Having begun life in 1982 as a breakaway from Norton Rose’s shipping practice, Watson Farley & Williams’ (WFW) 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. Shipping, aviation finance and renewable energy are also key specialities, with WFW advising on a range of solar and wind portfolios across Europe.
The work is highly international, and around half of WFW’s staff are based overseas. As such, all WFW trainees are required to do an international secondment of at least four months. Popular destinations include Athens, Singapore, Paris, Hamburg and Bangkok. As well as these locations, and the HQ in London, the firm also boasts offices in Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Madrid, Milan, Munich, New York, Sydney and Rome. 2023 saw the firm opening two new offices, in Seoul and Tokyo, as WFW seeks to expand its Asia-Pacific projects practice and further reinforce its strengths in aviation and maritime finance. It has also added 18 new lateral partners and promoted 11 to partner internally, with the latest London additions being to the energy and infrastructure and maritime practices.
Following last year’s more muted growth figures, WFW’s 2022-23 financials show a return to form. The firm surpassed the £200 million turnover mark for the first time, with a 14% uptick to £214.7 million. Profit per equity partner (PEP) was also up a little over 3%, to £584,000.
There’s a nice vibe among trainees, who are known for meeting up together on Fridays for drinks at one of two local bars and pubs close to WFW’s offices near Liverpool Street station resulting in the odd night out every now and then. “The trainee cohort is extremely supportive and we have a tight-knit group. Trainees interact across both years, and we’ve formed genuine friendships, especially where trainees are moved to our international offices together”, says one.
Partner approachability is “generally pretty good” with rookies getting close partner contact through the two-person offices shared with their supervisors. “The majority of supervisors are very approachable and incredibly supportive,” summarises one rookie. Although sometimes “quite busy”, you can get work directly from partners and senior staff are “generally very helpful and approachable”. Many trainees clearly feel that their supervisors are really something to write home about: “Some excellent supervisors who really take the time to teach you” and are “a clear highlight of the firm.”
Pay levels (see below) are seen as reasonable in view of the fairly good work/life balance offered by the firm. As one trainee concisely sums it up: “Working past dinner — uncommon, working at night — rare, working weekends — very rare.” Here’s a slightly longer take: “For a city law firm it is very good, there are some late nights as expected but you rarely need to work weekends. The international nature of the work means that deals can be closing anytime, on bank holidays or at 3am in the morning for example!”. A “fairly flexible” approach allows trainees to work from home two days per week, with the pressure to come in varying between departments. However, trainees tell us no WFH equipment is provided.
The firm also looks like it has decent perks. On top of the standard gym grant, cycle to work and health cover, there’s well-stocked drinks fridges, “really good” parties and social events, even an annual firm football tournament that took place this year in Madrid. For the non-footballers, other social events include quiz nights, a rooftop summer party, an “escape room” away-day and a ping-pong tournament. On the legal tech front, one trainee notes that WFW is “generally keen to adopt new technology, which is encouraging”. The firm is said to use Legatics, an “extremely helpful” tool to manage conditions precedent processes.
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 which makes the place feel “a bit pokey” and “a bit claustrophobic”. However, insiders tell us that an office move is planned for 2026 so watch this space. “The subsidised canteen food is “generally delicious”, but a lack of vegetarian options seems to be a grumble. Temptingly, food at WFW is served in a beautiful atrium dining room with fresh food cooked every day by Italian chefs.
In other respects, the firm performs solidly. Training is said to be “generally good”, but “varies from team to team, as smaller teams often have much more of a focus on high quality ongoing support”. The firm provides ad-hoc and structured training sessions, depending on the seat, with rookies finding “partner or senior associate-led sessions particularly engaging and informative”. As with many firms, trainees find the quality of work to be highly seat-dependent, with the usual amount of “mundane” tasks such as bundling. Another spy reports that despite this, “trainees are given the opportunity to work on deals and cases which are hugely important in their respective sectors in scale and scope”.