Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP - The Inside View

BigLaw has a stressful rep, but juniors here were keen to stress Davis Polk's "relaxed" and "respectful" ambience. Read on to discover the reality... 

THIS veteran New York giant's glittering reputation for M&A, credit and capital markets wizardry attracts swaths of the Ivy League's finest year after year (and the best of the rest). “In the past year the firm has been the beneficiary of a vibrant M&A market,” acknowledges managing partner Tom Reid. In fact it was a record year for DP's dealmakers, who racked up the firm's highest ever market share of global M&A in 2015. However, there's more to DP than just deal-making, and the triumphant buzz of M&A has also spread to the firm's lawsuits fortress, which Chambers USA ranks among the Big Apple's elite. “Our litigation team is having another incredibly busy year," Reid elaborates. "Antitrust and enforcement work is up, and at one point in the last year or so, the market saw us lined up to try more than half a dozen major cases for clients across the country and in Hong Kong.” You can find out more about the booming lit practice in our Bonus Features. 

But these successes are only part of the rosy picture that Davis Polk's associates painted. Blue chip clients and DP's erstwhile white-shoe identity go hand-in-hand with a “respectful and collaborative” working environment, despite the sharp-suited appearances. Throw in a flexible work schedule and a 'try before you buy' approach to work specialization, and you can understand why the firm performed so well in our happiness survey. And, incredibly for the caliber of work they do, most sources told us they were only moderately stressed at work or not stressed at all. "Demanding, not stressful," was the general verdict.  

The Work

Rookies who'd summered rated the summer program for its flexible structure, which allows them the chance to choose from a range of corporate, litigation and tax work on offer. At their exit interview, hopefuls are asked which of the three they'd prefer to move into permanently. 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. It's a system that garnered widespread acclaim: “Management wants you to be happy where you are and invested in work you're doing, so if the group you're in doesn't feel like the right fit, then it'll work with you to find one that does.”

Those in the M&A team had been busy prepping due diligence reports, and drafting documentation under the supervision of more senior lawyers for “a good mix of private, public, blue chip and private equity clients.” Capital markets juniors “regularly review documentation for deals going through,” but also have a coordinating role, having “devised strategies with senior associates and then managing an arsenal of paralegals to ensure that everyone is on board with the plan.”

"Not having to pigeonhole yourself is a big appeal."

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 lit 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. Much like their corporate colleagues, litigators felt that “not having to pigeonhole yourself is a big appeal.”

Assigning coordinators are “on hand if you ever need more work,” though with time juniors tend to rely on more informal streams. “Most people are receptive to discussing your workload,” one junior added, “so you can say 'no thank you but please keep me in mind' without fear they won't call you up next time.”

Training & Development

Regardless of where they end up, all starters congregate 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 in the fundamentals of good lawyering like time management, formatting and compliance matters. “Leaving that week, I felt so much more confident,” beamed one junior. “Having a full briefing on something as trivial as email etiquette is really helpful when you're starting off.”

"Whenever I've sought support I've always received it." 

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. Respondents were also thrilled with the opportunities they'd had to find their feet in the meantime: “It's nerve-racking to know that hundreds of millions of dollars rest on your recommendation,” one interviewee gulped. “There's a certain art to knowing when it's appropriate to make a judgment call, and knowing when to go to a superior. The responsibility is on me to make that decision, and whenever I've sought support I've always received it.” When work is submitted, "superiors try to find the time to go through it one-on-one to explain why changes were made,” so all-in-all associates felt that “our professional growth is really valued.”

Pro Bono

Pro bono is also a good way to notch up some valuable experience. In NYC, a slew of clemency petitions for federal prisoners is complemented by “everything from helping small businesses and non-profits, to criminal defense cases, as well as plenty of immigration work.” 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.

Matters such as housing cases can last “as little as two days,” so although DP's PB program “throws up more more litigious opportunities than transactional,” corporate insiders viewed it as “a fun way to complement our regular work.” Throw in a “thorough pre-briefing and excellent supervision from senior attorneys,” and it's no surprise that legal-eagles felt comfortable spreading their wings to file depositions and perform appellate arguments in court.

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 38,428 
  • Average per US attorney: 50 


The firm’s western spur can be found in California's Menlo Park. At the time of our calls the offshoot housed just eight juniors, and with “a gym, walled gardens and a gorgeous patio with a big fountain,” it's no surprise that respondents viewed the site as “a very relaxed place to work.” Unlike their top-buttoned NY colleagues, associates noted “it's rare to see people in a suit unless they're meeting clients. A lot of people will wear dark jeans and button down shirts.” The office takes on an even split of litigation and corporate recruits, with the latter group providing its associates with a broader spectrum of corporate dealings than their more specialized New York counterparts.  

"Plenty of interesting artwork dotted about.” 

Focusing more on regulatory and litigation work, DC also takes on one or two first-years. However, the lion's share of Davis Polk's associates are in the Big Apple. Occupying 25 stories in midtown Manhattan, the full service HQ's 160-ish juniors are treated to “a light and bright building with plenty of interesting artwork dotted about.” Each floor has a different theme, ranging from baseball to fish, and if browsing the associated paraphernalia doesn't whet your appetite, then the subsidized cafeteria just might. The eatery won plaudits for the “well stocked fruit and veg selection,” but can suffer from a lack of imagination, with one insider grumbling “the pasta dishes all taste the same.” Juniors share an office for their first few years, and with the continued growth of DP's litigation offering, warned that “the amount of space in the office is sufficient but not excessive.”

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. 


“The day I leave Davis Polk is that day I leave BigLaw for good,” asserted one insider. “It really isn't your typical fratty, hyper-social BigLaw set-up. There's no expectation that you need to be engaged in informal networking to get ahead, as we're all busy people who appreciate spending our spare time with friends or family.” Instead, social events are arranged “every four to six weeks,” usually involving “fancy cocktails somewhere nice. We don't go for dive bars.”

It's the summer program that truly unleashes the firm's social animal, with a “generous budget” propping up “tons of events.” Interviewees cited performances of Shakespeare in Central Park and an enormous welcome dinner as particular highlights, and many raved about “pitching a few balls on Citi Field. The firm has a good relationship with the Mets' owners.”

"We don't go for dive bars."

In our last few Chambers Associate features, DP has always been praised for it's collaborative and supportive internal environment. This continues to be the case, with one insider confirming: “Usually I'm the most junior person on the team, so inevitably I make lots of mistakes. My learning and growth are valued, so there's never any finger pointing or yelling.” However, one litigator growled: “That doesn’t mean we're not ruthless externally! We treat our opponents with respect, but fight doggedly for our clients' interests, and are willing to play hardball if necessary.”

Hours & Compensation

With no billing target, bonuses are lockstep based on seniority. Sources commended this system for creating a working environment where “no one is fighting for business, no one is killing themselves to hit an hours target, and people have strong incentives to work together. It’s much better for your mental health.”

"Your time off really is sacred. " 

Eleven hour days in New York compare to Menlo Park’s ten hour norm, though respondents from both offices conceded that “when it’s busy you could be here until 4am.” Face time “isn’t encouraged,” so “if it’s a calm day you can leave at reasonable hour. The firm doesn’t mind you working from home.” Bleary-eyed late-shifters can draw strength from the “delicious bottomless free coffee” provided on every floor of the NYC office, and gain comfort from the fact that “your time off really is sacred. People respect your weekends, and we’re encouraged to take our full four weeks of vacation every year.”

Get Hired

According to hiring partner Warren Motley, “the firm 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, with previous work experience standing as one of the most revered: “If someone has worked as an investment banker and wants to go into M&A then obviously that will put them in good stead.” However, Motley also looks for “people who have taken on challenges, and made a success of difficult situations. Whether that's delivering legal services in South Africa, or working for Teach for America between college and law school, I like to hear about those experiences at the interview.” He also cautions that “a bad interview is lacking in energy and engagement,” so ditch the caffeine for camomile tea or hot milk to get a good night's sleep beforehand.

"We look for people who have taken on challenges, and made a success of difficult situations."

“While we do hire a significant percentage of our lawyers from the top 15 law schools, 28 schools from throughout the United States and Canada are represented in our 2016 summer associate class,” Motley says. Associates touted word-of-mouth as a strong way to get yourself on the firm's radar, and are “encouraged by partners to reach out to any promising law students that we know."

Strategy & Future

"If you're gunning for partnership then you could end up being frustrated." 

With such a large New York intake, juniors got the impression that “if you're gunning for partnership then you could end up being frustrated. The firm hires over 100 junior associates annually, whilst only four or five people make partner. The numbers speak for themselves.” Hiring partner Motley counters: “We hire associates on the premise that they're capable of staying. But being an associate at Davis Polk means a lot of hard work for a sustained period, and people's ideas of how they want to spend their lives evolve. The caliber of our attorneys means that they're always surrounded by other opportunities.” One associate further elaborated, stating that “no one really leaves under negative circumstances. Often people go elsewhere because a partnership opportunity has opened up there, or to spend more time with their family, or go in-house, or work for the government.”


“I can never imagine colleagues thinking less of someone because of their background,” felt one interviewee. But “when you look at our senior associates and partners, there's still some work to be done.” Fortunately “the firm is really doing a lot to fight the headwinds, and foots the bill for affinity group events.” New Yorkers rated the LGBT network, who with “around 160 members” throw some “very well-attended drinks and networking events with plenty of free food and alcohol.” Out west, one deal-doing Menlo Park minnow appreciated that “around half of the corporate lawyers in this office are from an ethnically diverse background.” 


Lit it grow


Though Davis Polk is best known for its corporate and capital markets work, its litigation practice has much to be proud of, boasting top rankings in Chambers USA for its white-collar crime, securities and general commercial expertise. Hopefuls looking to join the firm should bear in mind that although the corporate department is Polk's largest junior employer. Junior litigators aren't split into subgroups, so litigation is in fact the most junior-heavy group. To put it in perspective, at the time of our calls 45 rookies were in lit, whereas capital markets welcomed 24 and M&A just 18.

As you'll have read in the Inside View, it's been a very busy year for the M&A market, and this has opened up a lot of litigation opportunities at DP, particularly in the New York office. However, IP litigation has also been flourishing, and the firm recently made headlines in its successful representation of Comcast. The cable provider had been embroiled in an ongoing dispute with Sprint, which involved patent infringement claims and counter-claims relating to wireless communication and fiber optics patents. IP litigation is based in Menlo Park, as is the antitrust team. The DC office is smaller than it's US counterparts, but has a strong focus on regulatory and white collar criminal defense.

Such has been the success of the litigation team's development, that “a few years ago the firm found itself in a position where there weren't enough associates to cover all of the work on offer.” The firm responded by upping it's litigation intake, a development that has meant that “litigators' office-sharing period is now a little longer.”

With plenty of hands on deck, the firm is now looking to further expand its range of practices. Our insiders mentioned “the firm has been giving us business development workshops,” and identified possible areas of future focus as “bankruptcy and corporate insolvency litigation, and hedge funds to complement our work for financial institutions.”

Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP

450 Lexington Avenue,
New York,
NY 10017
Website www.davispolk.com

  • Head Office: New York, NY
  • Number of domestic offices: 3
  • Number of international offices: 7
  • Lawyers (US): 755
  • Summer Salary 2016  
  • 1Ls: $3,077/week
  • 2Ls: $3,077/ week
  • Split summers offered? Yes
  • Can summers spend time in overseas office? Yes
  • Summers 2016: 145

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, financial institutions, global technology, environmental, executive compensation, real estate and trusts and estates.

Firm profile Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP is a global law firm. For more than 160 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 approximately 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.

Recruitment details
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Summer details  

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.