High-rolling US firm Willkie, Farr & Gallagher certainly provides a lavish paycheque. Newly-qualifieds at the firm’s London office earn an eye-watering £130,000. From this autumn the firm will be recruiting trainees in the UK for the first time, with its training contract programme due to launch in the UK next year. It will also recruit for September 2022 and 2023 simultaneously, and will hold vacation schemes in spring and summer next year. So, what’s it like to work at Willkie?
The London office, one of six offices in Europe with a further six stateside, is long-established, dating back to the 1980s, with upwards of 50 lawyers and 20-plus partners. It focuses on international finance, cross-border M&A and private equity, as well as litigation and arbitration, insurance, capital markets and corporate crime. Lawyers report that team sizes are small, which gives them an opportunity to gain a broad range of experience. Responding to the 2020-21 Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey, one lawyer notes: “Junior and mid-level associates get to overreach and work on stuff that magic circle juniors could only dream of.” A colleague reports: “Frequently working on complex investigations and disputes, interesting fact patterns, detailed and sometimes novel legal points, which more than makes up for time spent on the less interesting aspects of lawyering!” Another lawyer comments: “Great diversity of clients and work types.”
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 week nights 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, “the hours certainly aren’t as bad as the horror stories you hear elsewhere. There are marked busy and quiet periods – during quiet periods there is no face time and people don’t mind you making the most of it, given they know you’ll work hard and long hours when required”.
It’s reassuring, too, when anticipating long days in the office, that survey respondents describe their peers as “friendly and supportive”, “willing to help each other out” and as being a “great community”. 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”.
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. All associates were given spanking new laptops or tablets, with computing equipment such as extra screens and keyboards couriered out on request. Partners have kept everyone up to date with “regular team meetings and social events” and the firm has even rolled out a new IT system while everyone was working remotely.
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. 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 last year was held in Lisbon. All the European offices get together for a long weekend somewhere in Europe which is organised by the firm”. Willkie 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”.