Watson, Farley & Williams (London)
Watson Farley is still a youngish firm in legal terms, formed in 1982 when the City was a very different place. Rumours abound that for a while after launch it was the most profitable firm in the City. It can no longer claim that accolade, but then it has expanded somewhat: it now has about 377 lawyers worldwide.
And it would have an awful lot more if it could have persuaded someone to merge with it in the mid-noughties: it tried and failed to get it together with Squire Sanders, Hunton & Williams (twice) and finally merger-happy Simmons & Simmons. Given the complete lack of success, the dream of a tie-up has faded and the firm is now content to grow under its own organic steam. And it has had a pretty good run, too, with revenue shooting up 9% to £80 million in 2009/10, 11% in 2010/11 (£88.8m), and in 2011/12 revenue rose another 12% to £99.8m. 2012/13 hasn't been as good, with revenue growth slowing to 2% and PEP continuing to drop, this time by 13%, although they can probably get by on £388k.
The firm’s key area of expertise is asset finance (particularly shipping). Accordingly it has the obligatory Piraeus office, together with Rome, Milan, Athens, Munich, Bangkok, Hamburg, Paris (rebuilt after an Orrick raid a few years back), New York (similarly put back together after a large chunk of its finance department went over to King & Spalding), Singapore, Honk Kong and most recently Frankfurt.
About half its staff are based abroad and all trainees (who do six seats of four months rather than the more traditional four seats of six) are guaranteed a stint in a foreign office - currently Paris, Piraeus, Singapore or Bangkok. If asset finance butters your crumpet and you like the idea of working for a comparatively small firm with overseas opportunities then this is clearly a good bet.
The fact that it is a niche practice will put off some, but on the other
hand this may mean that its future is clearer than that of its less
Pay is performance related after 2PQE, and star assistants can make Magic Circle rates. Although bonuses were paid during the credit crunch (when actually the firm did relatively extremely well), they were described as a "pittance
" and there were complaints that the "fat cats were getting fatter
You get all the usual benefits of working for a smaller firm - staff
say that it is a friendly place with a good atmosphere, and the hours
are generally better than the Magic Circle (although they are reputedly
tougher than at other firms of similar size). According to one associate
it's "a punchy little firm that hits above its weight". Plus it also has a fantastic (if a little "dingy") restaurant run by a French chef. Phillipe gets massive praise every year.
However, a growing number of staff niggles mean the firm fared very poorly in
RollOnFriday's Firm of the Year 2013, coming fourth from bottom. Staff
were unhappy about the lack of focus on career development, a lack of
transparency ("we find out about strategy and decisions well after
they've been implemented
") and too many "periods of inactivity
". One junior associate complained "the partners have no idea how unappreciated staff (both fee earners and support staff) at all levels feel
", whilst another referred to an "almost tyrannical dictator style management
." The grumbles about inactivity were leant credence earlier this year when WFW offered its September 2013 trainee intake £5k apiece to defer for a year.
But it's not all doom and gloom, respondents also praised the "challenging work
", a "good number of firm jollies
" and generally very friendly people.
If shipping floats your boat, and you fancy a small firm with good international opportunities, WFW is certainly worth considering.