The Legal Cheek View
Withers gave all trainees, secretaries and paralegals in the EU and Asia, as well as all business service employees below manager level a one-off payment of £1,000 this year to help with the increase in the cost of living — a payment it can certainly afford.
The firm acts for high-net-worth individuals, and has been a busy place over the last decade. Revenue has more than doubled since 2007, to reach £243.7 million in its most recently released figures. The firm emerged unscathed from the Covid-19 pandemic, recording a 42% rise in partner profits in 2020 following increased client demand in arbitration, employment, private client and tax during lockdown. Its most recent financials figures show profit per equity partner rose by nearly a third from £501,000 in 2019-20 to £660,000 and has since inched upward to £668,000.
Last year, Withers boosted its London office with a lateral partner hire in the exciting field of international art, as well as making several partner hires in its overseas offices. On the other hand, a well-regarded litigation partner left its Hong Kong office to set up her own firm.
As a provider of legal services to the world’s super-rich, Withers has some rather big-name clients, among them luxury brands Moncler and MaxMara. Most prefer to keep their names private, but the firm lays claim to having represented 70% of the top 100 on The Sunday Times Rich List.
For trainees that equates to some interesting work, although it “very much varies between departments”. 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.
Once qualified, the admin work will reduce. One junior lawyer says: “As an NQ, I work on a combination of smaller matters, where you are expected to lead and larger matters, where you have a team of associates. It is quite a good opportunity to learn.”
The training is “generally good”, we’re told, with partner or senior associate-led 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 think the training is really great overall,” one rookie reports. “I have been given just the right balance of early responsibility and support to enable my development.”
Indeed, as trainees cut their teeth they are given close supervision — the small intake of 13 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 “really supportive group and always willing to help each other out”. They are “usually happy to share their experience and walk you through some tasks where they have more experience”.
Partners — nearly half of whom, remarkably for the legal profession, are female — are “generally very approachable”. A former trainee told Legal Cheek: “I have never been worried about asking anyone a question, even partners that have been at the firm for longer than I have been alive! Everyone is so friendly and I think this is something that really sets Withers apart from other firms.” 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 18 offices in eight 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 temporarily put secondments on hold (we have been told they will be on offer again from March 2023), 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. However, one newbie enjoyed a secondment in the British Virgin Island, which was extended to one year, two months. Client secondments may also be secured, with stints including six months at an international hotel company and three months at a London-based family office.
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. Typical hours are 9am to 7pm but some people may work 12-hour days. 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 £77,000. 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 (opposite the infamous ‘Old Bailey’ aka Central Criminal Court). “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”. Trainees also delight in the “special meals for Eid al-Fitr and 4 July” which are “fun and impressive”. We hear the canteen cookies are “excellent” too.
As for other perks, Withers’ lawyers enjoy flexible working, a free barista coffee every day, access to an interest free loan for travel cards, private healthcare, monthly theatre ticket draws, as well as paid-for dinners and taxi rides home beyond a certain time (though not if you’re working from home, we’re told). 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. Withers provided a WFH budget in 2020 and top-up in 2021 for IT equipment and furniture. Junior employees received special priority in receiving a second desktop screen and other IT equipment, we’re told, which “made a big difference”. 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 held up during the lockdown, they’re apparently “very old and slow” — especially its e-bundling software — and “could do with an upgrade”. Rookies dismiss the tech as “could be better” or, if diplomatically minded, “legal tech develops very quickly, so there is always room for improvement”.
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,” notes 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.