The nice folk at Davis Polk keep their cool in the heat of the corporate-law crucible.
“OBVIOUSLY the firm is extremely prestigious…” Associates at Davis Polk – one of the oldest and most revered law firms in New York – often skipped over this fact as they rushed to chat about other aspects of the firm, but it deserves a little more consideration. After all, the 'white-shoe' origins of the firm make it what it is today: a global powerhouse, with top-notch restructuring, M&A, credit, financial services regulatory and capital markets practices that serve a who's-who of international players. Put simply, DP is a world-beater. Managing partner Tom Reid is more than aware that he sits “at the head of an institution that has been around since the 19th century, and has been at the top of its game for all of that time.” Fortunately, the firm has just notched up another vintage year: Reid tells us that “2017 has been phenomenal, especially for our M&A practice – it's powered the firm forward again this year.”
Interviewees could feel the positive imprint of the firm's history: a polite, well-mannered approach that still very much exists today. “I always pictured lawyers being aggressive and in-your-face. That's not what Davis Polk is about,” one source told us, and that point was critical for our interviewees, who found themselves picking between firms with the highest of expectations: “In the end I asked myself: where would I want to be working late into the night? The answer was Davis Polk. The people are calm, collected, collaborative and friendly.”
During the summer program, new starters have the option to sample work across DP's corporate, litigation and tax departments. Around 60% of the juniors on our list had gone on to join the corporate department, which is split into subgroups including capital markets; financial institutions; M&A; credit transactions; insolvency and restructuring; and executive compensation. Thanks to a six-month rotation system, corporate juniors can try two different areas before finally settling down (the daring among them can even opt to join a group they've not yet tried). “The system gives you a good mix of exposure and opportunity to work on things at a meaningful level,” commented one corporate associate.
Rookies in the M&A team find themselves serving clients in the private, public, blue-chip and private equity spheres, on “a range of deals that stretch from the blockbuster DreamWorks/Comcast-style matters to the more modest $500 million transactions – but almost everything has an international element.” Sources in this group were candid: “I'm not going to tell you there isn't the aspect of being a first-year, which means diligence and the less glamorous work. However, I found that responsibilities escalate from the basic things quickly. You can graduate from that type of work in six months.” After progressing, associates found themselves “running the diligence process and assisting on things through to closing. By the time you're two years in you're assuming a more holistic role and coordinating teams that are implicated in the deal.” There's plenty more on offer than M&A, as one source told us: “I really wanted to do complicated and nuanced corporate work, and this is the place to do it. DP's not only good at M&A and capital markets, but also derivatives and insolvencies.” The financial institutions subgroup (FIG) also got associates excited: “They're always thinking about new markets and brainstorming products that they could roll out.”
“I really wanted to do complicated and nuanced corporate work, and this is the place to do it."
Beyond corporate, around 25% of beginners enter DP's litigation department – a bigger single portion than any of the corporate subgroups. Intrepid litigators can sample commercial litigation (which is broad, but associates did frequently mention financial disputes), bankruptcy and white-collar crime. One source opined that “the responsibility can vary by team. Some people are inherently willing to trust juniors with higher-quality work; sometimes I've been stretched and challenged, while at other times I haven't – it's not all first-level doc review though.” Indeed, our interviewees quickly got a taste of the more interesting aspects. “I've definitely been able to write more than I expected I'd be able to,” said one. “I've written large portions of briefs and outlines for depositions – I've also attended several interviews in investigations.” Juniors even got their sleuth on by “listening to audio calls between relevant parties.”
Davis Polk has US offices in New York, DC and Menlo Park, California. The Big Apple HQ provides some lucky attorneys with views of the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, and “has something of a grand entrance, since it sits on top of the US post office. You ride up to the eighth floor and it's the classic Davis Polk style: caramel-colored wood, with lots of gold and gleaming white everywhere.” New Yorkers gleefully reported that “we all have floor-to-ceiling windows in our offices and there are standing desks available. Another great thing about being at a large firm is that we have a pretty big legal assistance department. It means you can be a lawyer without worrying about the other stuff.”
New York takes in the vast majority of new joiners, while the smaller Menlo Park base absorbs a handful and the DC office only brings in one or two each year. Between DC (which maintains a strong governmental/regulatory focus) and New York there is “quite a bit of contact: if not daily then several times a week. It feels pretty fluid.” Further afield, the firm has offices in Beijing, Hong Kong, London, Madrid, Paris, São Paulo and Tokyo.
Training & Development
Associates were realistic about their chances of making partner. “From a sheer numbers perspective, there is a real pyramid structure: a lot of associates, fewer partners.” But the firm's prestige meant associates had seen many of their predecessors take the leap away from private practice, regularly moving into government roles. “I'm always amazed at the opportunities people get as they complete their fourth or fifth year.” For those looking to make partner, they can take solace in the fact that “the firm prides itself on minimizing lateral hiring.”
Long before these considerations are made, new starters begin by congregating in the Big Apple for Lawyering 101: a week of orientation which covers the office essentials such as computer training, document management and billing. “One part they do focus on is health and well-being. A partner comes in and describes how they were previously overworked, and encourages you not to go down that route.” After that week comes specific practice area training. “When I joined leveraged finance I knew nothing about it,” confided one interviewee, “but we had about 20 hours of training within the first couple of weeks, which soon brought me up to speed.” Lawyering 101 is followed every second year by Lawyering 301 and Lawyering 501. Corporate juniors on rotation receive six-monthly reviews, while those in their permanent groups attend annual checkups.
“One part they do focus on is health and well-being."
For more immediate guidance, associates found that “you have to initiate the feedback loop. People always say 'thank you,' but if you want something more tailored and detailed you have to drive it yourself.” The general opinion was that “mid-levels are more than willing to invest in junior associates,” but a couple of interviewees did note that “while some mid-levels are good at bringing first years in on the meat of the matter, others aren't so good.” Some felt an upward review process would fine-tune this relationship.
Interviewees informed us that “a group of DP attorneys went to JFK airport in response to Trump's travel ban. Some even stayed overnight. Most people here have a sense that they should be giving back.” Without a billable hours target, “there is ample opportunity to do pro bono, and there is always a ton of it around – but the firm doesn't pressure you to do it.” We therefore found something of a divide. On one side: primed-and-ready pro bono participants with over 100 hours clocked in a year. On the other: associates too busy to take on much, or any. When associates start, however, “you fill out a survey for the pro bono coordinators so they can work with you to figure out where your interests lie.” Among the opportunities on offer, we heard about “family law matters; criminal appeals or even trials; 'elder law' tasks (like drafting wills, setting up trusts); drafting contracts for non-profits; and election protection issues.” Clemency work also featured: “That provided me with my most rewarding moment so far,” a humbled junior revealed, “as in the end someone with a life sentence was able to go home.”
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 54,859
- Average per US attorney: 62
“When I joined I was worried about being just one person in a very large firm,” a source recalled. “It's not crazy to feel that way when you have to walk through the doors of a huge skyscraper. But when you get here, between informal mentors, formal mentors and staffing coordinators, you end up being really well taken care of.” Associates couldn't help but paint a rosy picture of the internal relationships at DP. “In a way it does feel like the old guard (this is not a Silicon Valley firm, after all), but people have been remarkably open and patient about helping each other: they've shared tips, answered questions, and not tried to get ahead of each other.” On an even more basic level: “People will say 'hi' to you in the halls, even if you've never formally met. It's not a place where everyone's heads are down.”
"When things get busy or complicated, our partners and associates remain excellent people to work with."
So, attorneys at DP are polite people – that's a good place to start – but they're also talented, which they need to be, because “the expectations around quality of work, attention to detail and not making mistakes are pretty high.” One associate remarked that “you always feel that you're not the smartest in the room – but that means you're in the right room. It can be intimidating, but it's good to know you're constantly being challenged.” Sources also observed that attorneys “put great stock in their work,” and were adept at managing stress. “Even when things get busy or complicated, our partners and associates remain excellent people to work with. They let you know when the pressure is on, but they don't take it out on you.” Those in need of a release should take note of this associate's proclamation on the social life: “I would call it a 'design your own' adventure. If you want a work setting where you go out and get drinks, there are definitely people who will do that.” Happy hours occur regularly, and there's also a well-attended Christmas party that's held in the office.
“Men will let you go first when you get in and out of the elevator,” one female interviewee commented. “They'll also hold doors open for women. Good manners are just part of the culture here.” But other female sources stressed that this approach “comes across as considerate and polite; as a woman I am not made to feel that I stand out as though it were the 1950s. I feel empowered and respected as an equal.” We're happy to report that the firm's approach to diversity has little of the 50s about it either. “It's making strides when you look at the pipeline of people we're bringing in. The third and fourth years are diverse – now we'll have to see if they make partnership.” Associates also told us about affinity groups that “have frequent events; these are well attended, and not only by those from the group being represented.” With the upper echelons in mind, the firm has started an initiative – called 'Davis Polk Revisited' – to bring back women attorneys who have left. Interviewees did feel that “more of the focus needs to be on associate development and retention.”
"I feel empowered and respected as an equal.”
Hours & Compensation
The firm's compensation structure (no billing target, accompanied by lockstep base salaries and bonuses) “takes the pressure off,” and dampens down competition. However, associates told us they were “very busy: the unpredictability can be frustrating, but it's not at a level that is inconsistent with what we were expecting.” Ten-hour days were felt to be quite average, though most sources expected to fit in a couple more hours at home. More demanding spells, however, were common. “I can get in at 9:30am and be working until one, two or three in the morning. One-offs are fine (they happen), but doing that for a whole week or longer, plus lots of weekend work – that's unsustainable.” Fortunately, DP has controls in place: “If you have long periods of working into the evening you will be on people's radar and you may get a call from the staffing coordinator. Those hours should be temporary.” In addition, associates' hard work is appreciated. “Partners send emails saying 'thanks for putting the time in.' They also host team drinks after a big brief or something similar. It's not the craziest gesture but it's nice to know they are aware.”
Strategy & Future
Davis Polk isn't one for surprises. “We are a long-term business,” says managing partner Tom Reid. “Our growth comes from partner promotions, and they take eight or more years. Our growth is therefore dictated by how the class of arriving associates develops. We hire lateral partners on a limited basis.” At the same time, the firm is reactive to change. Reid believes the Trump administration means “potentially significant reform. That has allowed us to do what we do best: to be thought leaders. When there is a moment in Washington where policy seems up for grabs we excel by having knowledgeable lawyers who can explain potential scenarios for clients.”
Considering Davis Polk's prestigious reputation, this associate's insight isn't so surprising: “There are a lot of Yale alumni here. That speaks well of the firm, as Yale students tend to have all options open to them. It suggests this is the place to be.” But it's important to note that new associates do still arrive from schools well beyond the T14. One source recalled: “I found DP to be gracious in offering me an interview despite not having the traditional law school ties. My school has never come up in conversation, apart from in a positive light, when partners say that we should be doing more hiring at lower-ranked schools.”
In fact the firm doesn't have much time for the market's obsession with ranking law schools. Hiring partner Dana Seshens tells us this welcoming approach is deliberate. “The scope of our recruiting effort is rather broad. By way of example, our 2017 class had 27 law schools represented. There are 25 law schools represented in the summer class for 2018. We reach as far and wide as we can, and bring in a wide range of schools; we don't want to lose out. Our practice is enhanced by having a diversity of backgrounds and views.”
But with DP's reputation (and the large pool of students just described) you'd better have something special to impress recruiters. Our interviews this year established that DP's associates are a particularly brainy breed. “One unspoken quality of the people here is intelligence,” said sources. “The firm will only interview candidates of a certain calibre, in order to maintain its reputation and to make sure expectations are met. That is a precursor to everything else.” To assess this at the OCI stage, Seshens describes how general conversation is “coupled with more substantive probing. The interviewer focuses on a candidate's ability to speak analytically, as well as their ability to to speak on issues and competencies based on their previous actions.”
One associate recalled that, by comparison, “the callback interview focuses on culture. The firm places a high value on maintaining an ultra-respectful environment.” With that in mind, another source offered this advice: “I honestly think it's best to try and act natural and not to be too much of a showperson. Don't brag about yourself! You've got an interview on the strength of your resume, so they are more interested in seeing beyond that piece of paper.”
OCI applicants interviewed: 1,535
Interviewees outside OCI: 181
Applicants invited to 2nd stage interview: 885
Acceptances: 162 (2Ls)
Notable summer events: Welcome Dinner at The Plaza, Broadway theater night, Softball at Citi Field, Sunset Sailing
Chambers Associate: Interview with Davis Polk's managing partner Tom Reid
Chambers Associate: Could start by giving us a summary of your past year?
Tom Reid: The strength of the firm is our strength across everything we do. Last year  if you were to ask me to pick a real driver of our performance I would probably say our restructuring practice. It's been very busy, with a number of energy company restructurings here in the US, and also overseas. That work isn't just for restructuring lawyers, it's a driver for finance, litigators and M&A.
This year  has been better again. 2017 has been phenomenal, especially for our M&A practice – it's powered the firm forward again this year. We have a small group relative to the names you would think of – Wachtell, Skadden, Simpson Thacher – but our M&A partners rank across the world, and we're number one in the US, and in the UK. They're interesting things too – very large deals. That and acquisition finance: they have been our strongest performers. Year by year it seems we beat the year before based upon one or two very strong practices surpassing themselves.
We don't plan to grow dramatically, but across the firm last year we promoted 10 new partners. Two of those were in M&A, one in New York, one in London. We're not worried about our size. We are a long-term business. Our growth comes from partner promotions, and they take eight or more years. Our growth is therefore dictated by how the class of arriving associates develops. We hire lateral partners on a limited basis.
We only hire laterals in areas where we cannot grow talent, such as English lawyers. That applies to Hong Kong too. We promoted our first Hong Kong litigation partner recently, but before we had to hire laterals. It's the same story in DC. We just promoted our first organic partner, Jesse Solomon. So lateral hiring has been select, limited, strategic. We grow really only by organic promotions. That is a long investment cycle.
CA: How is the firm being affected by the Trump administration?
TR: It hasn't really affected the work that we are doing. We have been involved in pro bono on immigration matters, but in terms of regular practice, the markets have reacted positively, in what we call the Trump trade. After the healthcare bill failed, and other reform initiatives failed, we haven't seen much impact in our practice. Maybe we see some uncertainty in M&A over what the shape of tax reform will be.
Other areas where I would say we have seen some impact include the enforcement area, because of the new administration's transition time. It's not been a smooth transition; the DOJ was no exemption. There is potential for reform though – potentially significant reform. That has allowed us to do what we do best: to be thought leaders. When there is a moment in Washington where policy seems up for grabs we excel by having knowledgeable lawyers who can explain potential scenarios for clients.
CA: Beyond the obvious metric of financial growth, is there anything which you would personally like to see the firm achieve – you could call it your legacy?
TR: I'm feeling old this week – talking about my legacy is rubbing my nose in it! It's very hard for any one partner, even a managing partner, to think about a legacy. I'm at the head of an institution that has been around since the 19th century, and has been at the top of its game for all of that time. Therefore responsibility number one is to make sure you continue that tradition.
In that regard you ask an important question – what we think about beyond financial metrics. We do think about things like that a lot. This firm, which is a great place to be able to do cutting edge work, is also a great place to be proud of.
Beginning last year, we had the first class of 'revisited attorneys'. It's a program we have launched to give a chance to people who have been out of practice, but who were with us for enough time to show us they were great lawyers with integrity. We're coming to the end of that first year, and there is a second year of posts available.
We've also linked with Venture for America, a venture capital organization providing funding, not so much to Boston, New York or San Francisco, but to challenged cities – Columbus, Ohio, Detroit. We've linked up with them and we plan to work with them to identify start-ups who can benefit from top-flight legal advice. That legal advice is given for free. They are the things that count beyond financial revenue. We call them 'legacy,' but you have to be doing them constantly and I would imagine that when my successor emerges they will see that as business as usual.
CA: In speaking to associates, many are aware of the opportunities that arise for them outside of the firm after just a few years of practicing at Davis Polk – what do you think are the reasons for this demand? Why are Davis Polk associates so highly valued?
TR: I think we are recognized as a firm that is unsurpassed in its ability to provide a really intense experience – a hard-working experience. The day of a young Davis Polk associate is a very busy day. It says something to our client base globally about the quality of the lawyer recruited and the training given. To meet the needs of a company or government agency, what we add to that recipe that only a few others do is breadth. We are very strong across the board. If an associate working here is in the corporate group, they're being exposed daily to finance, tax, and executive compensation lawyers. That broad skill set rubs off on people.
There is risk inherent in hiring decisions for companies that might take Davis Polk lawyers. They can interview for hours, look at a résumé and references, but they still don't know 90% of what they will get. Our name stands for quality and modernity in legal practice. The fact we do expose people to what is happening to the markets in Europe, Asia, in Silicon Valley, or in New York means they learn about it. When they've only been here for a couple of years they are already knowledgeable commentators on legal issues globally.
CA: Are you happy with the amount of associates who do leave, and the time that they do?
TR: Every year is slightly different, but the pace that people leave is steady through the years. You have got to care about every individual in the building. People who have chosen us relative to other fabulous law firms have trusted us with their legal careers. We have to repay their trust with an extremely diligent program of training and development, not just in their technical skills, but also in leadership skills. They need to be able to work with a large room of interests and find consensus. They need to lead a client to the right solution. We design a formal set of programs that span associates' entire careers from the day they arrive to the day before they become partner.
Informally we put a huge emphasis on partners establishing relationships of trust and care. Partners will be mentoring associates so that they feel that they can have a discussion about their available career opportunities. Partners will give unbiased feedback on the attractiveness of that opportunity. And, if they are interested in the partnership, partners will feed back on their prospects of partnership.
We have our bi-yearly alumni gathering next week and it's one of my personal highlights. People that leave Davis Polk, whether it's after two or 22 years, there's an overwhelming sense of trust and belief that the firm had their interests first in mind.
Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP
450 Lexington Avenue,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 3
- Number of international offices: 7
- Lawyers (US): 820
- Main recruitment contact: Cristobal V Modesto (firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Hiring Partners: Maurice Blanco and Dana Seshens
- Recruitment details
- Clerking policy: Yes
- Summers joining/anticipated 2018: 175 (1Ls: 7, 2Ls: 159, Other: 9)
- Summers joining/anticipated 2018 split by office: NY:145 (1Ls: 7, 2Ls: 131, Other: 7) Northern California: 17 (2Ls: 15, Other: 2) Washington DC: 2Ls: 13
- Summer salary 2018: 1Ls: $3,500/week 2Ls: $3,500/week
- Split summers offered? Yes
- Can summers spend time in an overseas office? Yes
Main areas of work
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.
This Firm's Rankings in
Chambers USA Guide 2017
- Antitrust (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Debt & Equity (Band 1)
District of Columbia
- Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations Recognised Practitioner
- Antitrust (Band 1)
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 1)
- Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 1)
- Environment: Mainly Transactional (Band 1)
- Latin American Investment (Band 1)
- Litigation: General Commercial: The Elite (Band 2)
- Litigation: Securities (Band 1)
- Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 2)
- Media & Entertainment: Corporate (Band 3)
- Real Estate: Mainly Dirt Recognised Practitioner
- Tax (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A (Band 4)
USA - Nationwide
- Antitrust (Band 2)
- Banking & Finance (Band 1)
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Debt & Equity (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Derivatives (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: High-Yield Products (Band 3)
- Corporate Crime & Investigations (Band 2)
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 1)
- Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 1)
- FCPA (Band 2)
- Financial Services Regulation: Banking (Compliance) (Band 1)
- Financial Services Regulation: Banking (Enforcement & Investigations) (Band 3)
- Financial Services Regulation: Broker Dealer (Compliance & Enforcement) (Band 2)
- Financial Services Regulation: Financial Institutions M&A (Band 2)
- International Trade: CFIUS Experts (Band 3)
- International Trade: Export Controls & Economic Sanctions (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Hedge Funds (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Registered Funds Recognised Practitioner
- Private Equity: Buyouts (Band 4)
- Securities: Litigation (Band 1)
- Securities: Regulation (Band 1)
- Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 1)