High-rolling US firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher with an illustrious history in America made a splash in London a few years ago when it hired private equity big shots David Arnold and Gavin Gordon from Kirkland & Ellis. Since then, the firm has reached dizzying new heights, passing the billion-dollar revenue threshold for the first time in its history thanks to an uptick in M&A work. Profit per equity partner (PEP) is also up, rising to $3.9 million (£3.2 million) and the firm has consolidated its position as a legal powerhouse in the US with the opening of a new office in Los Angeles. So, what is 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. However, there has been an uptick in headcount which has seen the number of Willkie lawyers in London double over the past five years — the fastest growth of any US firm. The most notable recent arrival is Boris Bronfentrinker who launched the firm’s competition litigation practice in London in November 2021.
Trainees, a new addition that did not exist until a couple of years ago, have also clearly proved valuable given the recent announcement that Willkie was enlarging its intake to six rookies per year. NQ rates are at the top end of the market, sitting at an eye-watering £145,000. Willkie 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.”
One insider summarises: “Junior associates and trainees are involved on work streams across the active matters and are expected to engage on all issues from the most simple to the most complex. There is emphasis on learning by doing so even if you are inexperienced you can participate on a wide range of work.”
The training comes highly praised by rookies, especially the private equity department. One PE aficionado tells us: “Training in my department (private equity) has been carried out with partners present (sometimes presenting) and during which the partners are interactive in giving their thoughts and experience which is invaluable.” Another reaffirms, “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 as “excellent” with a good balance of “both the legal and practical aspects of practicing”.
Given the high remuneration, lawyers can expect to work long hours. “Evening work is routine and weekend work is fairly common. It is unusual to go a weekend without having to do something (even if just 30-60 mins). Evening plans are very difficult to make and keep and there is generally an expectation of always being available (including whilst on leave)”, says one lawyer. However, this spy praises the fact that “there is not a culture of face time and (so long as you’re getting your work done) you are given agency to keep your own hours”.
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”. This runs all the way to the top of the firm thanks to Willkie’s strong open-door culture. “Senior associates and partners are always approachable and open to have a chat about anything and everything,” says one rookie.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the firm had no formal work from home policy or practice in place, but now “Mondays and Fridays are WFH days”. Insiders say this policy of going into the office just three days per week “strikes the perfect balance of ensuring we get adequate facetime and training but also being flexible in adopting WFH post-Covid”. In addition, trainees are provided with two high quality monitors, a laptop of their choosing, a conferencing video Cisco phone and a keyboard and mouse for use at home.
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, firm events that are “often at very swanky venues”, “an insane summer party every year and a contributory ski trip”, while the “best perk is the bi-annual European retreat, which was held recently in Sitges, Spain. All the European offices get together for a long weekend somewhere in Europe which is organised by the firm”. Willkie also has an “excellent discretionary bonus structure”.
It’s clearly hungry work too, with the firm providing snack boxes on each floor that are said to be replenished several times a day, as well as brunch on Wednesdays and lunch on Thursdays. 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”.