High-rolling US firm Willkie, Farr & Gallagher made a splash two years ago when it hired private equity big shots David Arnold and Gavin Gordon from Kirkland & Ellis. Since then the firm has started recruiting trainees in the UK for the first time, with the inaugural cohort starting last autumn. Recent financial results make for good reading, with revenue up 13.6% to just short of the billion-dollar mark. Profit per equity partner (PEP) is also up 10.9%, rising to $3.57 million (£2.6 million), whilst the London office enjoyed a stellar revenue growth spurt of 31.8% thanks to a few billion-dollar M&A deals. The firm has breezed through the pandemic, avoiding furloughing staff and salary cuts altogether. So, what’s it like to work at Willkie?
The London office, one of six offices in Europe with a further seven stateside, is long-established, dating back to the 1980s, with upwards of 65 lawyers and 25-plus partners. It focuses on cross-border private equity and M&A, litigation, arbitration and corporate crime, international finance, asset management, restructuring, corporate insurance, antitrust and competition, capital markets, financial services, regulatory and tax.
Lawyers report that team sizes are small, which gives them an opportunity to gain a broad range of experience, which has the advantage of allowing juniors “to overreach and work on stuff that magic circle juniors could only dream of”. A colleague reports: “Given the leanness of the teams at Willkie, there is plenty of work to take on and you can be as ambitious as you want. In that sense, I like the autonomy of being able to accelerate my pace of training, if I want to.”
This also means that junior lawyers frequently find the work very stimulating, with one remarking that they often get involved with “complex investigations and disputes, interesting fact patterns, detailed and sometimes novel legal points”. Client contact is also not unheard of among junior lawyers: “I was really surprised to see that the work I submitted was to be sent directly to a client! The whole team is keen to get you involved as much as possible.”
The training “is typical of a US firm”, according to one lawyer, “there is some formal training but the emphasis is on on-the-job learning”. In the corporate team, “the private equity and private M&A training is stellar with partners and senior associates committing time and attention to ensuring juniors and mid-level associates understand key legal and commercial principles”, while a first-year associate rates their training and professional development opportunities “excellent”.
Given the high remuneration, lawyers can expect to work long hours. “Making plans on weeknights can be difficult, and while not the norm, working over weekends or annual leave is not particularly unusual”, says one lawyer, but they add, “the balance at Willkie is about as good as you can hope for at a US firm”. Another lawyer reports they have only worked one weekend in two years and “rarely work late nights if ever”.
The general consensus seems to be the hours are comparable to other US, City or magic circle firms, if not better. It’s also noteworthy that, unlike most commercial firms, Willkie does not set targets for billable hours. According to one lawyer, “I think this is the best case work/life balance you can expect for the pay. Seniors make a genuine effort to respect time off and will step in and cover if you need to be absent. Very flexible approach to work with no face time culture.”
It’s reassuring, too, when anticipating long days in the office, that survey respondents describe their peers as “super supportive”, “willing to help each other out” and “very close friends”. Watch out, though, as “depending on the team you’re in you can be stuck with some bad apples, which makes life more difficult”. As far as working relationships with those higher up the chain of command are concerned, “it can be a mixed experience, but in general I find that superiors are welcoming and available to approach for questions or advice”. There are also reportedly “lots of team events that help to build professional and personal relationships with the partners”.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the firm had no formal work from home policy or practice in place, but it “switched very quickly and easily” when lockdown arrived, a lawyer says. Junior lawyers describe how the firm sent out new phones, laptops and monitors and helpfully set up calls with the IT department who walked them through how to set up and use all of the equipment. One satisfied junior lawyer concluded, “I have all my needs catered to”.
Willkie lawyers have an eagle’s eye view of the world, glimpsed through the stylish windows of the CityPoint skyscraper at the edge of London’s Square Mile. The office space is “super swanky” with a social area known as the “Hub” on the 27th floor used for social gatherings and firm events. The office is apparently present in a lot of movies and TV shows set in London; there is often “a shot of the London City skyline where you can see Willkie’s London office in the fancy CityPoint skyscraper”, which one junior lawyer says is “really cool”. Offices are shared with one other associate, typically until the five years PQE stage.
Last but not least, the perks include a £500 allowance for your gym of choice, dental and healthcare, meals past 8pm and taxis home after 9pm, free Friday snacks, monthly office-wide drinks, “an insane summer party every year and a sponsored ski trip”, while the “best perk is the bi-annual European retreat, which was held recently in Lisbon. All the European offices get together for a long weekend somewhere in Europe which is organised by the firm”. Willkie also has an “excellent bonus structure”. Caffeine addicts are fully catered for, as one no doubt fast-talking person enthused, with “tons of coffee machines and fridges stocked with free fizzy drinks — Diet Coke heaven”.