When Michael Greville stepped down as managing partner of Watson Farley & Williams (WFW), his position was filled by not one, but two, former office heads.
Lothar Wegener and Chris Lowe were both voted into the role back in January 2014 (13 December 2013) and are set to be in the position for the next five years.
Lowe started working at the firm in 1990 and has since acted as office head in Copenhagen and Singapore, as well as the firm’s global maritime practice chief. Tax specialist Wegener, meanwhile, joined the firm nearly 10 years ago and soon became head of its Hamburg office, where he is still based.
“We both have experience of working out of the UK and have had international exposure,” says Lowe. “However, we need to get that message across out to our offices to promote integration with our partners all over the world. We especially didn’t want to create any splits between the firm, with one side supporting Team Lothar and the other siding with Team Chris.”
The pair’s first task was to see whether were any cross-overs between the firm’s jurisdictions and sectors, and establish how they could all work together. WFW has offices across Europe, the US and Asia, adding Hong Kong and Frankfurt in the last few years. It also launched its first office in the Middle East in 2014 (18 September 2014), taking the number of offices up to 14.
“One of the main focuses of the firm is its emphasis on its international scope,” adds Wegener. “As co-managing partners, we can focus on this twice as often as one and have more of an opportunity to make more of it. The firm deserved more management and there was broad support for having two heads.”
With 50 per cent of the firm’s business located out of London, the pair often sit together in off-site meetings to ensure they develop the right strategic direction. They also spend a lot of the time on the road, believing it is important for the firm’s leadership team to drive growth from the offices themselves rather than remotely.
However, they often operate independently of each other, acting and taking on certain projects of their own. Of particular focus for Lowe was the recent refurbishment of the London office, in which he is based.
“The London office was long overdue a refurbishment,” he says. “It’s all been about modernising the space and making equipment fit for purpose. We’ve invested in desktop assets, such as surfaces, for remote working so people can use them on the train, airport and in the home. We need our people to have all these resources.”
WFW has lost several partners of late, as London finance partner Celia Gardiner left for Dentons (28 May 2015) and its Paris infrastructure and projects team departed for Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co (24 March 2015).
Yet the firm has tried to balance out these losses with several key hires of its own, such as Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson’s Siân Withey and Rob McBride who are set to establish a debt securities and structured finance practice (27 May 2015).
“Recruiters have seen a change in approach to the market,” says Lowe. “Now, there is a reverse trend, as people are joining from US firms such as Fried Frank. We want this to continue so we can be seen as attractive to both American and British operations and we have set a mid-point growth target to ensure the firm’s sustainability.”
Part of the strategy is to stick to the firm’s sector focus in which there are opportunities for lawyers to push into different practices. Lowe and Wegener argue that the five sectors hang together very well, with lawyers acting in the maritime and energy groups often moving into the corporate and shipping spheres.
However, one of the main difficulties for Lowe and Wegener to incorporate into their five-year strategy is to look at the requirements of the firm in a much broader sense, while managing the daily business.
“The challenge is dealing with the firm’s current requirements and balancing this with that you want the firm to look like in the next 15 years,” adds Wegener. “Our first year associates are looking into the next 25 years of the firm, as opposed to the next five, and we need to ensure they have the information and input from partners that they need.”
To this end, the firm held an associates conference before the London promotions party in which seven people were promoted to partnership (5 May 2015). Workshops aimed to help associates understand the fundamentals of the business, such as financials and target hours, in a move to make young lawyers more interested in partnership. This follows a drive to improve internal communications within the firm, with its staff “probably feeling like they have been surveyed to death” according to Lowe.
Next on the firm’s agenda is the release of its 2014/15 financials, which are expected in the next few weeks. Last year, WFW increased its revenue by 14 per cent (2 June 2014), following a just small growth in 2012/13 of two per cent (16 July 2013).
That solid rise, coupled with the firm’s clear strategy, helped it to a place on the Law Firm of the Year shortlist for The Lawyer Awards next week (5 May 2015).
And the most recent financial year also looks to have been solid. While results are yet to be finalised, the 2014/15 financial year is expected to show a revenue increase of around 7 to 8 per cent growth. Wegener adds that “profitability looks good” too – giving the firm’s management plenty of scope to continue building.
This interview continues our series of interviews with the management teams of the firms shortlisted for Law Firm of the Year at The Lawyer Awards, in association with Travelers. Previously: