Of Watson Farley & William’s (WFW) financial results this year, co-managing partner Chris Lowe said: “If the result was an emoji, it wouldn’t be the full beaming toothy smile one, it would be slightly less smiley.”
After a stellar 2017, which saw revenue soar by more than 20% profit per equity partner (PEP) rocket by 27%, WFW has come back down to earth. Revenue is still up, but by a much more modest 3%, to reach £163 million. PEP, meanwhile, is down by an undisclosed amount from last year’s £608,000. The results compare unfavourably with WFW’s mid market rivals.
The belt-tightening results may shed some light on the firm’s decision last year 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. WFW has denied claims from trainees that the chef was “forced out” by “cost savings”, but a decision to outsource its London catering services may have left him with little choice.
WFW’s canteen rating is again a D in the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey 2018-19. It’s “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”.
Others reckon that the training experience is dependant 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,” reports one.
Having begun life in 1982 as a breakaway from Norton Rose’s shipping practice, WFW’s 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. Alongside the shipping, aviation finance and renewable energy are key specialities.
There’s a nice vibe among trainees, who apparently get 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. “So long as there isn’t urgent work, it is normal for the office to empty out at around 7:30pm,” we are told.
Although “there have been some good socials lately” (including quiz nights, a rooftop summer party, an “escape the room” away-day, and a pingpong tournament away-day), 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 waste paper at the end of the day”.
Keeping trainees sweet are the international secondments, which are plentiful. With around half of WFW’s staff based overseas, everyone is guaranteed a four-month stint outside the UK. Popular destinations include Athens, Singapore, Paris, Dubai and Bangkok.