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 500 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 sector is transport - particularly shipping and aviation. It also has expertise in energy and real estate.
With a well regarded shipping practice, the firm has the obligatory Piraeus office, together with Rome, Milan, Madrid, Athens, Munich, 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), Dubai, Hanoi, Singapore, Bangkok, and Hong Kong.
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 Dubai, Paris, Athens, Munich, 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 hours are generally better than the Magic Circle - although they are reputedly tougher than at other firms of similar size, and are getting longer. According to one associate it's "a punchy little firm that hits above its weight". Although 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"
A growing number of staff quibbles means the firm has fared very poorly in RollOnFriday's annual satisfaction 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".
The firm's management was described as “opaque”. Giving an example, a solicitor said a junior associate “was sacked just before the end of his probation period - he popped out for what was supposed to be a probation review and never came back, his stuff was packed and delivered to him”. Another said “We hardly see them, and when we do it often feels like they just want to tell us off”.
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..."
The firm has been one of the bottom rated firms for culture in the UK in the last couple of surveys. 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?" A junior lawyer said "it's a miserable environment. And getting worse despite the firm re-badging the director of learning and development as director of culture." 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".
For career progression, one lawyer claimed: "For the third year running I've been sidelined on matters because of preference by partners to use lateral associates". But a lateral countered, "I've realised most of the home grown associates are absolutely hopeless, which in this instance is probably a positive providing it isn't contagious". Me-ow.
Pay is performance related after 2PQE, and star assistants can make Magic Circle rates. However, a senior lawyer complained that the firm "recently decided to get rid of the xmas bonus and told us it was included in the pay review (which was effectively non-existent)." A junior lawyer said pay "would be fine if there were a less terrible bonus system".
It's not all doom and gloom. Staff have in the past praised the "challenging work" and generally friendly people, and some partners have been described as "inspirational". 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.
It performed pretty poorly in the RollOnFriday Best Law Firms to Work At 2022, scoring 45% and placing 59th.
If shipping floats your boat, and you fancy a small firm (in City terms) with good international opportunities, WFW is certainly worth considering.