High-rolling US firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, with an illustrious history in America, made a splash in London several years ago when it hired private equity big shots David Arnold and Gavin Gordon from Kirkland & Ellis. Since then, the firm reached dizzying new heights in 2021-22, passing the billion-dollar revenue threshold for the first time in its history thanks to an uptick in M&A work.
Twelve months on and the firm continues to grow with revenues rising a further 13% to $1.38 billion (£1.05 billion). The firm’s lawyer headcount jumped 19% to 1,041, leading revenue per lawyer to fall 5% to $1.33 million (£1 million). Profit per equity partner (PEP) was also down a little over 5% this year to $3.6 million (£2.7 million) in part due to currency headwinds and increased expenses associated with its expanding workforce. It should be noted, however, the dip follows a 2021 that saw partner profits enjoy double-digit growth.
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 to over 130 in recent years — the fastest growth of any US firm.
Trainees, a relatively new addition that did not exist until several years ago, have also clearly proved valuable given the announcement in 2022 that Willkie was enlarging its intake to six rookies per year. NQ rates are at the top end of the market and now sit at an eye-watering £150,000 thanks to a 3% uplift in spring 2023. 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”. This overreach “becomes evident when working across a counterpart on a deal at another firm who is a higher PQE level than you.”
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 in a wide range of work.”
The training comes highly praised by rookies, especially the private equity department, with “a good combination between on-the-job and formal training attended by the whole team, including partners”. Another insider praises the “super interesting” associate skills training and “regular workshops”, although adds that feedback can vary depending on the team member.
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 practising”.
Given the high remuneration, lawyers can expect to spend plenty of time at their desks. “There are often times when work hours can be pretty heavy,” explains one rookie. “As a trainee, it’s not uncommon to have to work during the weekends to pick up urgent items.” That said, “there is no face-time culture at the firm so if you have nothing to do and you’ve asked around to see if anyone needs help — you can log off and/or chat with colleagues that are equally quiet workload-wise.” Another lawyer says there “have been a couple of over-nighters in the office, particularly in the manic lead up to Christmas,” but 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. “Although certain more senior partners are less available than others, there is generally a good partner-approachability in the team and senior associates are always available,” another summarises.
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 face-time and training but also being flexible in adopting WFH post-Covid”. In addition, trainees and juniors have all the kit and support they could possibly need — as this insider explains: “Everyone at Willkie is offered two monitors, top-of-the-range laptops (which are replaced every few years by IT) and any other requirements to work from home. We also all get Cisco headphones and a headset, which I’ve recently found out to be worth in the hundreds! Everything works perfectly and our IT team (both in London and New York) are always available at all hours, 7 days a week in case we need IT assistance.” Top marks Willkie!
The firm’s 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. The firm is taking another floor in the building so lawyers will have more space.
Finally, 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 ski trip”, while the “best perk is the bi-annual European retreat, which in recent years has been held in places such as 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 free lunch to all of its fee-earners every Thursday and in the summer, free ice cream every Wednesday afternoon — “perfect for the scorching City heat!” says one survey respondent. There are also snack boxes on each floor that are said to be replenished several times a day. 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”.