“Excellence is an expectation” at Davis Polk, which associates felt was “arguably the best finance firm in New York, maybe the world!”
“Davis Polk is arguably the best finance firm in New York, maybe the world!” exclaimed one junior. While it’s a bold claim, it’s not a wild boast. Our colleagues at Chambers Global think enough of Davis Polk to award it plenty of multi-jurisdictional praise in areas like banking and finance and capital markets. On its home ground of the US, Davis Polk is a national leader in equity, derivatives, convertible debt, structured products and investment grade debt. Essentially, if it’s got something to do with finance, you’ll probably find a Chambers USA accolade to certify Davis Polk’s reputation in it. While you might be forgiven for thinking about Davis Polk’s transactional prowess first, we should point out that the firm also has a significant litigation offering and excels in securities cases and white-collar crime and government investigations.
“We’re big on publicity-heavy deals.”
Unlike many of its closest peers and competitors, Davis Polk’s geographic footprint is comparatively small. It has just three offices in the US (New York, Menlo Park, and DC) and, at the time of writing, a modest six international offices in São Paulo, London, Madrid, Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo (a Brussels office focused on EU antitrust law is due to open in 2023). Almost 90% of the associates on our list were based in the New York HQ, followed by a handful in Menlo Park and then DC. While excellence is synonymous with Davis Polk, “here you’re not competing,” relieved sources told us, and it was cited a key reason for joining the firm. Other reasons included the firm’s obvious prestige (“globally it’s the best name out there and we’re big on publicity-heavy deals”) and resume-boosting credentials: “The firm picks up strong marks across the board and I was looking at the clients as well – a mix of issuers, underwriters, lots of banks – and thinking about what life could be like after Davis Polk.”
“The practice development programs are updated every year,” an associate enthused, adding: “The development focus is very internal. If you need an explanation of something, you can knock on someone’s door – no one’s ever too busy and you’re never out of the loop.” Juniors reported having two office mentors (typically a mid-level and a partner) as well as a ‘buddy’ who is just slightly ahead in terms of seniority. Mentors were spoken about highly, with this interviewee explaining that “they do a good job of setting up meetings and taking the lead. Of course, if you wanted to meet with them more often, you can always just reach out!”
“They will say, ‘If you want to pursue the partnership, this group will provide these opportunities.’”
If the partnership doesn’t appeal, “there are some really great exit opportunities, mostly to in-house departments in private companies or in government,” a source noted. “They do a great job of helping to place people at places like financial institutions, and for litigators it’s common to go into government.” If associates do “want to stay for the long haul, you have to be realistic. Around 100 associates start at the firm, but only a handful make partner. They will say, ‘If you want to pursue the partnership, this group will provide these opportunities,’ so the firm is very proactive in that sense.”
Around a quarter of the juniors on our list were in Davis Polk’s litigation group, while the remainder were split between several transactional groups like securities distribution, finance, general corporate, and mergers and acquisitions. Other groups with a fair number of juniors included IP, tax, and restructuring. All practices have work coordinators and for the first couple of years “they’re quite strict about going through the coordinators to get assignments, but you can also put down people you do and don’t want to work with, which works well!” This litigator explained that “as you get more senior, you can get your own work,” although staffing attorneys remain on hand to keep an eye on work distribution.
Litigators work as generalists for their first three years before settling on a subgroup focus by the beginning of their fourth year. This gave juniors room to explore general commercial litigation, as well as areas like white-collar crime and investigations, antitrust and IP. “I’ve worked on two or three securities matters, done some cryptocurrency work, a couple of white-collar cases, and IP issues,” noted one. “I do very little doc review,” another source enthused, highlighting their time attending trials and taking “the first crack of documents that senior associates will go on to edit. There’s a lot of legal research and drafting opportunities, including a good number of briefs. On one trial I was able to draft the witness outlines and do work that not a lot of junior associates get to do.”
“...you also get to draft underwriting agreements, which are complicated documents.”
Litigation clients: Pfizer, Citibank, Comcast. Secured the dismissal of a lawsuit brought against client Novo Nordisk regarding the alleged artificial price inflation of certain insulin products.
The folks in securities distribution told us that the focus is on “traditional capital markets work, including debt and equity deals.” On these matters, juniors are the “quarterbacks of the deal: there’s lots of communication involved, so you’re coordinating with auditors and other departments at the firm to add their comments into the documents.” On the equity side, sources found themselves working with “seasoned issuers, where you’re probably going to be doing a follow-on offering for them – it should be simple, but every deal has its nuances!” Debt deals, they added, tended to involve newer issuers, “so you’re doing everything from scratch.” The good news is that juniors are heavily involved in every stage of the process: “You do get admin tasks, but you also get to draft underwriting agreements, which are complicated documents. I didn’t just coordinate calls – I was asked to handle a closing process and follow the different steps to achieve that.” What’s more, “once you become a third-year, you’re deemed a senior, so you’ll get assigned a senior role in the transactions!” What sets this group apart in the market is “its philosophy: they want us to be well-rounded lawyers, so we don’t specialize in a certain type of deal. You might be on an IPO and simultaneously working on a debt offering in Latin America.”
Capital markets clients: BRP Group, GoDaddy, Privia Health Group. Advised digital banking platform Nu Holdings (‘Nubank’) on its $2.6 billion IPO.
“...most firms don’t have enough finance partners to handle that process!”
In the finance practice, we heard that there’s a lot of lender-side work, but also growing sponsor-side capabilities. By the fourth or fifth year, associates tend to choose which side they want to focus on, because “at that point, you don’t want to be seen by the banks as having any conflicting interests!” On the lender side, “it’s your responsibility to take charge of the deal and pace it – you'll be the one putting in the tender reminders, chasing the other side, and filing things on time. The client contact and contact with the opposing counsel falls to you at least half of the time.” This source liked the complexity of the deals and boasted that Davis Polk is one of “only a few firms that can handle the kind of bids where you’ve got over ten banks involved – most firms don’t have enough finance partners to handle that process!” The level of complexity means that “there’s a steep learning curve: you won’t be doing much drafting in the beginning as it’s very technical and there’s a lot of jargon. Once you do a couple of deals you start anticipating what’s going to happen next.” Interviewees recommended that newbies sharpen their organizational skills, take initiative, and get ready for emails: “There are lots of emails – probably hundreds a day! Some of them are quick to get through and some require a more substantive answer for a client question, which you get supervision for.”
Finance clients: Bridgepoint, Bain Capital, J.P. Morgan. Advised Vista Equity Partners and Elliott Investment Management on the financing for the $16 billion acquisition of Citrix.
We asked juniors to describe the culture without using the general words we often hear, like ‘collegiate,’ ‘friendly,’ or ‘supportive.’ Our source laughed: “It’s hard because you took away ‘friendly,’ but it’s honestly the word that comes to mind!” Aside from ‘friendly,’ associates pegged the culture as a respectful and trusting one. “As a junior I feel very empowered to do things,” a source explained. “I’m a second-year and had an oral argument this year – I didn’t think that would happen!” Another agreed that “they tend to give you a long leash early on, but at the same time you’re not babysat – you can reach out for help.” This source emphasized that “they won’t just dump things on you. There’s always someone who will talk you through what’s going on.”
“...everyone is pulling in the same direction.”
That said, ‘high expectations’ and ‘high-performing’ were two other common phrases that sources used, with this one declaring: “Excellence is an expectation.” This was appealing to our interviewees, who liked that “people are really smart here and being a part of that is pretty cool!” Despite it being a cream-of-the-crop place, “everyone is pulling in the same direction: we’re very much a team and there’s a real sense of a bond between us.” That sense of community was particularly important when “working at a BigLaw firm, as it can be very stressful. If you’re still enjoying working with people during a really long day because of their company, then that’s a good sign – I don’t think a lot of my friends at other firms can say that!”
“...things have normalized a bit after the markets went out of this world in 2021.”
Hours & Compensation
Billable hours: no requirement
There may be no billable requirement, but “the hours are long,” a litigator pointed out. “On average I’m putting in 50 to 60 hours a week, although there have been some months where it’s in the 40 to 45 range.” Finance associates were glad to tell us that “things have normalized a bit after the markets went out of this world in 2021,” but their hours were still hovering around that 50 to 60-hour mark. One of the good things about capital markets work is that “if you’re doing an IPO or a publicly registered deal then there are more set timelines so you can predict when you’ll be busy, unlike M&A when it can all happen over a weekend!”
Associates don’t have to hit a certain number of billables to receive a lockstep bonus, which could be a blessing or a curse depending on perspective: “It can be hard in that you might worry you’re not meeting a target or whatever that may mean.” Most interviewees were happy with the setup though and were reassured by Davis Polk’s reputation as a market salary trendsetter alongside Milbank and Cravath. With compensation receiving a thumbs-up (especially when it came to the fairness and transparency of bonus allocation), one area that was highlighted as an area for improvement was the overall benefits package.
“We are definitely talking about diversity a lot more.”
There’s no cap on how much pro bono associates can do and they are free to exercise their own judgment on how much to take on. “There are a ton of opportunities, and most people are involved in something,” a source told us. Two dedicated pro bono counsel are on hand to help associates find the matters they would like to work on. This interviewee commented on the firm’s involvement with The New York Times Afghan Asylum Project, where “we were helping Afghans who helped during the war get asylum to the US granted.” Others mentioned assisting organizations such as Human Rights First – which has focused on areas such as hate crime and ending torture – and representing victims of domestic violence. Juniors did find that there was a good attitude from the top that encouraged pro bono: “Sometimes you’ll have a deadline on a pro bono matter and they will give you time to do it!”
Pro bono hours
- For all (US) attorneys: 47,920
- Average per (US) attorney: 50
Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
“I don’t think the partnership is particularly diverse in terms of gender,” one source reflected, although another commented that “they are putting effort into making new female partners and recently hired a new lateral female partner in my group.” In addition, “the finance group seems to be more balanced in terms of gender, but overall, there’s definitely more women and people of color in the associate classes. It’s clear that there are trying, and they recently promoted women of color, but the firm’s not top of the class on this front.” Sources did highlight the efforts of “our dedicated DE&I team, which runs programs and handles outreach,” and felt that “we are definitely talking about diversity a lot more.” The firm’s attitude toward parental leave was also praised, with interviewees who had taken it explaining that they “took the whole time I was given and felt no pressure to come back early. I felt really supported.”
“The level of service that we provide in New York is expected worldwide.”
Strategy & Future
“We just heard yesterday that they’re closing the Paris office because they want to focus on English law,” an associate informed us. “They’re not looking to open new offices and instead want to focus on being really strong in particular locations.” Another associate agreed: “The firm is very conservative in terms of its geographic footprint. The growth will be organic and based on what we do well. The level of service that we provide in New York is expected worldwide, and that’s very hard to achieve – we wouldn’t, for example, go and buy a firm if it didn’t meet the same standard and our culture didn’t permeate it.”
The first stage: recruitment on and off campus
Davis Polk attends over 20 law school events and off-campus job fairs. How many students the firm's interviewers speak to varies by school – at some it's around 20, while at others they can see more than 150. The firm also accepts write-in applications from those who can't reach a recruitment event.
Partners conduct the majority of interviews – at OCIs they'll often be alumni of the law school. Questions tend to focus on candidates' resumes, and interviewers will drill down on your academic accomplishments and work experience. To excel, make it clear that you're enthusiastic about becoming involved in Davis Polk's practice, that you'll fit in as part of the team, and have something to bring to the table.
Top tips: “The interviewers I had were all very different, but the one piece of advice I'd give regardless is to be prepared because there's plenty of information about the firm out there. Nobody would expect you to have substantive knowledge about a particular practice but do your homework so you can ask those second-layer questions.”
“If you're applying to a smaller office, do your research in advance about the specializations in that location and have a reason why you want to work there in particular.”
“One thing that struck me was how informal the OCI was – since your credentials get you in the door, it’s really all about the conversation during the interview.”
Those who make it to the callback stage meet four attorneys for interviews. If there's a practice area you've taken a fancy to, the firm can match you up with relevant interviewers. The content of these interviews isn't super different from that covered in the OCIs – the difference involves drilling down into more detail about what's on your resume and why Davis Polk is the place for you. In this environment, be aware that you are being assessed at all times. That doesn't mean you should panic about becoming the model lawyer; just remember to treat everyone as you'd want to be treated and stay professional throughout your time at the firm.
“I'm looking for someone who I can trust to do the work, who seems intellectual and has a record for challenging themselves, and is personable and easy to talk to.”
Each summer, two to three junior associates (typically from corporate and litigation) take a break from their work and are asked to be the firm’s full-time summer coordinators (devoting their full time and attention to the program). Their job is to link summer associates with work that will interest them, so make the most of this opportunity to find something that you'd like to sample. It's a very 'choose your own adventure'-style program, as there are no formal practice group rotations or set work assignments, so the Davis Polk world is your oyster.
There are also more than 20 training sessions that give summers an overview of Davis Polk's practice areas and an idea of what business development entails. Some summers jet off to an overseas office for four weeks; it's also possible to split your time between New York and one of the firm's other US offices in Northern California or Washington DC.
Notable summer events: pizza making classes, Broadway shows, fitness classes, wine tastings, sporting events, advance film screenings and cooking classes.
“Be open to trying different things; it's quite difficult in law school to really know what you want to do because there's such a range of subjects.”
“I had a friend who really wanted to see a deposition, so they asked the coordinator and they made sure he got to see one. People who ask get the most out of the program.”
It's never too early to get started. 1L law firm events are a great opportunity to get to know Davis Polk before the rush of recruitment really kicks off.
Interview with chair and managing partner Neil Barr
Chambers Associate: Describe the firm’s market position in three sentences or less?
Neil Barr: Our firm is at the top of the market. Davis Polk is structured to thrive across business cycles, and even amidst recent economic uncertainty, demand for our services is notably high. These challenging times have truly amplified our strengths as a firm.
CA: What do you believe is the key to running a successful law firm in one of the most competitive legal markets in the world?
NB: I am intensely focused on both our people and our clients.
At Davis Polk, I strongly believe that our people are our most important asset and greatest competitive advantage. Not only are our lawyers and business services professionals brilliant, forward-thinking and collaborative, they’re also down-to-earth, friendly, good people. I am proud that in addition to our culture being centered on excellence and innovation, it is also warm and inclusive. And when you join our firm, we welcome you as a member of the Davis Polk community and you will start making a difference, from day one.
We also have a relentless and team-oriented focus on our clients and their outcomes. This client-centric posture is another part of what makes our institution so special – we trust and support one another, work selflessly in teams and promote the firm, not ourselves, all in service of our clients.
Transparency is also critical. In 2020, I started regularly holding firmwide town halls, during which I discussed everything from business levels to my family’s new puppy. I would always include ample time for questions in each meeting, to further emphasize our open lines of communication. This became such a valuable forum for the firm community that I’ve continued holding them. With current market conditions still quite uncertain, I recently held a town hall focused on reaffirming to all of our employees that we are committed to a forward-leaning, optimistic orientation. Rather than pulling back because of short-term issues, we will continue to invest in ourselves – our firm and people – so that we can grow and maintain our standing as the best law firm in the dimensions that matter to us. This level of transparency is important to me, and it is also so critical to the way we run the firm.
All of that said, the bottom line is that success does not just happen. At Davis Polk, we come to work every day and try to earn our place in the industry.
CA: What advantages do you believe Davis Polk has over its competitors?
NB: We uniquely marry best in class legal talent with a consistent, intense focus on teamwork. This combination sets us apart in the industry. We continue to deliver exceptional client outcomes against the backdrop of an uncertain environment, and this is a testament to our guiding values of collaboration and excellence. If you look at what we have accomplished recently in M&A, capital markets, finance, restructuring, litigation – these are inherently team-oriented practices, and they have been huge drivers of our success. This was on display again in our response to the recent bank crisis, when we swiftly built teams of industry-leading lawyers from across the firm to help numerous clients navigate the situation as it unfolded and evolved – and ultimately played a role in every key event along the way.
This level of teamwork is only possible because we have exceptional people. The spirit of our people and our dedication to our clients, no matter the circumstance, is what makes us successful. We operate in a way that makes our institution unique.
CA: What have you learned since you became managing partner?
NB: The last two years have demonstrated exactly what makes Davis Polk special. Our people have displayed excellence across the board – in work ethic, skill, resilience, and willingness to go above and beyond, not only for our clients but also for each other – and the firm’s strategic structure has again proved to be incredibly valuable. Irrespective of economic cycles, business levels have remained high and we are active and engaged, bringing our clients value no matter what challenges they face.
We have learned a lot about what can work in a remote environment, but being back together in the office on a consistent basis most recently has highlighted how fantastic our firm culture is and how successful we are when we collaborate in-person. Our business is built on personal relationships – with each other and with our clients. Fully remote work hindered the mentorship, training and professional development that are hallmarks of the Davis Polk professional experience.
In terms of our firm’s structure, we have certainly navigated choppy waters over the past few years – both macroeconomic and geopolitical – but it’s ok, because we’ve been here before and this is a time when a firm like ours overperforms. Davis Polk is a winning firm in most environments, and particularly, in ones like this.
CA: Are there other developments in the firm’s immediate future you think our readers should be aware about?
NB: As a firm, we continue to be focused on strategic growth. That said, we do not want to be all things for all clients. We focus on providing high-impact, high-margin legal services in our four large transactional practices (capital markets, finance, M&A, restructuring), plus litigation, plus the balance of what we refer to as our high-impact practices – real estate, regulatory and tax, for example. Our focus is on driving value to our clients within those disciplines.
While we are and will continue to be a US-centric firm, it is very important that we have a global presence where we do, in the key business and financial centers. To that end, we are currently launching a European antitrust practice in Brussels. This is an extremely exciting strategic move for the firm that allows us to tap into extensions of opportunities here in the US for competition mandates that have an EU component as well as European competition issues on a stand-alone basis. This office will also support the firm’s practice outside the US, for which a European competition angle is important.
CA:What is the greatest challenge facing the firm in the next decade? How about the legal market more generally?
NB: As we continue to see a business environment with unprecedented volatility, and with new competitive pressures emerging – including with respect to advancements in technology and artificial intelligence – what it takes to be successful in the next 10 years is very different than what it took over the last 10 years. Firms like Davis Polk need to be nimble, client-oriented and go to areas of the legal market that cannot be commodified.
CA: Does the firm have any set targets with regards to diversity?
NB: Advancing diversity, equity and inclusion has been and continues to be a top priority for me personally and for our firm. We are committed to ensuring that everything from recruiting to career development is done in an equitable, inclusive way. I am proud to say that our 2022 summer associate class was among the most diverse we’ve ever had – 53% of our summers were women and 59% were racially/ethnically diverse and/or LGBTQ+. We also achieved Mansfield Rule 5.0 certification with the Diversity Lab.
The firm’s outstanding Diversity, Equity & Inclusion team has been instrumental in taking our DEI efforts to the next level. The team, led by our Chief DEI Officer Francine Rosado-Cruz, has been especially influential in educating our community, establishing for example, a robust DEI training curriculum. Francine also led the formation of our partnership with the NeuroLeadership Institute to use social psychology, behavioral psychology and neuropsychology to improve our interactions.
I am also excited to share that we are currently rolling out a DEI-oriented affinity group mentorship program. This new effort is driven by feedback that members of these groups would really benefit from structured mentorship from more senior lawyers within their diverse dimensions. It will be available to all first- and second-year associates through our affinity groups, and will really help to coordinate their transition into the practice of law. I think it’s a very important, and hopefully impactful, addition to our program at Davis Polk.
As proud as we are of the accomplishments we have made, we know there is much more work to do. We are committed to effecting real changes that will have a positive impact not only within our firm, but also on our clients and our communities.
Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP
450 Lexington Avenue,
Main areas of work
Antitrust & Competition, Capital Markets, Civil Litigation, Data Privacy & Cybersecurity, Derivatives & Structured Products, Environmental, ESG, Executive Compensation, Finance, Financial Institutions, Investment Management, IP, Tech & Commercial Transactions, IP Litigation, Liability Management & Special Opportunities, Mergers & Acquisitions, Private Equity, Public Company Advisory, Real Estate, Restructuring, Tax, Trusts & Estates and White Collar Defense & Investigations.
Davis Polk is one of the world’s preeminent law firms, advising industry-leading companies and financial institutions on their most challenging legal and business matters. The firm’s top-flight capabilities are grounded in a distinguished history of 170 years, and its global, forward-looking orientation is supported by offices strategically located in the world’s key financial centers and political capitals. More than 1,000 lawyers collaborate seamlessly across practice groups and geographies to provide clients with exceptional service, sophisticated advice and creative, practical solutions.
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 selected 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.
Recruitment website: davispolk.com/careers
This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2023
- Capital Markets: Debt & Equity (Band 1)
- Intellectual Property: Patent Litigation (Band 5)
California: San Francisco, Silicon Valley & Surro
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 4)
District of Columbia
- Antitrust (Band 4)
- Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 4)
- Antitrust (Band 1)
- Banking & Finance (Band 1)
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring: The Elite (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 1)
- Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 1)
- Environment: Mainly Transactional (Band 1)
- Litigation: General Commercial: The Elite (Band 2)
- Litigation: Securities (Band 1)
- Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations: The Elite (Band 1)
- Private Equity: Buyouts (Band 3)
- Real Estate: Mainly Corporate & Finance (Band 5)
- Real Estate: Mainly Dirt (Band 4)
- Tax (Band 1)
- Technology (Band 3)
USA - Nationwide
- Antitrust (Band 2)
- Antitrust: Cartel (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance (Band 1)
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring: The Elite (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Convertible Debt (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Equity: Issuer Counsel (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Equity: Manager Counsel (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: High-Yield Debt (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Issuer Counsel (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Manager Counsel (Band 1)
- Capital Markets: Structured Products (Band 1)
- Corporate Crime & Investigations: The Elite (Band 2)
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 1)
- Derivatives (Band 1)
- Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 2)
- Environment: Mainly Transactional (Band 2)
- 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)
- Hedge Funds (Band 3)
- International Trade: CFIUS Experts (Band 3)
- International Trade: Export Controls & Economic Sanctions: The Elite (Band 3)
- Investment Funds: Regulatory & Compliance (Band 3)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 4)
- Private Equity: Fund Formation (Band 3)
- Registered Funds (Band 4)
- Securities: Litigation (Band 1)
- Securities: Regulation: Advisory (Band 1)
- Securities: Regulation: Enforcement (Band 2)
- SPACs (Band 2)
- Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 1)