The quantitative easing and low interest rates in place since the 2008 financial crisis, which have been renewed following the Covid-19 pandemic, have boosted the wealth of the global elite — and those who act for them. Withers, which represents many of these high net worth individuals, has certainly been a busy place over the last decade. Revenue has more than doubled since 2007, to reach £219.7 million this year.
Meanwhile, the firm appears relatively unfazed by COVID-19 disruption after revealing that profits per equity partner soared 40% to £501,000 each for the financial year ending in April 2020. According to Withers’ CEO Margaret Robertson, these impressive financials are down to increased client demand in dispute resolution, technology, estate planning and restructuring during the lockdown.
As a provider of legal services to the world’s super-rich, Withers has some rather big name clients, among them pop icon Britney Spears. Most prefer to keep their names private, but the firm lays claim to having represented just over half of the top 100 on The Sunday Times Rich List.
For trainees that equates to some interesting work. Litigation is said to be particularly juicy, with “frontline” tasks including “drafting documents and attending trial”, but beware of “the more boring tasks like bundling”. The firm’s large family law practice — think million-pound divorces, some featuring celebs and lots of media coverage — is “paper-heavy” but often very stimulating. Withers also boasts a built-up intellectual property offering following its 2018 merger with Cambridge tech boutique JAG Shaw Baker. Not that all of the work assigned to trainees is riveting. Newcomers inevitably end up with some “less exciting” and “less stimulating” admin work, although superiors “tend to be apologetic” for dishing it out.
The training is “generally good”, we’re told, with sessions at the start of each seat specific to a department. There’s also “team-wide training” to keep trainees in tune with the latest legal updates. “I feel that I’m more than simply another resource and that associates and partners want me to develop the skills which the firm needs and are willing to invest time in that,” reports one happy rookie.
Indeed, as trainees cut their teeth they are given close supervision — the small intake of 11 helps in this respect — “with decent levels of responsibility and strong client engagement” accompanied by “regular catch-ups to check how trainees are progressing” and “clear feedback” on work. Peers are a “truly non-competitive supportive group of very friendly people” who, thanks to a “great sense of camaraderie and team spirit”, “eat lunch together most days” and will even lend “a hand if someone’s workload is heavy”. Partners — nearly half of whom, remarkably for the legal profession, are female — are “approachable, friendly and willing to help”. The firm’s non-hierarchical vibe is felt through its hot desking system, which (in normal times) sees rookies often sat with various partners and associates throughout the week – allowing trainees to “get to know departments as a whole”.
Where Withers differs from other firms that do a high proportion of private client work is how international it is, with 17 offices in nine different countries. Happily, the firm makes sure this reach translates into a decent level of international secondments. Popular destinations include Geneva and Milan, with trainees prepared for their spells on the continent with weekly language lessons before they go. Although COVID-19 has temporarily put secondments on hold, secondees to Milan typically work on commercial agreements for individuals in sports and fashion. We understand that it’s rather less usual to get a placement to one of Withers’ US offices, where the firm has an extensive presence following its 2002 merger with Bergman Horowitz & Reynolds.
The downside to Withers’ global status is that it behaves a bit more like a megafirm than a private client practice when it comes to working hours. The culture is definitely City law — which is reflected in the firm’s choice of headquarters location on the edge of London’s financial district. The newly qualified salary straddles the private client/City divide, standing at £68,000. On the topic of work/life balance one insider reports: “Longer hours than the firm likes to project externally but still far better than many firms. There is generally not a culture of having to show ‘face time’.” Another tells us they are “very happy with my work/life balance. Some late nights but get out by 7:30pm/8pm normally. Have worked weekends a few times, but it is strongly discouraged by supervisors.”
The firm recently relocated to a “swanky” glass and steel construction at 20 Old Bailey. “Looks a bit like a hotel,” quips one trainee, but “there are comfy booths to work from with lots of agile working spaces”, and early birds who manage to bag a window seat can expect “an amazing view of the Old Bailey”, explains another. The “almost paperless” open-plan office also houses a modern client lounge which, we’re told, regularly receives praise from passers-by. You may even recognise the office building from BBC’s political-thriller ‘Bodyguard’, which according to one fan “is always great to drop into conversation”. Themed meals for different holidays are actually a thing in Withers’ “great subsidised canteen”. Before COVID-19, trainees revelled at the “special meals for Eid al-Fitr and 4 July” which were “fun and impressive”. We hear the canteen cookies are “excellent” too.
As for other perks, Withers’ lawyers enjoy a free barista coffee every day, access to an interest free loan for travel cards, monthly theatre ticket draws, as well as paid-for dinners and taxi rides home beyond a certain time. It appears, however, that trainees seeking better benefits must root out hidden gems. “We do have access to a number of discounts, but I don’t think they are well-utilised, and a lot of people don’t know about them, although they are probably quite good if you do go looking,” reveals one respondent.
A policy of allowing most fee earners at the firm to work one day a week from home meant Withers could make a “near seamless integration” to remote-working during the global pandemic. Junior employees received special priority in receiving a second desktop screen and other IT equipment, we’re told, which “has made a big difference”. “There are lots of catch up Skype calls with the team and with my supervisor, so we still feel part of the team,” one trainee adds. That said, trainees aren’t given work phones, “and although this would seem like a benefit, when working from home it can make things more difficult”, complains another novice. And while Withers’ IT systems have held up during the lockdown, they’re apparently “very old and slow” – especially its e-bundling software – and “could do with an upgrade”.
Elsewhere, gripes with the firm’s fairly weak social life date back before COVID-19. “Firmwide events are few and far between: limited to summer and Christmas parties”, says one trainee. “Work/life balance means people are able to make time with their non-work friends and that usually gets prioritised over any firm based socialising,” says another. Still, we hear remote-working trainees now “have weekly tea catch ups and virtual quizzes” to combat cabin fever and keep up morale.