When a law firm morphs into a global giant, local know-how and a respect for work-life balance can go out of the window – unless you’re DLA Piper.
IF you’re bored of researching law firms, why not play the game: ‘name a movie with a DLA office in the title’? We’ll start you off with Casablanca. You get the picture – the firm’s big. Of the world’s continents, only Antarctica has yet to be conquered by DLA’s 100-something offices. The associates we spoke to were drawn almost unanimously to the firm’s “global reach” and whopping revenue, which fixes DLA in second place on the Am Law 100. The reality is that associates get to work with colleagues across the country and the world, with the potential for international travel as well. Juniors were excited about “handling complex international deals.” But the culture also appealed: “From speaking to people at DLA who had been here for 20 years or so, it seems this is the kind of place where once you're here they want you to stay. Attorneys here still love their jobs, and love the firm.”
DLA Piper unsurprisingly covers a plethora of practice areas. Chambers USA ranks the firm in 16 US states alone, cementing the firm’s reputation for local business expertise. But on a nationwide level, the firm also receives plaudits in a broad array of practices, from corporate M&A to international trade to sports law, life sciences, tax, and startups. A glance at the rankings – in areas like franchising, privacy or retail – shows a firm with a pronounced sector focus. Juniors themselves can be found most abundantly in litigation, closely followed by corporate, then real estate. After those junior-heavy practices, associates are principally spread among tax, finance, restructuring, IP, and employment.
The Work & Offices
Although the firm spreads its legal wings across several states, the bulk of juniors appear in the New York, Chicago, and Palo Alto offices. DC, Boston, and Baltimore are next in line. At the time of our research, the New York office was preparing for a major renovation, and the Chicago office was in the process of moving to a brand-spanking new office on the Chicago riverside. Other smaller offices have a more relaxing vibe: “It's in the middle of nowhere,” a Baltimore junior laughed, “but there's walking paths, trees, and deer – if you need a break you can take a walk around. I think that contributes to the culture too. Here, we're more chilled than New York or DC.” And this may sound trifling, but all juniors have their own offices with windows – a rarity in BigLaw. The glass doors in the Boston office were met with mixed views: “It definitely helps create a transparent community. The downside is it's not great if you want to take a nap under your desk!”
“It's not great if you want to take a nap under your desk!”
The sizable litigation group covers areas from contractual disputes to government investigations, FCPA matters, and professional malpractice in what juniors term “a large bucket for all things litigation.” Juniors tried their hand at “accounting malpractice, ponzi schemes, and direct lawsuits” among other issues. White collar crime involved more investigatory work, often involving the DOJ and FPC. Juniors reported the classic tasks like legal research, fact development work, as well as prepping witnesses and deposition prep. Other regular tasks included “producing memos for clients and interviewing various government entities.” Some experienced ample responsibility even on bigger cases when “there's more managing to be done.” For example, a San Francisco junior “managed a contract review team that was split between Chicago and San Francisco.” As for support, “it depends on the personality of the partner I'm working with,” a litigator explained. “Some are eager to be mentors. Others are more closed off – but not to the point where I'd feel uncomfortable asking them questions.”
Corporate juniors are spread across most of the country, handling a mix of M&A, private equity and corporate governance issues. Then there are emerging growth specialists who advise start-ups, investors, and venture capital firms. The average day will no doubt involve some due diligence, doc review, and memo writing, but “a good thing here is that juniors get a lot of early experience with drafting transactional documents.” Our sources reported “coordinating with specialists” and “direct emails and calls with clients.” A Chicago associate reflected, “they keep deals pretty leanly staffed which means you have the opportunity to do true substantive work early on.”
“I always feel like I'm being pushed to what I can handle – in a good way.”
The real estate practice takes up around half of the firm's Boston office, but juniors can also be found in New York, North Carolina, and dotted along the West Coast. The transactional side deals with acquisitions, depositions, financing, and leasing, while the development side navigates “permitting hoops to get permits for clients to build a building from the ground up.” Juniors most commonly work on purchases and sales of real estate usually in their respective cities. Tasks include due diligence, summaries of leases, and drafting purchase agreements. One junior described “trying to sublet space in a New York office building. I was negotiating with the current tenants and regularly talking to the counsel of the client.” Juniors were happy with the firm's support: “Everyone here is good about teaching and supervising, but your hand isn't held the whole time.” And when it came to workload and responsibility, a Boston junior enthused that “it keeps me on my toes. I always feel like I'm being pushed to what I can handle – in a good way!”
Most practice areas adopt a more free-market system of work allocation and “the global reach of the firm means we could be working with someone in another state, Spain, the UK… anywhere! And thanks to technology it's almost as if you're in the same office!” Across all the practice areas, juniors agree that “as you move up they set clear benchmarks that we try to meet each year. With that comes more responsibility or more senior roles on a case, or supervising others.”
“It’s been a good balance between the expectations they have for you as an attorney, and understanding that you're a human and have other things going on,” a Baltimore junior reflected. At a firm of this breadth and born out of recent mergers, some viewed the culture as “slightly disjointed.” Glass-half-full types might interpret this as the regional offices retaining their own character, which is typical of a Swiss Verein structure, especially where the firm has strong ties to regional businesses. Then it’s perhaps no surprise to hear “stories about New York and DC being more intense – that’s just the nature of those markets.” Nevertheless, everyone agreed that “there's definitely a firm consensus on striking a work-life balance.” The firm achieves this through allowing a more flexible working system: “There are people who leave consistently at five to get back to their families, and people understand that. They might sign on later in the evening, but they allow you to have that balance to be a productive individual.”
“They allow you to have that balance to be a productive individual.”
A junior in North Carolina declared “my favorite part about this office is working with such smart people who you can learn from, but are all very approachable.” Associates we spoke to wrongly expected a firm of this scale to be less collaborative and collegial, and many noted the premium the firm places on personality at recruitment. So it’s no surprise to hear from a Chicagoan that “people here are friends, not just co-workers.” Lunches and “pretty frequent happy hours and get-togethers,” fill the social calendar, “but since we all have busy schedules there's a fair amount of stopping in the halls and chatting,” juniors acknowledge. Many prefer this as “we're not pressured or required to hang out all the time. Many of us have young families we want to get home to, or a social life outside of the firm.”
“Diversity is at the forefront of what the firm is thinking about as they move forward.”
“Leadership cares a lot about it, and makes people feel welcome and want to stay” a Bay Area associate expressed. The firm holds a diversity conference where every self-recorded diverse person is invited to meet each other and strengthen relationships across offices. “I think diversity is at the forefront of what the firm is thinking about as they move forward,” a Bostonian articulated, “although diversity at partner level is definitely a work in progress.” At associate level however, it's reported to be pretty diverse, especially concerning gender: “As a woman they've told me about groups and organisations I can get involved in. My mentor is female – it's great having her to bounce off all sorts of questions.” Indeed, this culture is an expectation when you’re working with “people from different countries, speaking different languages. It makes for a really interesting workplace.”
Hours & Compensation
The 2,000 hour billing target was “definitely achievable,” most associates found. One admitted, “some years it might be hard to meet, and others not so, but it never feels overbearing – I never feel like I'll have to pull an all-nighter.” Those who rack up the 2,000 hours are then eligible for a bonus. Juniors reported an average day from 9am to around 6.30pm, then often logging on at home after dinner. “They're flexible when it comes to letting you spend time with your family, as long as you're getting the work done,” one commented. Some late nights and weekend work was considered unavoidable because on some matters “it's more important to be with the team and discussing it together,” but when we asked our sources if they still had time for a private life, the consensus answer was “yes. Absolutely.” Would associates at many other global mega-firms respond like this? We think not.
Juniors keenly emphasized that pro bono was “not just lip service” and felt that “there are very few firms as committed as DLA.” Up to 100 hours can go toward the billing target, but up to 400 hours can be billed if it's for one of the firm's 'signature projects'. These address domestic violence, education, and juvenile justice issues among others. One junior spoke about “a civil rights matter defending an inmate that was abused by a police officer.” A corporate junior tried their hand at an asylum case, which was “interesting because I'm not a litigator, so I got to stretch my legs in a space I don't usually work in.” Some associates mentioned that “despite the robust program, some practice group leaders may not be as enthusiastic about having associates doing pro bono because of billable hour targets.” But on balance reports were very positive, such as the Seattle associates who got pro bono credit for volunteering at food banks, “which is fantastic!”
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 117,108
- Average per US attorney: 85
Strategy & Future
In the past twelve months, DLA have opened another four offices internationally. Co-managing partner Stasia Kelly explains that “the market is continuing to evolve and we want to be on the forefront of meeting those challenges and shaping them in our position as one of the largest law firms in the world." Kelly also notes that DLA wants to “focus on the markets where our clients are.” With that in mind, co-managing partner Mike Poulos explains that “Latin America is clearly a focus for us, so we can expect additional expansion there. And like other firms, we're also interested in Asia.” Aside from new offices, Poulos tells us, “we have realized our clients are very focused on having a sector-based approach, so as we expand this is something we will be conscious of.”
“First I ask them about a challenging experience candidates have had in law school or another job. We're looking for people who not only respond to challenging situations well, but are creative problem solvers, someone who can be collaborative and take constructive criticism,” a Chicago junior involved in callbacks explained. Other juniors want to find out “whether I'm going to like working with this person, so I ask a lot of social, friendly questions.” Many juniors we spoke to like to see “that they have a life outside of law school, whether that's extra curricular activities, or other interests.”
Hiring partner Tina Martini tells us “we ask questions to confirm what we know based on resumes, but to try and find out to what extent a candidate's interests and work experience align with the firm's culture, strategy, and philosophy on how to best serve clients.” Martini also explains that one of the most important things is “how intellectually curious someone is – and whether they have that fire in the belly.” And when asked what makes a person stand out at an interview, Martini emphasized “having a strong presence and being well-prepared for the interview, which can take a number of different forms. Obviously there's information online, but going the extra mile makes a difference – for example, looking up law school alums to see if there are people at the firm they can contact, or other people in their network that enable them to connect with lawyers to learn about the firm. This type of preparation provides very useful information, and also helps them to develop professional alliances.”
Interview with co-managing partners Mike Poulos & Stasia Kelly
What highlights from the past year would you want to flag up to student readers interested in the firm?
We continue to look at where we want to expand our offices, and in the past year this has included San Juan, Casablanca, and Johannesburg, as well as a cooperation agreement in Chile. We made a great combination with Davis LLP in Canada to form DLA Piper (Canada), and combined with a firm in Finland as well. Another aspect we're really proud of is all of the awards and recognitions we've received in the past year, including being named one of the most powerful law firm brands in the world by Acritas and the most active global M&A firm in the world by both Mergermarket and PitchBook. It's great to have that market recognition. We've also started to invest very heavily in the development of our younger lawyers, including the recruits we hire for the summer associate program. We're about to roll out a professional coaching program which will be a game-changer for young lawyers transitioning from law school to a firm like DLA. Beyond the clinical training we all provide, we will be combining that with career development training on how to make a lawyer more successful. Young lawyers have difficulty making the transition from student to practicing lawyer, so we are aiming to make that transition easier.
What's your long-term vision for DLA Piper? What do you want it to look like in 5, 10 years time?
We're going to continue to be a leading global business law firm. We'll continue that by building the business and delivering a work product for a sophisticated client base. The market is continuing to evolve and we want to be on the forefront of meeting those challenges and shaping the legal market – not just meeting changes, but shaping them in our position as one of the largest law firms in the world. Our ability to shape ourselves and our clients is an important part of our vision. We're all aware of the fact that the industry is going through adversity and competition. That competition mostly exists in spaces where firms have allowed their brands to become commodities. We're focused on the quality of our lawyering and our brand, to be positioned as a trusted adviser to our clients, as opposed to vendors.
Where will the firm be investing? Any plans to open new offices? Expansion around the world?
We focus on the markets where our clients are. Latin America is clearly a focus for us, so we expect additional expansion there. Like other firms, we're also interested in Asia. We have realized that our clients are very focused on having a sector-based approach, so as we expand we'll be conscious of having a sector-focused approach as we go to market.
What are you looking for in student candidates that are interested in the firm?
We're both very involved in recruiting at the law school level. I would say the students we're interviewing by definition have enjoyed the highest level of academic success. We know they're really smart and are going to be smart lawyers. What makes a successful lawyer is if they can combine intellect with the ability to have the presence and profile to position themselves to be trusted advisers. That's what we look for – we know you're smart, that goes without saying, but we're looking for talent who we can evolve into someone who will someday be viewed by consumers as a trusted adviser.
What would you say are DLA's core practices?
We're obviously a full service firm. We're very big in corporate, employment, finance, and litigation. We also have a big and robust real estate practice. There's also our IP and technology practices, including patent litigation and privacy work. We're currently growing our energy and infrastructure practice.
Define the firm's character or culture?
We think of ourselves as entrepreneurial, but also as a bit of a disruptor in the market place in terms of the way we were formed. We think that is a great way to view the future, because it will change and is changing as we speak. Our culture is also dominated by a frame of reference that collaboration is the most effective way to succeed. Another component is that the firm is built on professional relationships, but also personal relationships – I can easily say that most of my partners are my best friends.
What's the balance like between offices? Is the aim for the culture to be uniform across offices?
We definitely aim to have a shared culture across the firm – globally, not just in the US. At the same time, it complements what will always be a geographic culture. We don't want all the offices to be exactly the same – it's good to be able to capitalize on differences in different office areas.
What was the firm like when you joined and how has it changed?
Mike: When I joined it was with Rudnick & Wolfe. The brutal reality, without being critical, is that it wouldn't exist today without the combination we went through. It was a real estate firm, driven through one market. On the business line, the boundaries were limited. We have transformed ourselves into a global platform, and across many geographies we are a household name.
Stasia: I joined from having a career as general counsel, and have the perspective of a former client. Watching the firm in the last five years, we're getting our minds around the fact that we are a business, and a business that needs to succeed in line with our clients. It's been a real evolution, and it's been great to watch that.
Any advice or words of wisdom for our student readers as they try to enter the legal profession?
The bad news is that law practice is changing dramatically so it's hard to predict what it will be like later. The good news is that that practice is changing, and will be different for them. They should see that as an opportunity to have a career that spans all sorts of potential, not just in law firms, but in-house too, and that's really exciting. It should be viewed as positive as opposed to negative. I think there has been a lot of reported diversity in the industry they're familiar with. The fact remains that it is still a very vibrant profession, and I've said to many who have contemplated law school that I swear by a law career at firms like DLA. It continues to be a very rewarding path to pursue, economically as well as challenging you on a day to day basis. It definitely beats being a dentist.
Interview with hiring partner Tina Martini
Roughly how many associates do you take on each year?
I'd say about 60-70, and that includes those who come through our summer program right out of law school, and those whom we hire laterally. Usually our bigger offices tend to have more associates than the smaller ones, but it depends on our needs in particular locations.
What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?
There are a number of ways we encourage diversity. First, the firm has an infrastructure in place, including a firm director of diversity and inclusion and a team that works with that director, as well as a partner who practices at the firm and who is heavily involved with the diversity initiative. We participate in diversity job fairs, performing outreach to student groups, and target law schools that have large diverse populations. We also work with clients and others on pipeline initiatives, whose purpose is to reach law students and others early in their academic and professional careers. We strive to educate and encourage people to consider law school and to develop meaningful professional relationships early in their careers.
What questions do you ask during OCIs and callback interviews? Could you give us some examples of interview questions you've asked in the past with good examples of answers?
We ask questions designed to confirm what we know based on resumes and to try and find out to what extent a candidate's interest and work experience align with the firm's culture, strategy, and philosophy on how to best serve clients. Our questions are based on the principles of behavioral interviewing. We work under the assumption that people are intelligent and want to get to the bottom of how intellectually curious someone is – and whether they have that fire in the belly.
We also drill down on work experience, asking questions about a candidate’s last job, what their favorite/least favorite project was and why. We ask them to tell us about their biggest accomplishments and their biggest regrets. One of the most interesting questions we ask is “if I were to speak to a former employer, what would they tell me about you?” That always elicits some interesting answers. One 'softball' question we ask is “why are you interested in DLA?” It sounds simple enough but you'd be amazed at the wide variety of answers we get. Once, someone said they were interested in DLA because they were looking for a really small boutique firm. I had to gently tell them that we are not a boutique. These types of questions help us determine whether someone is well-prepared for the interview, takes the process seriously, and whether they would be a good fit. There's so much readily available information about us, so it should be quite easy for candidates to figure out whether their interests and experiences align with the firm.
What makes someone stand out at interview?
Having a strong presence and being well-prepared for the interview, which can take a number of different forms. Obviously there's information online, but going the extra mile makes a difference – for example, looking up law school alums to see if there are people at the firm they can contact, or other people in their network that enable them to connect with lawyers to learn about the firm. This type of preparation provides very useful information, and also helps them to develop professional alliances. Those contacts they develop will often then reach out to the person interviewing on campus and say “I know you're interviewing so-and-so today – I had the opportunity to meet them and I like them, so you should take a closer look at this person.” But that doesn't happen unless you plan enough in advance. These types of things are impressive and show that an applicant is truly interested in the firm.
What are you looking for in a candidate?
There are a number of qualities we tend to find in candidates who ultimately succeed at the firm. They are intelligent and accomplished academically, are intellectually curious and have a strong client-service orientation, which is often clear through their work experience. In addition they are driven, business-minded, and entrepreneurial. This is important because clients look at us to understand their business, and to understand how they make their decisions. Candidates also need to be creative and practical, and to understand that what one client needs may not be what other clients want. We also like people who are very focused and dedicated – it is important for our lawyers to have their head in the game.
What can students do now to increase their chances of impressing you in their application and at interview?
They should try to get relevant, solid work experience. It doesn't necessarily have to be at a law firm – it could be working in another legal or professional services job. Doing so demonstrates that you are committed to the profession and continuing to develop during the summer outside the classroom. Also, do your homework early and often about employers – you can never start too early in terms of figuring out how your skill set and interests match up with various firms.
And roughly how many summers do you take on each year?
This year we're anticipating around 50 associates (1Ls and 2Ls).
Can you briefly outline your summer program? Is there anything distinctive about it?
There are a number of factors which differentiate our program from others. For example, since before the time I was recruited by the firm in the early '90s, we have given summer associates an accurate snapshot of what it's truly like to be an associate at the firm. Each office has its own unique summer activities (sporting events, dinners at restaurants, dinners at partner's houses, negotiation workshops, etc.), and the program is uniquely tailored to the needs and personality of each office. This way summers can develop meaningful relationships with each other, and with other attorneys and staff in their office. Every year we do an all summer associate retreat in different locations. This year we did it in Austin, and it was really well received by the summer associates. This retreat is another one of our key differentiators.
What possibilities are there for flexible working/alternative career paths?
We are proud to provide flexible working solutions and to individually tailor them to the associate's particular needs and interests. As part of that process, we also evaluate the firm's needs, the relevant practice area, and client considerations. We offer reduced hour schedules, and if someone is on leave, we work with them when they return to gradually ramp them back up to help them adjust back to their schedule. In terms of career paths, there is a partnership track as well as a non-partnership track. We try to be as accommodating as possible.
Is there a policy of offering client secondments/overseas secondments?
Yes. As an associate, I did two client secondments myself. That is something we take seriously and are proud to do in partnership with our clients. We work with clients to carefully determine their needs. With overseas secondments, sometimes there's a particular geographic business need, or a need within a practice group that drives that process. We strive to have a globally mobile workforce that mirrors how our clients do business.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about associate life?
What makes an associate's life different at DLA compared to other firms is that we are always looking for ways to make our associates' lives challenging, enriching, and rewarding. For example, we proactively staff matters leanly, so matters often only have a partner and one, maybe two associates. Of course, there are certain matters that by their very nature require more extensive staffing and which may not follow this framework. Bottom line, the whole idea is to get our associates extensive experience very quickly, which may not happen on as steep of a trajectory if there is a larger team of attorneys where each person handles a smaller piece of a matter. This type of experience is very important from a developmental perspective, and comes with a lot of responsibility for our associates.
We're also a destination firm for pro bono work. We have an amazing global platform for pro bono, which gives associates the ability to get really meaningful global experience early on in their careers. There are firms that claim to be international, but we are a truly global firm, both in terms of how we do business and in our approach to clients and client service, which is another way we meaningfully differentiate ourselves from others in the market.
Training & development
Training begins with a 'new associate academy' in Chicago, where associates gather and learn the basics about the firm, how it operates, and what is expected of them. This is followed by practice group training, but some juniors complained that they would prefer more formal training. That said, “they're open to giving you feedback because they're invested in you and your success.”
For assessment there's a formal annual review, with a six-month review for first years. “You fill out a self-evaluation,” a Bostonian explained, “and designate a reviewer – an attorney you've worked at least 50 hours with in the past year – to answer a series of questions about your work. The firm's attorney committee head will then sit with associates and go over these reviews.” Many saw this as more for “administrative purposes” because of the useful on-the-job feedback: “They're open to giving you feedback because they're invested in you and your success.”
DLA Piper LLP (US)
1251 Avenue of the Americas,
- More than 90 offices in 40 countries
- Worldwide revenue: $2,470,207,395
- Partners (US): 616
- Associates (US): 522
- Summer Salary 2017
- 1Ls: $3,461/week in most markets
- 2Ls: $3,461/week in most markets
- Post 3Ls: N/A
- 1Ls hired? Yes
- Split summers offered? No
- Can summers spend time in overseas office? No
- Summers 2017: 37-40 2Ls,10-15 1Ls
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 32 offers and 30 acceptances
Main areas of work
DLA Piper’s core practices in the US are corporate, employment, finance, government affairs, intellectual property and technology, litigation, real estate, restructuring and tax.
DLA Piper is one of the largest business law firms in the world and serves its clients doing business around the world, with insight into both local and international considerations. We are one of the world’s largest and most prominent legal service providers, located in more than 30 countries throughout the Americas, Asia Pacific, Europe and the Middle East, representing clients in a broad range of geographies and practice disciplines.
• Number of 1st year associates: 37
• Number of 2nd year associates: Not lock step
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000 in most markets
• 2nd year: Varies by market
• Clerking policy: Yes; Article III Federal and Appellate clerkship bonus (market based)
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Summer associate profile:
We promote a culture that is inclusive of all, where everyone has the opportunity to grow their career and where pathways to success are transparent. We look for wellrounded, energetic and entrepreneurial people. In general we recruit from the top 1/4 to the top 1/3 of law school classes.
Summer program components:
During the summer, with guidance from lawyers in the roles of mentors, we provide summer associates with a stimulating, realistic and exciting taste of legal life. Summer associates experience challenging days filled with client work, relationship building opportunities and lively activities. All second-year summer associates attend a retreat hosted by one of our offices. During this three-day gathering, summer associates get to know one another and hear from firm leaders about the vision and values of the firm. Other topics include professional development, firm history, and pro bono. Our goal is for summer associates to experience what it is like to be on the DLA Piper team and, through the summer experience, envision their future as a knowledgeable, highly skilled, well-rounded DLA Piper lawyer.