As an upstart northern firm with office space in London’s Walkie Talkie Building, DWF attracts its fair share of sniping. Its plans to list on the stock market for £1 billion – which would make it the largest ever UK law firm float – have done little to calm the critics who believe that thrusting DWF has got too big for its boots.
Market watchers point out that DWF’s float may be priced a little ambitiously – the firm’s most recently published revenue and profit per equity (PEP) figures of, respectively, £199.3 million and £303,000 make “a more realistic valuation in the £400-£600m region”, wrote Legal Business magazine recently. The same publication noted that DWF’s borrowings of over £40 million are at a “relatively high level for a law firm”.
At the same time, it’s impossible not to be impressed by DWF’s ambition. Under its chief Andrew Leaitherland – who became the youngest managing partner of any major law firm when he took the helm in 2006 aged just 36 – the firm has been on an incredible journey which has seen it absorb a host of rival outfits and go from being a slightly obscure regional player to a national giant which everyone has heard of.
Handling such expansion is notoriously difficult. If Leaitherland is to be remembered as a great leader in the mould of former DLA Piper boss Nigel Knowles (the man behind perhaps the most incredible law firm growth story in history), he will have to not only pull off his stock market flotation but forge a collective identity out of a host of large regional offices which do a lot of higher volume insurance work with a London base that aspires to go head-to-head with the City’s finest on corporate and banking work. Perhaps this is why Leaitherland went out and recruited Knowles himself, bringing in the retired corporate law legend as chairman in 2017.
One of the most pressing challenges is the firm’s international strategy. DWF opened its first overseas office in Dubai in 2015 in a bid to internationalise its real estate practice. Last year it expanded its team in the emirate while also launching a partnership with Saudi law firm Harasani & Alkhamees, building out its Middle East capability. In addition, DWF launched in Singapore in 2017 after hiring a four-partner team who had previously worked at Eversheds Sutherland. Then there has been the firm’s recent move into the US and Australia via its acquisition of claims firm Triton Global, which it saved from administration.
Despite the fact that DWF is very much a work in progress, morale among its trainees and junior lawyers is pretty good. “Most of my fellow trainees are lovely and we all offer support to one another,” one insider tells us, while another adds: “Helped each other through the NQ process and hold regular karaoke de-briefs.” It helps that the quality is work is good. It’s described variously as “interesting”, “challenging” and “’real’ fee-earner level”, albeit with some mindless admin from time to time.
Partners, meanwhile, are “generally very approachable”. “I have never felt I couldn’t speak to someone more senior about an issue,” another DWF trainee tells us.
Work/life balance is a particular strong point in London, where regional-ish hours are remunerated at City levels, albeit at the lower end of that spectrum. Even in departments known for their long hours DWF rookies say they mostly get away at a reasonable rime: “Despite being in a banking seat, almost always out by 6:30-7.”
Perks vary according to location, with highlights including the firm’s ‘Friday fridge’ (containing free alcohol and nibbles on the last Friday of every month) and, for those in the capital, access to the Walkie Talkie skygarden and stunning views from the building’s 32nd floor. More mundanely, the private medical insurance is highlighted as being particularly comprehensive, covering spouses and partners as well as the lawyers themselves.
Another strong point is the firm’s successful embrace of technology, with DWF receiving an A* in this category of the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey for two years running following a £12 million investment in its IT systems. On the ground, trainees note that the firm is “constantly updating our systems” while “utilising IT in effective ways”, with things like virtual conferencing, IT-assisted drafting and AI-driven document review all actively encouraged.
Potential applicants should also consider that DWF offers among the most client secondments to trainees of the major firms, with around a third spending time with a client – in most cases an insurance company or bank. But note that international secondments are currently not offered by the firm.