is in the ‘Walkie-Talkie Building’ — the office offers 360 degree views of London, and you even see Windsor Castle on a clear day,” reports one insider. 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, but we do have a coffee machine.”