An interview for talents, with Dr. Karl Wach.
Dr. Wach, what draws applicants to a law firm specialising in dispute resolution and, in particular, Wach und Meckes?
Dispute resolution is an exciting and challenging field. It is also a profitable market that continues to grow. Our firm offers decades of experience and high-end litigation matters many of which have international dimensions. Through these matters we help our lawyers develop into full-fledged litigators. Associates who reach this level have a sound perspective of becoming a partner at our firm.
Your statement could have easily been made by one of the big international law firms.
That’s true (laughs). With regard to our high standards and lay-out of our cases, we actually do not differ from the larger firms. Our partners all used to work in these firms. Today, we often go up against these big firms or work side by side with them. However, there certainly are significant differences, especially for applicants. They manifests primarily in the different structures of the two types of law firms.
Could you elaborate on that please?
We can focus our energy on what the market demands in high-quality dispute resolution, without worrying about other practice groups. Complex dispute resolution requires a lot of experience. That’s why our partners are very hands-on with the cases and work with a smaller number of associates per partner than in Big Law.
How does this benefit applicants?
Our model benefits lawyers in a number of ways. Most important for new lawyers is the intense and comprehensive on-the-job training. Here, nobody has to worry about not being sufficiently challenged. Our associates are involved in all aspects of our matters right from the start and are also responsible internally for the matter.
Are you not overwhelming a newly qualified lawyer with such responsibilities?
We are aware that newly qualified lawyers may not be able to independently manage a case file comprehensively. And of course, they don’t have to. For a start, they are primarily the operational manager of the case. They would therefore monitor that the necessary steps in a matter are taken and completed on time (such steps being, for example, obtaining the necessary information, coming up with factual and legal analyses, developing strategies towards a solution, drafting submissions and pleadings in court). In doing this, they are guided and supported by an experienced colleague, for example a partner. This experienced colleague familiarizes the newly qualified lawyer with the case step by step and oversees the strategic end of the matter, i.e. he is responsible on how best to solve the clients’ problems. The assistance by our highly qualified and very experienced support team is also noteworthy and not to be underestimated.
This sense of responsibility over the management of a case makes sense for young associates. It not only gives them an overall view of a matter by involving them with the development of a strategy right from the beginning, but also provides them with a perspective of the business and administrative aspects of legal practice. It allows for a steep learning curve for skilled and ambitious associates and ensures that they are on track to become full-fledged commercial litigators. We promote the latter by also including our associates from the get-go in the business functions of the firm.
But one wouldn’t be making a mistake by starting off his/her career at one of the big international law firms, right?
I cannot agree with that as a general matter. New lawyers in Big Law are often used one-dimensionally. After a couple of years, their learning curve is significantly behind that of a colleague who learned his/her “craft” from us. This is unfortunate, because it is in the first few years of practice where quality training is key.
What other arguments speak for Wach und Meckes from the applicants’ point of view?
The above-average, merit-based prospects for making partner.
Why are the prospects of partnership at Wach und Meckes above average?
For one, because our business model has no structural growth limits in sight. Neither the demands of other practice groups nor their potential for conflicts of interest hinder our growth. The essential functions and processes of our firm are designed so that they would work with ten or even 20 partners. Further, additional growth will open up more market opportunities for us.
What do you see as the driving force for your future growth?
The market for dispute resolution in Germany is growing. In addition to the traditional areas such as post-M&A disputes, other areas like directors´ liability, capital market disputes and cartel damages have come into focus. For a law firm specializing in Dispute Resolution like us, this creates considerable opportunities.
Key success factors for us are our high standards, our sophisticated, team-oriented work methods, our decades of experience in complex disputes and, last but not least, our structure as an independent specialist firm which largely keeps us free from conflicts of interest and reliefs us from being considerate about the interests of other practice groups.
How do you project your future growth?
The development of the firm to date, which at the time of its inception in 2009 consisted solely of the two name partners, and our current position in the high-end segment of dispute resolution makes us confident that we are able to sustain our growth. In that respect, the smaller number of associates to partner ratio is also attractive to potential partners. It means more partners at the same level of business.
You mentioned that at Wach und Meckes the partnership decision essentially depends on performance. Isn’t that naturally the case?
Not everywhere. For us, the decision to promote someone to partner is made by people the candidate has convinced after several years of a close working relationship. This decision isn’t burdened by politics between different practice groups and locations, but instead is driven by the partners’ guiding principle of making the firm more attractive to clients and colleagues through the addition of top-notch partners.
The candidate is nevertheless dependent on the subjective assessment of the partners.
It is impossible for any firm to exclude this completely. However, we are aware of the demands that the market places on us and systematically prepare our young colleagues for them. To get there, we have defined core competences for our associates at their respective seniority levels, based on objective criteria. Integrating this development program into our review process enables us to better support the development of our lawyers and make decisions more objective, transparent and predictable.
Is education at Wach und Meckes limited to on-the-job training?
No, the „on-the-job“ training is part of a comprehensive training program with internal and external aspects in various formats.
An essential element of the internal training is a weekly meeting of all operational staff, where the current developments in the individual matters are explained and discussed. This is especially useful for our younger colleagues, who can draw from the experience of others, and incorporate others´ know-how into „their“ own cases.
Could you elaborate further on your training program?
The internal program includes at least one full-day and two half-day training sessions per year, three one-hour lunch sessions and about ten 15-minute workshops. Using these formats, we close the gaps left at the university and state education level, support individuals in their personal growth and keep each other up to date on the relevant insights of our day-to-day work.
Our external courses and speakers cover our non-legal training needs, for example in the areas of accounting, business valuation and IT applications, which are very important to us.
Our training program also earned us a nomination in the category „Education and Training“ at the 2016 Azur Awards.
Can you compete in terms of salary with the major law firms?
We pay newly qualified lawyers an annual salary of EUR 110.000 and those with truly outstanding qualifications EUR 120.000. With expected advancement, the salary increases accordingly. We also expect above-average commitment. However, our expectations in terms of working hours are intentionally lower than those demanded by many major law firms. We are convinced that creative excellence is possible in the long term only if there is room for balance and private activities. Those who share this philosophy can, calculated by the hours worked, anticipate a very appealing compensation.
This leads us to the increasing importance of a good work-life balance. In that respect, what does Wach und Meckes have to offer?
A good work-life balance largely depends on your field. Dispute resolution allows for balance because it generally lets us plan ahead, unlike, for example, transactional work. In this respect, we ensure that we have a big enough team to handle tasks well. When planning vacations, we take into account the seasonal peak periods. We have an efficient substitute system that avoids overworking any one team member. This is an essential part of our team-oriented, modular work method. It may not always be possible to avoid personnel shortages or peak work periods. However, as a whole, the need to work during the weekend is still an exception for us, we have time for private lives and the overall pressure is significantly lower than that in Big Law.
What about part-time models?
As expected in smaller units, we have no formal part-time models. However, working on a part-time or flexible basis is practiced in our firm even on partner level. What is crucial for us is that the person concerned is organized in such a way that we, as a firm, are able to meet our clients’ demands at all times.
What skills would an applicant ideally have?
Our lawyers must meet the very high standards that our clients set for us. Flowing from that is a rather lengthy list of requirements and qualities we like to see (laughs).
Our cases often lead to legal questions out of the norm and off the beaten path. In order to develop practicable solutions in these niche areas of law, our lawyers must be highly qualified. The rule of thumb for us is the completion of the two German state exams with above average results (vollbefriedigend).
Commitment, organizational skills and a good sense of responsibility are also required in order to achieve excellent results for our clients. Furthermore, the ability to work in a team, strong communication skills and professional conduct are necessary, as succeeding with the – internal and external – management of our cases always requires a team effort due to the complexity of these cases.
In addition, excellent English skills, at best acquired by work experience or studies abroad, are indispensable for dealing with our many international cases.
Finally, we also like seeing applicants who have made first steps in dispute resolution even as a student, for example by participating in moot court competitions.
If you look back on the time since the firm´s inception in 2009, would you do it all over again?
More than ever, especially because of the appeal of the smaller unit, which adds to the aforementioned „hard facts“. In particular, we value the opportunity to shape the firm in all aspects to the specific needs of our business without compromise. Moreover, it has been a great joy to experience directly the success of your own business venture.
Are you not worried that others would copy your business model?
We have already observed this happening, which in our view confirms that our approach is the right way to go. These firms don’t limit us, because the market can handle multiple specialized law firms like us. In any event, the real art lies in the implementation.