Watson, Farley & Williams
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 over 400 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.
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 focussed competitors.
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".
However, a growing number of staff quibbles means the firm fared very poorly in RollOnFriday's Firm of the Year surveys. Staff have been 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 "antiquated and inflexible approach to work" and that partners "don't understand career progression".
There are those who feel that something needs to be done if the firm wants to truly compete with the larger firms. One partner said that a big merger is needed "if it is ever to be considered more than a low level player"
The London office space has also come in for some stick with an NQ commenting that it is "really dated and claustrophobic". Although there is hope since it is believed they are "planning a refurb..."
In the 2019 survey it received the lowest score for culture in the UK. It "can't seem to decide what sort of firm it is", said an NQ. "Are we a firm that beasts its lawyers but they get extremely well paid? Or where the work life balance makes up for comparatively lower remuneration?" The conclusion: "at the moment it's the worst of both worlds". A colleague said, "we had a reputation as a small, collegiate firm, but since the financials have been sinking, that culture has been tossed out the window in favour of a more cutthroat environment".
It's not all doom and gloom. Staff have in the past praised the "challenging work" and generally very friendly people. They also used to really love its fantastic (if "dingy") restaurant run by a French chef. Phillipe got masses of praise every year. Until 2018, that is, when WFW got rid of him.
If shipping floats your boat, and you fancy a small firm with good international opportunities, WFW is certainly worth considering.