Breaking new ground faster than even its own trainees can keep track of, DWF has its sights set on the big leagues.
New offices, new offices everywhere
If a DWF trainee from 2008 took a time machine ten years into the future and took the opportunity to visit DWF, they probably wouldn't recognise their own firm. Within a decade this Manchester-based outfit's head count has more than tripled to approximately 1,000 lawyers and the firm has ballooned from five UK offices to more than twice that, plus another 16 overseas. In 2017 alone DWF expanded into Milan, Berlin, Paris, Melbourne, Brisbane and Singapore while forming links with firms in Saudi Arabia and South America; 2018 saw Turkey and Qatar join the empire too. And in March 2019 DWF listed on the London Stock Exchange, becoming the UK's largest listed law firm – it was valued at £366 million before its IPO.
Training principal Carl Graham tells us DWF is “now in a better position to challenge bigger firms than we were a few years ago. The market is tough at the moment, particularly in insurance, but we've grown and will continue to grow in a steady, sensible fashion.” The speed of expansion had caught some new arrivals off guard, but they were all pleased to join a firm with a wider reach than they'd expected. Several were included in “discussions on where the firm is going. We're developing at a rapid pace and it's an exciting time to be here, particularly with our new international offerings.”
"We went for a two-week induction together and it was quite eerie how similar we were.”
DWF has a rich insurance law heritage and claims strong Chambers UK rankings for personal injury, health and safety, volume claims, professional negligence and product liability. The firm's no slouch on the commercial front either: among dozens of rankings it's considered a national leader outside London for banking and litigation; and it recently joined the top tier for IP in the North East and litigation in the Midlands.
“I do feel like they're looking for a type,” one trainee told us. “We went for a two-week induction together and it was quite eerie how similar we were.” Another chimed in that “everyone's quite outgoing at DWF, and nobody's hugely competitive at others' expense,” though some argued “we have a mix of backgrounds and very different interests.” At the time of our interviews London claimed the biggest trainee squad with 20, while Manchester had 18, Leeds 13, Birmingham ten, Liverpool nine and Newcastle four. The firm also recruits trainees in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It's “quite common” for trainees to move between offices, especially along the Manchester-Liverpool-Leeds axis: Liverpool and Leeds trainees especially often do a seat in Manchester.
A two-stage seat allocation system means second-years get their pick of the available options; after theirs have been allocated, the remaining vacancies are circulated among first-years. First seats are allocated automatically, but before subsequent rotations trainees can list three to five preferences. “It's a bit of a lottery,” according to some – DWF only recently switched from a six-seat model to the common four-seat arrangement, and we heard “there have been some teething problems; promises about getting a certain seat can be forgotten.” But the vast majority preferred the new system as “six months in a seat is better for your development.” Overseas seats are a rarity at present but “more opportunities will arise” according to Carl Graham. Milan and Dubai have both hosted a trainee recently.
Show me the money
All DWF-ers complete at least one insurance-related seat during their training contract, with options including casualty, catastrophic personal injury, occupational health, professional indemnity, commercial insurance and insured litigation. DWF counts major insurers like Zurich, Chubb, Aviva and QBE as clients, and handles a broad mix of contentious and commercial work for them.
A stint in commercial insurance offers claimant and defendant work including subrogated recoveries (pursuing a third party whose actions resulted in losses for the insured) and “commercial litigation-style work in an insurance context. The essence of the work is recovering money for insurers after a claim's settled.” Trainees get their own smaller cases to run alongside contributing to larger matters like a £24 million claim following a warehouse fire in London. “There's a little bit of drafting and project management,” according to insiders, “but generally you're liaising a lot with clients and researching legal facts.” When let loose on their own cases, most had “a supervisor who keeps you on a tight rein.” There's some crossover with professional indemnity – representing insured professionals from the legal, construction and financial sectors. The team recently defended law firm Mishcon de Reya and its insurers against a claim related to a £1 million London house put up for sale by a fraudster. The firm also acted for Kensington and Chelsea council in connection with personal injury claims after the Grenfell Tower fire. Trainees noted that “post-Grenfell insurers are quite nervous, so there's been a lot of research into potential future developments.”
“I was responsible for managing ten to 20 low-value cases of my own.”
Insured litigation includes subgroups like casualty and property. DWF's other specialisms include engineering, construction and product liability, while shipping work has come in thick and fast lately. In one case the firm acted for insurers and the insured ship owners after a collision between a container vessel and a harbour crane in Sierra Leone, a $6 million matter. Trainees in the department hit the ground running “reviewing cases' prospects of success” as well as drafting witness statements and instructions to counsel. “I was responsible for managing ten to 20 low-value cases of my own,” one trainee reported. “There was fire and flood damage work and some interesting product liability cases.” Some also slotted into large-scale arbitrations to do more typical trainee tasks including bundling and “manically running to barristers' chambers with documents before the trial.” With a battery of new offices in its arsenal, DWF's practice is getting more international, but we heard “the overseas offices still feel a step removed” in many cases.
The Costa living
Roughly 80% of trainees do a real estate seat, we heard. Premier Inn and Costa operator Whitbread is a major client here – some interviewees got “given their own matters to handle as Costa continues its expansion.” DWF also recently worked on a £52 million funding deal for the Shoreditch 'hub by Premier Inn' hotel. On the litigious side, lawyers in Leeds recently represented the council's city centre management team in a dispute with a tenant over service costs. National and international matters are commonplace but local projects still come in: Birmingham sources told us “there's a real satisfaction when you walk past buildings on your way to work and know you had a hand in that transaction.” Responsibility levels in the department were mixed, with many doing “a lot of basic trainee tasks like handling smaller leases; it's one of those areas where things can get monotonous.” There's also scope to assist on bigger projects, getting a crack at first drafts on major refinancings and sales of large retail units.
“There's a real demand” for DWF's regulatory seat. What's the appeal? “It's rare to get criminal work at big firms,” insiders explained. The small team does “everything from health and safety and corporate manslaughter to corruption and bribery work.” The team recently advised recycling and quarrying company John Wade on corporate manslaughter charges brought by the CPS after an employee died in an accident. A trainee's work involves plenty of document review, but also extends into “drafting witness statements and written submissions for regulatory bodies, and I went to quite a few client meetings.” Morrisons, Marks & Spencer and 3M have all called on the firm's expertise, as have various construction, transport and energy clients. “We advise on a wide remit of things – sometimes we get strange one-off queries about the labelling of chemicals or food,” one trainee recalled; many trainees also get to attend court and inquests.
"Sometimes we get strange one-off queries about the labelling of chemicals or food.”
The corporate department has a mid-market M&A pedigree across the financial services, retail and technology sectors; we heard the firm “wants to do more private equity work” and has been bringing in lateral partners with that in mind. Insiders suggested: “The great thing about corporate is that a lot of new partners joined recently, but there aren't as many junior associates so when big deals come in everyone steps up to tasks above their level.” Trainee tasks include drafting disclosure letters, board minutes and Companies House filings. On securities matters trainees focus on verification – “it's a drawn-out process but a useful training exercise.” The Manchester team recently acted for Lloyds' private equity arm on its £85 million sale of tech manufacturer Mini-Cam. Down in London, DWF advised investment firm City of London Group on the £20 million reverse takeover of Milton Homes and its 586-property portfolio.
DWF's secondment committee arranges six-month stints with clients. Opportunities are fairly common, especially in London where “there are usually three or four secondments to choose from so most people get to go.” Prospective secondees apply as they would for any other seat, and then in most cases go through an interview stage. Secondment options include Lloyds Bank, services provider Serco and retail giant Arcadia. A secondee we spoke to said: “It was a big step up in responsibility. I was often managing calls with senior executives of huge listed companies.” At the same time, “during the secondment there are regular meetings with a DWF partner, so I definitely wasn't abandoned.”
Breathing a sigh of relief that “there have been no horror stories to report,” trainees labelled DWF “really reasonable” on the hours front. “You're contracted for 9am to 5.30pm," one source reported. "I normally stay until about 6.30pm and partners generally don't dump things on you as they head out the door.” Some seats are more demanding than others – corporate, we're looking at you – and Londoners often work longer days than their regional colleagues, but even in the Big Smoke “it's pretty great to be honest. I've only been here past midnight twice in 18 months.”
Wear your big boy pants
One trainee summarised DWF's culture with this story: “When the firm did a survey on what our dress code should be, everybody picked the 'treat us like adults' option.” (The dress code is "more casual" than at some other firms.) We wondered if the firm's culture had changed in recent years given its massive growth. "That's not particularly had an impact," believed one source. "People might talk about us opening a new office, but the practical effect of that on my day-to-day is minimal." As for expansion in the UK, some interviewees had noticed "some teething problems in consolidation," for instance integrating employees of different legacy firms. One other change is that a few years ago the firm scrapped the dinner managing partner Andrew Leaitherland used to host for all.
One thing that hasn't changed at DWF is that “it's definitely a sociable firm. There are always events going on and we have sports and social committees.” Most offices host a monthly Friday Fridge with free drinks, while in London the freebies come on Thirsty Thursday. Sources in the capital said “there's less socialising than in other offices. A lot of people have young families and tend to finish their work then go home.” They also suggested events like Christmas and summer parties “aren't always very well attended by senior people,” something we heard from other offices too.
"In bigger teams with less supervisor contact, you get a junior mentor.”
Trainee opinions on formalised training were similarly mixed – some lamented that “apathy towards junior development has caused some issues. Some supervisors are great, others tend to go through the motions.” An online 'objectives manager' tracks appraisals, which take place mid-seat and before each change. Video-conference training links each office, and departments host their own sessions. There are also “soft skills” courses for trainees and junior associates and a DWF Academy providing business skills training. “It's a mixed bag but there's a lot put on,” was the consensus view. “I generally feel supported and in bigger teams with less supervisor contact, you get a junior mentor.”
Following the switch to a four-seat system, the NQ process has been moved forward to be more in line with that of other firms. Interviewees declared the process “quite transparent. You can apply for any job even if you haven't done a seat there, and list up to two choices.” Trainees submit a 300-word summary of why they'd be a good fit for each department they're applying to; interviews take place if more than one goes for the same job. At the time this feature was published in early October 2018 the firm had not confirmed its 2018 retention rate to us yet; we'll publish it here as soon as we know it.
The Manchester office offers a police and prisons seat, “a really interesting area that more people should know about.”
How to get a DWF training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 4 January 2019 (opens 1 October 2018)
Training contract deadline (2021): 5 July 2019 (opens 1 October 2018)
Pupillage application deadline (2019): 2 November 2018
Initial application and video interview
DWF receives around 2,500 applications each year for both its vacation scheme and training contracts. The online application form is the same for vacation scheme and direct training contract applicants. It asks candidates to outline their academics, work experience, reasons for pursuing a career at DWF and what transferable skills they have.
Successful applicants are then invited to take part in a video interview which takes around twenty minutes to complete.
The next stage is the assessment centre. This consists of a strengths-based interview, a group exercise/presentation, a short written exercise and the chance to network with the assessors. From here vacation scheme offers are made.
The final stage of recruitment for both the vacation scheme and direct applicants is a 'meet the senior partners' event, which gives applicants the opportunity to meet and impress the firm's business leaders. The format is that of a lawyer speed-networking type of event that sees applicants pick the brains of the practice group heads as well as CEO and Managing Partner Andrew Leaitherland. “It just goes to show how much the senior figures want to invest their time in the recruitment process,” said one trainee.
The vacation scheme runs for two weeks through June-July, with specific dates depending on location.
Attendees sit with two different departments during their visit, attend a series of presentations and workshops, and also undertake a group project. The firm's current trainees praised the work they were given as vac schemers, telling us they'd carried out “typical day-to-day trainee tasks like researching cases and drafting letters to clients.” There is also a social side to the scheme, giving participants the chance to meet current trainees, associates and partners. This allows them to really get a good picture of the DWF culture and values, as well as have some fun!
How to wow
DWF accepts applications from any university, and has an academic threshold of AAB at A level/AAABB at Scottish Highers (or equivalent), plus a minimum 2:1 degree (either expected or obtained). However, they do take mitigating circumstances into account and are also using the Contextual Recruitment System, which allows them to consider academic achievements in the context in which they were gained.
Throughout the application process it is important that candidates display a sense of why DWF is the business they want to work for, and why they think it is different from its competitors. This means showing an understanding of the legal market and where DWF sits within it and demonstrating sufficient knowledge of the business's sector groups and clients.
In autumn 2018 DWF announced that its advocacy unit (DWF Advocacy Ltd) was recruiting a pupil barrister to join the team in 2019. The pupillage consists of two six-month seats with the aim that on completion the successful candidate will be offered a permanent position as an employed barrister. The deadline to apply was November 2018, and the position was advertised on the firm's website and on the Pupillage Gateway. It's not yet known if DWF will be recruiting a pupil in 2019/20 too, but keep your ear to the ground for future opportunities.
Interview with training principal Carl Graham
Chambers Student: What have been the highlights of the last year at the firm?
Carl Graham: We've had a plan in place for international expansion for some time, and have taken the time to find the right opportunities. Australia was a particularly useful jurisdiction for us to move into, as was Singapore. From a personal perspective, the highlights have come from trainee engagement with our growth.
CS: What impact will the firm's international growth have on the life of trainees?
CG: The difficulty in recruiting a couple of years in advance is that our profile now is obviously very different to what it was. We've previously missed out on candidates because of a lack of international presence even though we had clear plans to build that. Recently we've had a trainee qualify in Dubai and one's gone to Milan for a seat. During recruitment we often get questions about overseas seat availability, and that has to be client and business driven – we wouldn't send trainees out to twiddle their thumbs – but opportunities will arise going forward.
CS: The firm's rate of expansion has been amazing to watch – how do you see things progressing going forward?
CG: We're now in a better position to challenge bigger firms than we were a few years ago. Our strategy has been clear and the market is tough at the moment, particularly in insurance, but we've grown and will continue to grow in a steady, sensible fashion. As other firms close offices we're opening them.
CS: Do you see the firm's trainee numbers growing in the near future?
CG: Not necessarily, given the imminent introduction of the SQE (Solicitor's Qualifying Exam) and apprentice levy we've been considering alternative routes to qualification and our trainee numbers will probably remain fairly static. There is huge demand for trainees across the firm and rather than just increasing numbers across the board it's likely that if one office grows significantly, the intake there will correspondingly increase.
It's worth noting we've taken steps to improve diversity in our recruitment through the introduction of contextual recruitment. We're doing more to recognise that achieving certain grades at one school may be more of an achievement than at others – for example, if an applicant scored 3 B A-levels from a school where the average is 2 Es, they've done exceptionally well. Through measures like this we're making sure we don't miss out on the best candidates.
CS: How can a candidate really impress at interview?
CG: Every year as a recruitment team we meet to discuss standards and our interview content. We obviously expect certain academic scores while taking context into account, but interviews are also about showing personality and understanding commerciality. We read a lot of applications and see a lot of the same things. Candidates need to make their answers relevant to the questions we ask, rather than shoeing in revised answers. Individuality is key to the success of a business, and if you can convey that at interview then that's all for the better. We'd also much rather see work experience that demonstrates hard graft and knowing how to manage people than we would endless open days at different firms.
CS: So what sort of person thrives at DWF?
CG: Commercial edge is definitely one thing, and it's important for trainees to be open to change, but during inductions I always talk about grit and getting the basics right. A training contract is fundamentally about us training you, and for that there has to be a two-way commitment to hard work. The best trainees get the basics right, work hard and demonstrate commitment, there's no real secret or magic answer.
CS: What makes a training contract at DWF distinctive from those offered by other firms?
CG: From what I can tell it's that we give our trainees more responsibility. They get close supervision but if a trainee's supervisor is stuck into a large, complicated matter they'll involve the trainee from the outset. That's part of the reason why we went back to four six month seats: commercial partners in particular told us they wanted trainees to have the chance to get more heavily involved.
CS: Do you have any advice for our readers who are about to enter the legal profession?
CG: Like any profession, there are lots of challenges within the market at present. Come in with your eyes wide open to what practising law actually involves, because it's not just what you see on TV. There's a lot of hard work but the reward comes when clients return to you with repeat business because you've done a good job. When trainees get to experience that, that's when they become part of the furniture.
CS: Is there anything else we haven't already talked about that our readers should know about the firm?
CG: We're a very young business – some partners including myself have been at DWF for a long time but even we're new to the size and scale of the firm now. Trainees and NQs tell me they're excited about being part of a firm that feels like it's going on a journey.
DWF's stratospheric growth
If DWF was a human, you can bet the first word it would utter would be 'growth.' The firm has ballooned remarkably over the past decade or so: read on for a closer look at this era of incredible expansion, as well as some insight from three of DWF's partners: Carl Graham, James Szerdy and Hilary Ross.
Once upon a time...
The first major development in DWF's journey of growth over the years was its 2007 merger with North West firm Ricksons, which added Preston and Leeds offices to complement its existing outposts in Manchester and Liverpool. Revenue surpassed £50m in 2006/07 – more than double what DWF was worth just a few years before. Enterprising managing partner Andrew Leaitherland – elected in 2006, aged just 36 – marked this development by launching a new strategy to get the firm into the UK top 30 by 2010. At the time of this announcement, DWF was ranked 66th in the land by revenue.
Turnover increased to £55.2m in 2007/08, and the firm made 17 lateral partner hires over that period. In 2008, the firm opened an office in London with two partner hires and swiftly added 13 insurance lawyers from Weightmans to its operations there.
A lesson from the recession
The recession dampened DWF's growth somewhat in 2008/09, though its revenue still managed to grow to £60.1m as it brought in another 17 lateral partners hires that year. Andrew Leaitherland – re-elected for a second term as managing partner – announced that the 'top 30 by 2010' goal was to be pushed back. Still, DWF managed to open a small office in Newcastle in 2009.
In 2011 the firm set up shop in Birmingham with the hire of Shoosmiths' head of asset finance. Over the year, the firm made a record number of lateral hires – 20 – and increased revenue by 15% to £83m in 2010/11. The firm also announced that it had downsized its debt from 13% of revenue to 10%.
For DWF, 2012 was even more eventful as the firm underwent three mergers. In January 2012, the firm merged with £5m, 16-partner Newcastle firm Crutes, bulking up its presence in the North East. This tie-up topped up a year of massive growth that saw revenue rise by a staggering 23% to £102m. Then in May the firm merged with Birmingham's Buller Jeffries, adding 20 fee earners to its Brum digs, then in July combined again, this time with Scottish firm Biggart Baillie – a move that added offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and pushed DWF's total worth up to around £120m. (DWF also considered merging with Cobbetts in this period, but the talks were abandoned later in the year.) Andrew Leaitherland, re-elected for a third term as managing partner, was finally able to celebrate the firm achieving its top 30 goal.
Big changes came once again in 2013, when the firm acquired the whole of professional indemnity practice Fishburns – its fifth merger in a 12-month period. Shortly thereafter, DWF revived its talks with struggling Cobbetts and – surprise! – acquired the firm out of administration in a pre-pack deal, welcoming upwards of 500 new folks to its ranks.
According to partner Carl Graham, an initial concern following these two mergers “was making sure that people felt at home and welcome. Fortunately, we're good at syncing people now that we've done it several times! It's a big effort to make sure everyone is taken care of, but despite the scale we haven't had any major issues.” Partner James Szerdy shares a similar sentiment, telling us “there are always improvements to be made, but I'd say we have been successful in integrating not just the systems – which remains an ongoing project – but also the culture of the firms, and indeed the same applies to our lateral hires. It's something that's been a real focus for us, and we've successfully achieved the feat of bringing people together and connecting within the same, unified culture.”
The tie-ups with Fishburns and Cobbetts have proven the most lucrative yet. They boosted the firm's 2012/13 revenue to £188m – an astonishing 84% increase from the year before – and paved the way for a new goal: UK top 20 status by 2015. As luck would have it, the firm topped this goal two years ahead of schedule, nabbing the number 19 spot at the end of 2013.
Not content with standing still, the London team moved to the 'Walkie Talkie' building in September 2014 to give it ample room to continue growing. In 2015 it did exactly that, bulking up its corporate practice with Ince & Co's former head of corporate insurance, Richard Britain, and a banking partner – Christian Francis – from DLA Piper. Unable to resist the urge to merge, May 2015 also saw the firm take over £2.5 million City insurance practice Watmores.
Broadening out abroad
Not content with becoming a large national firm, DWF then set its sights on overseas expansion. The opening of a new Dubai office in March 2015 and a Brussels base in December of the same year were the first indication that the firm was looking to expand its horizons even further afield. Then, on 1 January 2016, DWF merged with German commercial firm BridgehouseLaw; the tie-up brought the firm new digs in Munich and Cologne and was driven by a desire to be on the ground where clients need the firm most.
Meanwhile, domestic expansion was continuing: the firm took on petite, Bristol-based insurance boutique Fox Hartley in May 2016 and entered the Northern Irish market later that year through a merger with 20-partner C & H Jefferson. In 2017 the firm acquired NeoLaw, the costs division of Keelys LLP, in London, and the absorption of insurance management business Triton to bring in 215 more staff in the UK and more newcomers in Sydney, Chicago and Toronto. 2017 also saw a merger with four-partner Heenan Paris in January; the launch of a Berlin office in March; a new office in Singapore in June with four partners taken on from Eversheds; associations with firms based in Argentina, Panama, Colombia and Saudi Arabia in July; and new offices in Melbourne, Brisbane (both through a combination with a local firm) and Milan. Phew.
With its ambitious vision of creating an international profile for itself, the firm looks set to enter a new strategic phase, but only time will tell whether it'll be able to sustain the momentum that it's witnessed over the past decade. London executive partner Hilary Ross told us: “Many of our clients are looking to significantly expand their geographic coverage over the next few years. We want to grow where our clients are keen to develop, so our focus is on Europe, the Middle East and China.”
1 Scott Place,
2 Hardman Street,
- Partners 312
- Associates 399
- Total trainees 84
- UK offices Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, London, Milton Keynes, Bristol, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast
- Overseas offices Dublin, Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Milan, Dubai, Chicago, Toronto, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Newcastle (New South Wales), Singapore
- Graduate recruiter: Sarah Tucker
- Training partner: Carl Graham
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: c.40
- Applications pa: 2,500
- Minimum required degree grade: 2.1 or other
- Minimum A levels: AAB at A level or AAABB at Scottish Highers
- Vacation scheme places pa: 35
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: Monday 1 October 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: Friday 5 July 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: Monday 1 October 2018
- Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: Friday 4 January 2019
- Open day deadline: Friday 2 November 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £22,000-£38,000 (excluding Belfast)
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: No
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London and Manchester
By questioning traditions and thinking beyond conventions, we achieve outstanding levels of innovation. We have received recognition for our work by The Financial Times who named us as one of Europe’s most innovative legal advisers, and we have a range of stand-alone consultative services, technology and products in addition to the traditional legal offering.
We’re leading the way, in the legal sector, by adding value that goes beyond the traditional legal advisor role though our Connected Services. Connected Services is a division of DWF that contains a range of independent businesses that work alongside, support and deliver products and services to our legal teams and clients. Each of the businesses within the division has been set up to offer a complete service designed to help clients better manage risk, reputation, cost, time and resources.
Main areas of work
DWF is focused on delivering service excellence to all of its clients in the UK and internationally, which include major household names and FTSE-listed companies such as adidas, Aviva, Babcock, DHL, Royal Bank of Scotland, RSA, Serco, Telefonica, NewRiver Retail, Whitbread and Zurich.
This is combined with a variety of internal workshops and presentations, helping you understand DWF as a business. You’ll also complete a group project that’s designed to aid your professional development and provide you with some of the essential skills of a successful commercial lawyer.
As well as gaining fantastic experience, you’ll also be paid reasonably for your time on the vacation scheme.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2018
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Professional Negligence: Financial (Band 4)
- Professional Negligence: Legal (Band 3)
- Professional Negligence: Technology & Construction (Band 3)
- Real Estate Finance (Band 6)
- Insurance: Contentious Claims (Band 4)