Big egos don't make the cut at this New York corporate law titan.
ONE of the oldest New York firms, Davis Polk has acquired a formidable reputation for market-leading M&A, credit and capital markets work. Operating out of ten offices across the US, Europe, Latin America and Asia, this Chambers USA top-ranked firm advises on vast corporate and financial transactions for some of the world's highest-paying clients. Recently the firm helped mastermind the largest foreign acquisition by a Chinese firm ever recorded, advising Swiss seed giant Syngenta on its $43 billion acquisition by ChemChina. But there's more to DP than just mega deal-making. The litigation team makes up some 30% of the firm's workload, and is particularly big on antitrust and enforcement matters.
“The training opportunities and resume fodder here are unprecedented!”
This prestige is a big draw for rookies. “Every day you're exposed to market-leading work, brought in by market-leading professionals,” marveled one junior associate. “The training opportunities and resume fodder here are unprecedented!” The negative connotations of 'white shoe' have long gone, associates told us: “Davis Polk remains a cordial and respectful environment to work in,” they pointed out. “I'd heard it was a stuffy white shoe firm, but that's just not the case. Sure, people take their work very seriously, expectations are high and the hours are long. But everyone here is willing to pull their weight for the good of the team. You'll not find many big egos here.”
During the summer program, new starters have the option to sample work from across Davis Polk's corporate, litigation and tax departments. “It's helpful to have that flexibility,” one interviewee reflected. “It limits the chance of any 'grass is greener' type situations arising.” Around two-thirds join the corporate department, which is split into subgroups including capital markets, financial institutions, M&A, credit transactions, insolvency & restructuring, and executive compensation. Corporate juniors get the opportunity to have a shot at one, two, or occasionally three different areas before settling down, thanks to a six month rotation system. “Our intake is huge, so if there's a group you really want to try out then you have to be willing to fight for it,” said one deal-doer. “Talk to partners, ask questions. Don't be afraid to be the squeaky wheel!”
Serving clients in the private, public, blue chip and private equity sphere, rookies in the M&A team begin by taking on more “menial” bureaucratic tasks. “The point of this is to get you familiar with deal structures and protocol,” we heard. “After nailing the basics you'll get to work on due diligence reports, and draft documentation under supervision.” Over in the financial institutions group (FIG), juniors help both foreign and domestic banks to meet US regulatory requirements. “We regularly advise financial institutions on how best to navigate the Dodd-Frank Act,” juniors explained, “so there's plenty of research about regulations, rules and laws to get stuck into.” FIG used to be one of our smaller corporate groups, but “in the wake of the financial crisis its profile exploded.” Juniors here seemed excited to be a part of it all: “The only other firms that represent Wall Street at this level are perhaps Cleary and Sullivan & Cromwell,” thought one.
“Don't be afraid to be the squeaky wheel!”
M&A, credit and capital markets may be where the firm made its name, but with around 25% of beginners entering the litigation department, it's a bigger taker than any of the corporate subgroups. As you might expect, corporate and financial litigation crops up regularly, though associates also have the opportunity to get involved in areas such as antitrust, white-collar crime, securities, bankruptcy, and international arbitration. Juniors here were delighted with the opportunities they'd been extended: “I operate more as a fourth-year,” one beamed. “They throw you in at the deep end but seniors are there with the rope if you need it!” Our sources had been busy preparing briefs, working on pre-merger filings, and even counseling clients directly.
At home, Davis Polk has offices in New York, DC and Menlo Park, California. Occupying 25 stories in midtown Manhattan, the Big Apple HQ is a full service shop welcoming some 160-ish juniors each year. According to managing partner Tom Reid, “New York and DC are joined at the hip, as the practices there link closely with our practices here in New York. DC mainly focuses on three regulatory areas – financial regulation, antitrust and enforcement. For our clients in New York to know that we have a presence in those areas in DC is a big selling point.” DC takes on one or two first-years each year.
“New York and DC are joined at the hip.”
The Menlo Park office takes on a handful of entry-level associates each year. The Western spur “is a little more independent in that it takes on work that reflects the Bay Area's client base,” Tom Reid continues. “It mainly helps high tech clients with IP litigation, capital markets work, IPOs and M&A, things like that.”
Elsewhere, the firm has attorneys in Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Madrid, Paris, São Paulo and Tokyo. Both summer associates and associates have the opportunity to spend time abroad.
Training & Development
With such a large New York intake, juniors got the impression that “as much as we're all employed to work at Davis Polk, the reality is that most of us won't make partner here.” Davis Polk hires well over 100 junior associates each year, and only a handful of people make partner. Still, juniors were far from disheartened. “Lots of people come here because it provides you with a brilliant launchpad for your career,” said one. “It's a strong brand that gets junior associates involved in sophisticated work. Once you are four or five years into your career, plenty of attractive opportunities start cropping up.”
“A brilliant launchpad for your career.”
In DC, “many people have long term plans to work for the government at some stage in their career. I think the firm understands the attraction of making policy rather than enforcing or complying with it, and there have been several cases of people heading into public service for an extended period before returning to the firm later in their careers.”
Regardless of where they end up, all starters begin their Davis Polk careers by congregating in the Big Apple for Lawyering 101: an initial week of orientation where new starters cover the office essentials such as computer training, document management training and billing. Skills sessions also feature, honing fundamentals of good lawyering like time management, formatting and compliance matters. Lawyering 101 is followed every second year by Lawyering 301 and Lawyering 501. Corporate juniors on rotation receive six-monthly partner reviews, and those more firmly rooted attend annual check-ups.
Most sources were happy with the opportunities they'd had to find their feet in the meantime: “Obviously partners and senior associates are incredibly busy people, so if you ask them for feedback on something you've drafted they may not have the time to sit down and talk it all through in extensive detail,” one junior reasoned. “Still, most will at the very least mark it up so you can see what you could improve upon next time round.” Juniors had also found that “it's worth reaching out to other members of the department with questions and queries, if your supervisor is busy or out of the office. I've sent out mass emails when I've been stuck and I've immediately received four or five responses with solutions and examples to help me out.”
Pro bono is also a good way to notch up some valuable experience. The firm doesn't set a minimum requirement, but most of our sources had a few stories to tell. “You can bill as many pro bono hours as you want,” one junior told us. “Once you're on a matter you can list the amount of hours you've put in on your weekly workload report. Staffing partners will then factor it into next week's schedule in the same way as they'd do for any billed work. If you're busy on a pro bono case, that's really respected.”
In NYC, juniors had helped push clemency petitions for federal prisoners, taken on criminal defence cases, assisted non-profits in sorting their foundational documents, and lent their skills to immigration petitions. The latter also crops up regularly in the Menlo Park office, where alongside eviction hearings, associates had knuckled down on plenty of U visa cases for juveniles and victims of domestic abuse.
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 40,676
- Average per US attorney: 45
In our last few Chambers Associate features, DP has always been praised for its collaborative and supportive internal environment. This continues to be the case, with one insider confirming: “Professionally there is a hierarchy, but socially it is very casual. I feel comfortable talking to partners, and don't feel that I need to act differently with them than I do with those who I summered with. The firm stages a lot of social and professional events – formal dinners, happy hours, auctions etc – which give you a good opportunity to get to know people at the firm, but really there's very little pressure to take part if you don't want to.”
As one of the world's top law firms, it's quality of work that can really help put your name on people's radar. “Davis Polk is a place where you are objectively assessed based on the product you are delivering,” another junior added. “We're all here to do a job, and you don't have to conform to any arbitrary social conventions to meet those professional expectations.”
Hours & Compensation
With no billing target, bonuses are lockstep based on seniority. Sources commended this system for creating a working environment where “there's an appreciation from the top that there's a lot more to this job than just billing hours. A lot of non-billable work – presenting to clients, analyzing rules and regulations for a newsletter, things like that – could open the door for future billed business. By not setting a formal billing target, the firm acknowledges that our value isn't just in making numbers.”
“A lot more to this job than just billing hours.”
Eleven hour days in New York compare to Menlo Park’s ten hour norm, though respondents from both offices conceded that “on busy stretches you could easily be here for most of the night.” Consequently “you need to be pretty motivated to work here, and it's important to like what you're doing.” Still, “seniors aren't afraid to show their appreciation when you've billed long hours,” rewarding associates with lunches, dinners and thankful emails. “I remember one partner bringing in masseuses when things were really crazy,” one FIG associate laughed. “There were dozens of us working as hard as was humanly possible, and that gesture really made a big difference in getting us through the home stretch.”
Strategy & Future
“It's really been a terrific year,” managing partner Tom Reid tells us. The firm's “diversified” business model has been key to this continued success: “Obviously we have a strong US presence, but it's worth noting that around 10% of our work comes out of Asia, and another 10% comes from Europe. In terms of our practices, I'd say that about 30% of our work is litigious, whereas the corporate and tax department – which encompasses the likes of M&A, capital markets, financial regulation and leveraged finance – makes up the other 70%. Over the last 12 months all of those practices have been at the top of their game, often working hand-in-hand to secure incredible results for our clients.”
Happy with the state of affairs, Reid doesn't expect Davis Polk to steer from its current course too dramatically in the near future. “I don't envisage there being any large scale strategic growth projects. We're happy with the firm's current size, and we see ourselves growing gradually from here onwards. There are growth opportunities across the board that we intend to capitalize on, but in terms of the business model I don't anticipate there being many proportional shifts.”
“The idea of someone being treated differently because of their race, gender or sexuality is unthinkable,” attorneys agreed. Like most BigLaw firms, “there's plenty of work to do to get our numbers to where they need to be,” but sources were confident that “management recognizes this is an issue, and is making resources available to improve the balance going forward.” A “wide spectrum” of diversity groups regularly stages events, “which helps ensure that minority issues are an ongoing discussion.” Our interviewees had attended diversity dinners, seminars, and even theater visits, and were pleased to report that “the events are open to all.”
Entry-level recruitment was stressed as a key focus in balancing the books in the coming years. “We may be a white shoe firm, but our summer program doesn't just fast-track Yale and Harvard graduates,” one junior explained. “The firm is making a big effort to reach out to other schools. We need brilliant people with cutting edge skills, and there's a real appreciation that by interviewing at a wide range of law schools we'll be able to hire an associate class with a diverse range of skills and personalities.”
Davis Polk takes in roughly 100 people a year in New York, and up to another ten or so in California and in DC. There are a number of ways that you can get yourself a look-in. According to hiring partner Maurice Blanco, “we look for evidence of achievement both academically and through other life experiences. That means smart team players with diverse backgrounds and with energy, drive, focus and a true interest in the law and the work we do for our clients. You need to be able to add value from day one, and present yourself as a professional too.”
Work experience between college and law school can be a good way to demonstrate your suitability for the role at interview. “I like to see people who aren't afraid of a challenge,” Blanco adds. “That could mean, for example, working prior to law school in the public sector, through programs like Teach for America, or as a legal assistant, or in consulting or finance.” Relevant law experience can also be a big foot in the door. “It's always a good conversation starter,” Blanco affirms. “We especially like to see people who've worked in a legal role during their 1L summer. During the interview, we try to unpack the legal issues they encountered to see how they analyzed the problem.”
Davis Polk hires a significant percentage of its lawyers from the top 15 law schools, but the firm's scope does range further afield too. Blanco was keen to highlight that “Last year our summer class welcomed associates from 28 schools across the US and Canada.”
Interview with Davis Polk's managing partner, Tom Reid
Chambers Associate: Hi Tom, What highlights from the past year would you want to flag up to student readers interested in your firm?
Tom Reid: It's really been a terrific year. The key to our success is our business model, which is quite diversified. Obviously we have a strong US presence, but it's worth noting that around 10% of our work comes out of Asia, and another 10% comes from Europe. In terms of our practices, I'd say that about 30% of our work is litigious, whereas the corporate and tax department – which encompasses the likes of M&A, capital markets, financial regulation and leveraged finance – makes up the other 70%. Over the last twelve months all of those practices have been at the top of their game, often working hand-in-hand to secure incredible results for our clients.
CA: What's your long-term vision for the firm? Are there any large scale projects you'd care to mention?
TR: Well I don't envisage there being any large scale strategic growth projects, if that's what you mean. We're happy with the firm's current size, and we see ourselves growing gradually from here onwards. There are growth opportunities across the board that we intend to capitalize on, but in terms of the business model I don't anticipate there being many proportional shifts.
CA: With such a large intake, what opportunities does Davis Polk offer in terms of career progression?
TR: We attract over-achievers, and people who by force of personality are compelled to work very hard. Our goal is to channel that desire into a practice area that they'll find rewarding. We welcome over 100 new junior associates into our New York office every year, and while we hope that as many as possible will stay for as long as possible, the reality is that only a fraction of that number will go on to become a partner at the firm. So one of our key focuses is to make sure our associates understand the options that are available to them. We want their career development to be an open and adult discussion, and if there's any way we can help an associate with the next step of their career, we'll do that. Likewise, if they wish to aim for more responsibility within the firm, we're happy to communicate our expectations to help them get to where they want to be. We've recently announced a 'returnship' program for alumni who have been out of practice for a number of years too, so there are plenty of paths available for lawyers training here.
CA: What’s the balance like between offices? Is the aim for the culture to be uniform across offices?
TR: New York and DC are joined at the hip, as the practices there link closely with our practices here in New York. DC mainly focuses on three regulatory areas – financial regulation, antitrust and enforcement. For our clients in New York to know that we have a presence in those areas in DC is a big selling point.
Our Menlo Park office is a little more independent in that it takes on work that reflects the Bay Area's client base. It mainly helps high tech clients with IP litigation, capital markets work, IPOs and M&A, things like that.
At the moment we don't see any one office streaking ahead or reducing in size. When it comes to decision making each office knows how to best manage its businesses and practices, so there's a constant dialogue ongoing between offices, practices and the management committee. Any new strategies are decided on by consensus.
Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP
450 Lexington Avenue,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 3
- Number of international offices: 7
- Lawyers (US): 762
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: $3,500/week
- 2Ls: $3,500/ week
- Split summers offered? Yes
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? Yes
- Summers 2017: 126 (NY)
Main areas of work
Capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, credit, litigation (including antitrust, bankruptcy, general commercial, IP, securities litigation and enforcement, and white collar and government investigations), tax, private equity, investment management, insolvency and restructuring, corporate governance, intellectual property and technology, financial regulation, FinTech, environmental, executive compensation, real estate and trusts and estates.
Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP is a global law firm. For more than 165 years, its lawyers have advised industry-leading companies and major financial institutions on their most challenging legal and business matters. Davis Polk ranks among the world’s preeminent law firms across the entire range of its practice. With more than 900 lawyers in New York, Menlo Park, CA, Washington DC, London, Paris, Madrid, Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo and São Paulo, the firm operates from key business centers around the world to provide clients with seamlessly integrated legal services of the highest caliber.
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Summer associate profile:
We seek to hire applicants from a variety of backgrounds with outstanding academic and non-academic achievements, leadership skills and creativity and with a demonstrated willingness to take initiative. We strive to find exceptional lawyers who share our commitment to excellence.
Summer program components:
Our summer program is designed to allow students the opportunity to experience work as a junior associate. Summer associates are encouraged to work on matters in any practice area of interest. There are no required rotations. Work assignments are made through two associates who take leave from their regular practices to assist each summer associate in shaping their summer work experience. In addition to working with our attorneys on the firm’s current billable and pro bono matters, summer associates have the opportunity to attend practice area overviews and participate in multi-day interactive training sessions and workshops. The program also includes a wide range of cultural, social and mentoring activities to assist summer associates in getting to know their peers and our attorneys.