“It can be difficult to draw distinctions between the top firms in New York because they do similar work for similar types of clients. But when it comes to the people, Davis Polk stands out.” 

“There are certain values I feel a great obligation to espouse and be vocal about, and this respectfulness really seeps into everything we do.”

– Tom Reid, managing partner   

Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP


Longing to be a litigator? Want to tackle transactions too? No matter: this Manhattan old-timer is triumphant on both fronts.

FOR a good illustration of Davis Polk's legal prowess, look no further than the recent financial disaster. In 2008 it was made lead counsel to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the US Department of the Treasury, and spent the next few years advising on a series of multibillion-dollar share offerings from bailed-out insurance giant AIG – helping the government to get its money back. Corporate work has traditionally been the firm's forte. Indeed, if you rode a time machine back to 1892, you could witness Davis Polk's starring role in the creation of titan General Electric. Fast-forward to 1901 and the firm would be at it again, this time helping with the birth of US Steel.

By the way, it wasn't only Davis Polk's transactional powers that worked their magic during the height of the recession: its litigators were called upon when many big-name institutions were getting sued for megabucks (Citigroup and Morgan Stanley were just two it represented). For more on DP's financial crisis-related work, read our Web Extras.

Switch back to the present, and you'll see that Davis Polk still shines in the corporate and litigation arenas. Chambers USA awards it numerous top-tier rankings, including banking & finance, corporate/M&A, financial services regulation, capital markets, general commercial litigation, white-collar crime and antitrust.

Associates Say

The Work 

If you're interested in joining the corporate department in New York (where a slight majority of entry-level associates go), there are two things you should know off the bat. First, alongside a number of smaller teams, the department contains three core groups: M&A, credit and capital markets. Second, juniors can get to sample more than one practice group before deciding where to stay. It's rare to rotate more than twice, but our sources felt that was the ideal amount for them – despite initially wanting to dip their fingers in a trio of pies. “Two is definitely enough to make an informed decision,” they said. 

Some elect to join a group immediately and not rotate. Others enjoyed their stint in a different group, which typically lasts six months, calling it “the perfect length. It's enough time to get a proper experience but not so long that you're stuck there if you don't like it.” The system is flexible. For a rundown of those three main corporate groups, read the Web Extras on our website.

Junior litigators also get to tackle a multitude of areas, but not through a rotation system. Instead, they're assigned to the litigation team straight away and adopt a generalist approach to the practice. Whether they're dabbling in commercial litigation, bankruptcy cases or foreign corruption work (or something else entirely), associates usually get to take up a prominent role in proceedings. “There are the mundane tasks that don't require much expertise but are nonetheless important,” explained one. “Then on the other end of the spectrum, we get to take full ownership over things like briefs. I was pleasantly surprised to be doing that in my first year.”

Most departments have a formal assignment coordinator, who acts as a filter and “regularly checks in to make sure you're not overloaded with work.” We had mixed responses when it came to juniors seeking out their own assignments. “Although partners will try and staff you on some side projects, it's not something you're really supposed to do,” voiced one. But others told us: “As long as you keep your coordinator in the loop, you're able to get work from people who you've built up relationships with.” 

Training & Development 

Newcomers attend what the firm has affectionately dubbed 'Lawyering 101'. As you might have guessed from the name, this week-long induction gives juniors “a birdseye view of the firm and general business issues.” Some sources found it about as useful as a chocolate teapot, but others were keen to underscore the benefits. “It's good for knowing what's expected from you and it all counts toward your CLE credit,” said one. “It's also a good chance to meet the other new starters.” By contrast, the ongoing practice-specific training is “critical to your development. The sessions give you a highly detailed insight into the work juniors do.”

Feedback was a topic that proved a little divisive among our interviewees. Some moaned a bit that appraisals aren't as extensive as they'd like, though they appreciated the time senior associates and partners commit to them. But others thought: “If there's anything negative to say about the firm, it's that the feedback people give isn't as harsh or candid as it should be.”

Offices 

This emphasis on variety extends to DP's small California base in Menlo Park. “We're assigned to either litigation or corporate, but within both areas you work on practically everything to begin with.” The office also has an air of tranquility: it “kinda looks like a spa” and employees there “eat lunch under this big oak tree outside while we enjoy the sunny weather.” 

The New York HQ at 450 Lexington isn't as “green and serene” in comparison, but at least it “doesn't have the old-school look that other law firms have around here. We've got light-wood paneling, lovely artwork and a recently renovated cafeteria – not to mention the great location right by Grand Central Station.” Davis Polk has another stateside office located in DC, and seven outposts abroad. These are in Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Madrid, Paris, São Paulo and Tokyo.

Culture 

The occasional gripe about less-than-forthright feedback seems a small price to pay for Davis Polk's “polite” and “gracious” environment. “Everyone goes out of their way to be considerate and appreciative of others,” an associate remarked. “And nearly everything's said with a smile...”

Having been part of the Manhattan crowd for over 160 years, the firm knows a thing or two about age-old traditions. A case in point: “Saying please and thank you is a given here, and the gents hold the doors open for the ladies.” If you want proof of other quaint mannerisms, simply step inside the mothership's elevator: “The men will stand aside to make sure the women leave the elevator first.” A female source even quipped that “guys are always falling over each other just to make sure I'm the first one out!” Such chivalrous deeds, though old-fashioned, help make the firm “a very empowering place for juniors. You're not made to feel intimidated or that you don't have a legitimate place at the table.”

We were curious to find out where this ethos came from. Managing partner Tom Reid isn't quite sure himself, but he says: “There are certain values I feel a great obligation to espouse and be vocal about, and this respectfulness really seeps into everything we do.” Likewise, insiders asserted that “the people at the top set the tone and it's human nature to adopt the habits of those around you.” Whatever its cultural origins are, associates made it clear that Davis Polk wants to maintain this polite image – not least because it's arguably become one of the firm's most alluring features. Take Lawyering 101 for instance: “We had some informal chats about what's expected of us and what it means to be an employee here, as well as some presentations on how to deal with clients and act in court.”

Hours & Compensation 

This thoroughly pleasant vibe also stems from the lack of any billable target. In short, “there’s absolutely no incentive to churn out countless hours. It makes associate life a lot more easygoing.” But let’s be clear on that quote: ‘easygoing’ isn’t code for juniors putting their feet up. On the contrary, most said they'd have “no problems hitting any hours target,” while one joked that they'd “been trying to bill less!” Even thriving practices can have slower days, though – and that’s when associates really cherish having no target. “If you do have a quiet month, it’s refreshing to not feel like that's a problem,” an insider mused. You'd be forgiven for thinking all this amounts to an obvious downside: that juniors can easily work themselves into the ground. But in reality, the firm keeps a watchful eye to prevent this from happening. In fact, “it’s not uncommon for someone to get told they’re putting in too many hours.”  

That's not to say associates never work long hours: our sources had done several weekend and late-night shifts. They accepted that “the hours generally aren't great in the bigger firms,” but they also took heart from Davis Polk's efforts to promote a healthy work/life balance. “Everyone I've worked with has shown an appreciation that, when I'm committing time at the weekend, it's because I'm sacrificing my own plans. We're also encouraged to take most – if not all – of our vacation, and we're rarely bothered during our time off.”

Pro Bono 

Something else the firm appreciates is pro bono. The “fantastic” Sharon Katz, Davis Polk's full-time pro bono special counsel, is responsible for hunting down opportunities for juniors. But that isn't the only option: “You're also able to seek out and bring in your own pro bono matters.” A common complaint at many firms is that pro bono work is geared toward litigators, leaving transactional associates to pick up the scraps. That isn't true here: we were told the transactional types have just as much to sink their teeth into.

DP's pro bono matters encompass politicians, war veterans and even extend to the arts. “We do a lot of work for Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, which involves helping musicians, producers, screenwriters, designers – the creative types – with various issues.” We can't guarantee you'll be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, but “it's a nice change from the clients juniors usually deal with.” 

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 28,868
  • Average per US attorney: 105.4

Diversity 

Diversity at Davis Polk is reminiscent of what we encounter elsewhere. “At associate level we're very diverse. There's a real mix of ethnicities, religions and nationalities – and many people are openly gay. But at partnership level there's a bit of a lag.” Tom Reid claims that, as is the case at other firms, Davis Polk is “constrained by a lack of diversity in the top law schools.” The stats support his argument. According to the latest law school diversity index published by US News & World Report, less than a handful of the top 14 schools are in the top 25 most diverse.

The firm's goal isn't just to recruit diversely though: it's about retaining those it recruits. To demonstrate this point, Reid tells us there's been a concerted effort “to increase the representation of women in the partnership.” Intriguingly, a second-year noted: “There's currently a strong female core among the midlevel and senior associates, and we're still growing in terms of female partner numbers.” Promising signs...

Get Hired 

Seeing as we mentioned that stat about the top 14 law schools, it's worth noting that the firm tends to look toward the top end in its recruitment drive – unsurprising given its widespread reputation. But hiring partner Warren Motley is quick to point out: “While we do select the majority of our lawyers from the usual top schools, we also look beyond them. The focus is simply on finding the strongest candidates.”

So, what exactly does Davis Polk look for? The verdict from associates was that the firm “is keen to emphasize fit. With the schools we recruit at, most would make excellent lawyers; to separate people at a school like Harvard is to split the tiniest of hairs. But our culture of respect is integral to life here, so we look at how well people might fit into that.” If you need to brush up on your manners, there's always Lawyering 101...   

Strategy & Future 

Davis Polk has long been a formidable force in transactional matters, but MP Tom Reid is adamant that the firm's litigation practice warrants equal airtime. “One of our key developments in 2013 was the extension of our litigation practice into Asia,” he says. Reid is referring to the recent arrivals of ex-Clifford Chance partners Martin Rogers and James Wadham, who have spearheaded the launch of a litigation practice in the Hong Kong office. DP was actually one of the first major Wall Street firms to set up shop in Hong Kong, so the region understandably remains high on its agenda.

Despite these efforts to expand its litigation offering, Reid adds: “That doesn't mean we're being complacent on the transactional side of things. In the 2013 league tables, we ranked #1 in M&A, capital markets and several areas of leveraged finance, and we are working hard to maintain that position.” Complacent? Far from it.



 



Key Facts

Largest US office: New York

US offices: 3

International offices: 7

First-year salary: $160,000

Billable hours: no requirement 

Summers 2014: 123 (2 1Ls, 121 2Ls)

Revenue 2013: $975 million (+5.4%)

Partners made in 2013: 3

Chambers USA Rankings

    Band 1
  • Antitrust
    ( New York )
  • Banking & Finance
    ( Nationwide )
  • Bankruptcy/Restructuring
    ( Nationwide, New York )
  • Capital Markets
    ( California, Nationwide )
  • Corporate/M&A
    ( Nationwide, New York )
  • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation
    ( New York )
  • Environment
    ( New York )
  • Financial Services Regulation
    ( Nationwide )
  • Latin American Investment
    ( New York )
  • Litigation
    ( New York )
  • Tax
    ( Nationwide, New York )
  • Band 2
  • FCPA
    ( Nationwide )
  • Media & Entertainment
    ( New York )
  • Securities
    ( Nationwide )
  • Band 3
  • Investment Funds
    ( Nationwide )
  • Private Equity
    ( Nationwide )
  • Retail
    ( Nationwide )
  • Band 5
  • International Trade
    ( Nationwide )

For each practice area, only the firm’s best ranking (with location) is shown. Any lower rankings (in other locations) are not shown. To see full rankings

Diversity

Partners (%)Associates (%)
Women21.538.6
White92.668.2
Black/African American05.3
Hispanic/Latin American2.55.1
Asian519.1
Mixed/Other02.4
LGBT0.85.1

Recent Work Highlights 

  • Advised Heinz on its $28 billion purchase by Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital, making it the biggest deal ever in the food industry
  • Scored a victory for Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy's largest bank, after an investigation into alleged violations of US sanctions and other laws
  • Advised coal-mining company Patriot Coal on its reorganization under Chapter 11 and successfully defended it in a case against the United Mine Workers of America
  • Acted for CNOOC, China's biggest offshore crude oil and natural gas producer, on its $15.1 billion purchase of Canadian energy company Nexen