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Meet the lawyer

Oliver Wheeler

Oliver Wheeler

University: University of York
Degree: Law
Year of qualification: 2020
Position: Associate
Department: Insolvency and restructuring
Pronouns: He/him

What attracted you to a career in law?

Despite doing a law degree, I didn’t know I was going to become a lawyer. I just knew I wanted to study something I’d not studied before – law looked like an interesting option, and it turned out to be just that.

We had a great university careers adviser who put me forward for taster days and open days in Leeds and London, which opened my eyes to the variety of work you could get involved in as a lawyer. Law appeared to be a  great opportunity to work in a commercial and business-focused environment, while also being technically focused, all of which really appealed to me. Vacation schemes helped me to compare law to other industries/graduate schemes I’d been exploring, and I found that law was the one that most appealed to me.

Why solicitor not barrister?

I’m in awe of the work that barristers do in court and, to put it bluntly, I don't think I’d suit it. I also prefer to be client facing and working as part of a business, rather than being self-employed.

How much work experience had you had? Why is it so important?

During university, I attended on-campus taster sessions for various project management-type roles but didn’t find them as interesting as I did the legal ones. Most of my legal work experience was quite structured, including vacation schemes, but I worked for the university doing various recruitment and social mobility programmes, as well as working an administration job at a GP surgery during the summer back home.

I’d encourage aspiring lawyers to apply and attend not only vacation schemes, but open days as well. Taster and open days are a lot more useful than they get credit for – I met firms as part of these events and discovered quite quickly that they weren’t all the right place for me to pursue a career. It can be tricky to differentiate between firms based on their marketing materials, so these in-person events are incredibly beneficial and can aid your application when outlining why you’re interested in joining a particular firm. Some firms also run competitions and structured tasks that offer the opportunity to do work experience – I won one that got me a week's work experience in a City-firm as well as a tour of a Formula 1 factory!

Which departments did you train in?

During my training contract I first sat in the banking department, before moving into what’s now the finance dispute resolution team. I then went on secondment to the Drax Group Plc, which was followed by a seat in the corporate department.

I ended my training contract in the insolvency and restructuring team. While I was initially planning to be there for one seat, after moving to this department covid-19 hit and I opted to stay in this seat for the remainder of my training contract. The team had a lot of work going on at the time (in particular some long-running litigation that I’d been involved in), so it made sense for everyone for me to stay. Following my two seats in insolvency and restructuring, I qualified into this area of law.

What do you wish you’d known about being a trainee before you started that you now do?

No one expects you to know all the technical stuff and you’re expected to make mistakes. We work on cases and deal with issues that partners haven’t come across before, or haven’t worked on for a long time, and we work through these situations together. Everyone is constantly learning and things in both legislation/case law and the legal market are always changing. It’s not about having the right answer straightaway. It’s important for trainees to demonstrate that they’ve approached things in a professional and methodical manner with a clear thought process.

I’d also encourage future trainees to complete a secondment if they have the option. It’s a brilliant experience to see things from a client’s perspective, while also experiencing a broad range of work. One of the aspects I found most beneficial from the secondment was seeing how the client’s other panel firms interacted and operated with them.

Finally, there are some candidates who head into a training contract knowing exactly what type of law they want to work in, and while that’s great for them, having an open mind is crucial as a lot of lawyers I know qualified into areas they never expected to enjoy (or may have not even realised existed).

Please outline your area of expertise. What might you do in a typical day?

I work in the restructuring and insolvency team at Walker Morris, which sits within the firm’s wider finance unit.

On the non-contentious side, this can mean advising companies in distressed situations and more specifically boards of directors in those situations in properly discharging their statutory duties; turnaround work with insolvency practitioners and funds; and advising private equity and corporate clients on investments into distressed/turnaround businesses. We also manage a range of insolvency processes, including administrations and liquidations, for example, as well as insolvency sales acting for both purchasers and insolvency practitioners.

The litigious side of my work includes court-led processes insolvency processes such as restructuring plans (we were the first firm to complete a restructuring plan outside of London). We also work on claims that arise out of administrations and liquidations, including property claims and claims against directors/shareholders.

Please discuss a current/recent specific deal/case, outlining your role in the matter.

As mentioned, we were the first firm outside of London to work on a successfully sanctioned restructuring plan. This was a new statutory regime that came out of the Corporate Insolvency and Government Act 2020 – it’s a court-led process by which individual companies or corporate groups can restructure their business in distressed situations.

We acted for a creditor of a company called GoodBox which, if you ever walk into a Pret or museums like St Paul’s Cathedral, provides the contactless donation boxes that came in throughout covid-19. The company entered a period of financial distress for numerous reasons – there was tension between various stakeholders in the business and the company didn’t have enough capital to expand in the way it needed. Our clients were a creditor of the business that proposed a restructuring plan intended to address the company's immediate issues in a way that’d allow it to succeed in the medium to long term.

I was one of three people working on this case, working alongside a partner and director.  My main role was to assist with the drafting of the plan itself, as well as new articles of association and shareholder agreements, which were to be implemented as part of the plan. This freed up the partner to manage to overall process and director to focus on the various court documents (eg, claim form and witness statements), which needed to be filed as part of the process.

How involved are you with business development and promoting the firm?

We’re encouraged to get involved in business development (BD), which includes attending events, seminars and breakfast meetings. There's a group of us in my team between newly qualified and five years post qualification who do a lot of BD work together. The firm’s reasoning behind getting us involved at an early stage is that by us doing this BD work with other juniors within financial advisory, insolvency and private equity firms, we’ll progress together having established these relationships early on in our careers. 

We’re equally encouraged to get involved in elements of corporate social responsibility that we’re interested in so for me that’s social mobility programmes.

What makes your firm stand out from the rest?

Aside from being the biggest independent law firm in Leeds, Walker Morris is also one of the largest single-site law firms outside of London. One of the factors that drew me to the firm was that it has a significant international (in particular in the US) and national outreach, and acts for big names, such as Starbucks and Caterpillar, but has never lost sight of being a Yorkshire firm.

I’ve worked on contentious and non-contentious matters involving Australia, Japan, the Cayman Islands, the Seychelles, Jersey, Turkey and Spain, to name a few. So, we’re exposed to international work and big-ticket items, but we’re also proud and aware of our Yorkshire roots – we have lots of local clients at the firm that’ve been clients of ours for years. I really love the learning opportunities this gives me. For example, in January I was part of a large team acting alongside big white-shoe US law firms on a  multi-jurisdiction insolvency sale involving sanctioned individuals, but at the same time working on smaller matters alongside clients based in the region that were much smaller in value, but where we’re trusted to have more responsibility and ownership.

What’s the biggest opportunity you’ve been given since joining the firm?

The biggest opportunities I’ve had since joining Walker Morris have come in the past six to 12 months and involved me taking leading roles in bigger mandates like the restructuring plan I mentioned earlier, bigger prepack sales and long-running fraud cases. I’ve had the opportunity to really take ownership of quite substantial elements of those matters, which comes with trust and building good working relationships within my own team and other teams across the firm. It’s an incredible level of experience and exposure to get at this stage of my career.

What’s your signature dish?

Slow-cooked lamb shoulder – the recipe from the Dishoom: From Bombay with Love cookbook.