DWF, merger mania and culture shocks

Wannabe lawyers work hard to secure their traineeships. What happens when the firm they’ve joined changes beyond recognition? 

When law firms merge, two assurances are always trotted out.

The first is that the merger will enable the combining firms to better service their valued clients. The second is that the two firms’ cultures were very similar anyway, and the ethos and values of both will remain.

But when a firm goes through as many mergers as DWF has, can the culture ever really remain the same as it was?  

DWF isn’t quite Trigger’s broom, which Only Fools and Horses fans will recall had 17 new heads and 14 new handles over the course of its storied life. But it has had so many bolt-ons over the years that the firm it was half a dozen years ago is becoming increasingly hard to see. Nowhere is this more evident than in DWF’s trainee intake.

In September 2007, seven trainees came to the end of their training contracts at DWF, qualifying into the happy utopia that was the pre-recession legal market.

By September 2013, DWF had no fewer than 46 final-seaters, and nearly 100 trainees in total.

In six years, the number of qualifiers has increased by 411 per cent. 

That’s a massive increase in a small space of time, although the biggest jump only came in 2013 with the acquisition of Cobbetts, Biggart Baillie, Buller Jeffries and Crutes, all of which brought trainees of their own.

DWF plans to keep recruiting trainees in the numbers it has now.

“The current intention is to maintain numbers, we feel confident that we will be able to support that in the future,” graduate recruitment partner James Szerdy tells Lawyer 2B. “There are certain areas we identify as being ripe for growth so that will support our trainees too.”

One hundred trainees is a perfectly normal amount for a firm the size that DWF now is. Pinsent Masons and DLA Piper both have in excess of 150 (interestingly, Eversheds gets by with just a third of that amount). There should be plenty of work to go around: indeed, the firm is currently recruiting for extra 2014 and 2015 trainees to cope with demand.

Future DWF trainees will get all the benefits of working in a large and ambitious firm. The advantages will doubtless be great. But culturally, the numbers coming in will accelerate the firm’s already changing profile.

The recruitment process will be less personal – how could it not be, when recruiting for 50 instead of eight or nine? And the incoming trainees, having applied to a national business with a flagship office in the Walkie Talkie, will have very different personalities and expectations from those 2007 qualifiers who’d sought out a big-talking North West outfit.

Perhaps the largest difference will be apparent come qualification. Pre-2013, DWF had one of the best retention records of any UK law firm. Between 2002 and 2012, it only let go of 11 out of 131 trainees that came though its doors. In 2013, it lost 14 out of 46. Such is the nature of things in the big league.

DWF has set its sights high. Its challenge for the coming years will be to recruit trainees who share the vision of the firm as it is now, rather than the one it used to be.