Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP - The Inside View

Who said there's no place for manners in the competitive pressure cooker of BigLaw? Keeping calm and carrying on is a lawyerly must at Davis Polk, which handles the mightiest of matters.

OLDER than Sherlock Holmes, The New York Times and even the state of California, Davis Polk has one hell of a legacy and the present-day prestige to match. “It certainly did help that the firm is so well known and respected,” juniors said of their decision to climb aboard, “but eventually it came down to connecting with the people and Davis Polk's strength in so many different practice areas.” Indeed, the firm scores close to 20 top-tier rankings in Chambers USA and the same again from Chambers Global. On a nationwide basis, Davis Polk particularly shines when it comes to banking & finance, bankruptcy, capital markets, elite corporate/M&A, financial services regulation, securities and tax work.

As for the people, Davis Polk's prestigious history and reputation for harboring a polite culture tends to attract some of the most ambitious gentlemen and women of BigLaw. Outgoing managing partner Tom Reid tells us that “the biggest guarantee of continued professionalism and respect at Davis Polk comes from focusing on how we recruit people. We've got all the brightest and best candidates to consider so what we look for is how people interact in groups. Recruiting for that quality is paramount.” The New York HQ takes in the vast majority of new joiners, while the smaller Northern California base absorbs a handful and the DC office only brings in 5-10 each year.

The Work

Summer associates have the option to sample work across Davis Polk's corporate, litigation and tax departments. A six-month rotation system means corporate newcomers in New York can try two different areas before settling down; “ultimately it seems everybody is happy with where they landed – I've never heard of anyone needing a third rotation.” Rotators found it “cool to see industries from different perspectives so you can get an understanding of the client's business from all sides.” Contrastingly, corporate juniors in Northern California don't get siloed into subgroups. Work assignment differs slightly by practice group – generally speaking “larger ones have a more formal process, but even the smaller teams have staffing coordinators.” Insiders told us that the coordinators “are very much looking at people's hours and if things get too insane they ask what they can do to reshuffle things.” However, litigators in New York also felt that “there is an expectation to handle a heavy workload and it can take a lot before coordinator intervention comes.”

“If you're capable, there's no artificial ceiling.”

Massive M&A is a corporate staple at Davis Polk: the firm recently acted for Comcast during both its $45.3 billion proposed acquisition of Sky and $65 billion offer for businesses that 21st Century Fox agreed to sell to Disney. “The firm's business model revolves around M&A,” sources relayed, but there are “various other components” to the corporate practice in New York including restructuring, investment management, capital markets, derivatives and structured products, and 'finance.' “A good portion” of the latter involves “vanilla deals with large companies and revolving lines of credit, but in the last few years we've increasingly seen complex acquisition financings and that's now at least half of our work. We represent private equity sponsors who are acquiring a target and seeking finance from various banking institutions.” Finance juniors felt that “you get more substantive work earlier than elsewhere; if you're capable of taking something on there's no artificial ceiling.”

Corporate clients: Comcast, General Electric and Heineken. Recently advised healthcare benefits company Aetna on its $77 billion acquisition by CVS Health.

The financial institutions group (affectionately dubbed 'FIG') is “relatively new but has grown quite a bit and there's a surprising diversity of work within it; a fair amount revolves around regulatory advice, but there's some deal advisory work and also advocacy matters related to regulation.” It's more of its own beast than other smaller teams like executive compensation, which “tends to interact quite a bit with bigger groups.” FIG is another good option for associates seeking a substantive diet: “I've been able to write first drafts of basically everything, and been involved in every step of the process. It's not like in M&A where you'll be doing a lot of due diligence, for example.” Here and in other corporate teams we heard “things are generally leanly staffed; there are some larger projects where you'll be doing less exciting and typical first-year stuff but they're kept to a minimum.”

Finance clients: Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo. Recently represented financial services provider TIAA during its $2.5 billion acquisition of EverBank.

Litigators start their careers as generalists. In New York“you rank practice area preferences when you start, though you get staffed on a variety of matters,” whereas in DC“your options are basically antitrust or white-collar.” The latter area was particularly popular, as was “securities litigation, which is really fascinating because it's so cutting-edge.” Other options in New York include product liability and arbitration. Juniors experienced a “real range” of assignments including document review, memo and brief writing and legal research. Working on investigations meant “attending interviews and calls, and being the go-to person in meetings for the facts.” Most were “pretty happy” with the scope of their responsibilities, and confirmed that “there's a standard progression people follow; you may be at the bottom of the pyramid, but there are times when everyone else is busy and you need to step up.” Grab those chances and you'll be pharaoh in no time...

Litigation clients: PepsiCo, J.P. Morgan and Delta Air Lines. Successfully moved $1 billion dispute brought against chemicals multinational Albemarle from the Supreme Court of New York to arbitration.

Pro Bono

Most litigators we spoke to had done “around 100 hours of pro bono” and found that “people have been supportive of that.” Having acknowledged “it's more difficult on the corporate side,” transactional juniors agreed: “Davis Polk does a good job of bringing us opportunities too.” Family reunification matters have become increasingly common at Davis Polk, alongside more typical immigration cases and the filing of amicus briefs. The current administration's policies have lit a fire under attorneys: “I remember seeing everyone leap to lend a hand when the travel ban started in 2017,” one remembered. “The help we provided came down to things as simple as setting up phones to direct people seeking Legal Aid resources.” Davis Polk as a whole represented asylum clients from 22 countries in 2017.

Pro bono hours

  • For all US offices: 55,841
  • Average per US attorney: 70

Hours & Compensation

There's no official billing target at Davis Polk, and associates “found that to be a genuine stance – there's no shadow target! It really takes the pressure off that what you see is what you get.” Everybody we spoke to appreciated not having the sense of competing with colleagues and “liked that there's no incentive to be inefficient with clients' time. If they need something specific I can bring in the best person for the job.” Juniors still put in the hours, though. Most of the sources we spoke to arrived between 9 and 10am, and headed home around 7pm but continued to do more work once there – at busy times juniors could be working at home until 11pm or sticking around in the office until 2am. “Everyone works hard and the hours will be long, but unlike friends at other firms I'm not concerned about booking vacation,” one shared. There's a formalized structure for work redistribution when attorneys go on vacation – so you won't get a client call halfway up the Eiffel Tower.

“The hours will be long, but unlike friends at other firms I'm not concerned about booking vacation.”

Davis Polk “definitely kept associates in the loop” during the summer 2018 salary increase frenzy. “Certain firms were perceived as dragging their feet, Davis Polk was not among them. We're all compensated well for working hard.” Base salaries and bonuses are tied to a strict lockstep structure that – combined with the lack of a billing target – “acts as a good incentive for the culture. People here aren't cut-throat and are cordial when it comes to sharing work.”


“Intellectual but not overly intense” was how one associate described their colleagues. Good manners are seemingly an entry requirement at Davis Polk, as “consistently there's a professional atmosphere whenever matters get stressful or something goes wrong.” One insider recalled: “I was on a tense call with opposing counsel but our partners had a very cool and calm approach. It was a great learning experience for me because it turned into a positive result for us and our client.” Politeness and respect for tradition underpinned many of our stories, which ultimately produced a sense of closeness between attorneys: “I certainly think of colleagues as friends and we meet outside of work,” one confirmed; “we often get invited to each other's weddings too.”

“There's a professional atmosphere whenever matters get stressful.”

New York is of course the firm's focal point and to some extent sets the tone for elsewhere. “Something I really love is how uniform the culture is,” a Big Apple junior noted. “The offices superficially look the same, but everyone talks in the same respectful way.” Over in DC sources highlighted some slight differences, and commented that “it's probably a bit more laid-back here and we're more flexible about working from home.We do work closely with New York all the time, so we get a taste of their world.” Firm-run socials in New York tend to be practice group-specific, whereas in DC and Northern California it's easier for attorneys to get together as one big happy family. The DC office, for example, hostsmonthly associate happy hours."

Career Development

Davis Polk's training regime is perhaps a little less chill, consisting as it does of “regular meetings: you don't get random lunch sessions. It's very structured – especially for brand-new associates.” The firm's introductory program – Lawyering 101 – is followed every second year by Lawyering 301 and Lawyering 501, completing a series of training sessions which come with “varying degrees of usefulness.” Altogether, there are more than 350 programs available annually, though we wouldn't advise you attend all of them, especially as newbies are also assigned career advisers who are “very focused on your development. They are a good resource because they'll often be from outside your practice group, so you can get a different perspective on things.”

Career advisers are a big help for those with an eye on the partnership track, but equally “Davis Polk isn't the type of place where you need to pretend you want to be here for life.” As you'd expect given the firm's reputation, “exit opportunities are quite good,” with many heading in-house with clients or into government positions, which have been “particularly popular” recently. “If I'm being honest I'm not sure partnership is a realistic goal and I'm not particularly interested in it,” one source confided, though they and others agreed that eager beavers stand a chance, even in more niche practice groups.

Get Hired

“Even in the lunches after callback interviews, you may be the one asking questions but you're still being assessed.” Find out more about recruitment at Davis Polk by clicking on the 'Bonus Features' tab above.

Diversity & Inclusion

Our interviewees praised the firm for hiring a diverse summer class. Getting diverse lawyers in through the door is only the first step, though, and sources were also pleased to see that “the firm's trying to create stronger mentorship schemes so female and diverse associates are less likely to leave.” There's also a new-ish 'Davis Polk Revisited' initiative that aims to bring back attorneys who've left the firm; so far, four women have completed the year-long program. On reflection, “it's important to me that I've never felt like 'X associate from X minority group,'” one source shared. “It will take time for the fruits of these efforts to bloom but the effort is there.”

“I've never felt like 'X associate from X minority group.'”

Strategy & Future

In April 2019 managing partner Tom Reid left the firm to become general counsel at Davis Polk client Comcast (Neil Barr, formerly head of Davis Polk’s Tax Department, took over as Managing Partner). Before his departure he told us: “As clients and technology evolve we're making sure we're dealing with the most sophisticated and complex problems effectively.” He predicts that incremental change is more likely than a supercomputer replacing lawyers any time soon, however. He suggests that “the trick to adapting is not looking for a gigantic market-changing app, but making sure that you don't miss any of the little pixels that are emerging on the screen of change in order not to miss the whole picture. It's a game you've got to play patiently.” And the patience is clearly paying off, as Reid reveals that “coming to the close of 2018 the question is not if this will be a record year, but by how much it will be.” For more from Reid click the 'Bonus Features' tab above to read our full interview.

Get Hired

The first stage: recruitment on and off campus

OCI applicants interviewed: 1,463Interviewees outside OCI: 104

Davis Polk attends more than 30 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 specialisms in that location and have a reason why you want to work there in particular.”


Applicants invited to second stage: 734

Those who make it to the callback stage meet between four and six attorneys for interviews – two of these interviews will typically be more 'laid-back' and occur, for example, over a lunch. 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.

Top tips: 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.”

“Even in the lunches after the main interviews, people are making judgments about you.”

Summer program

Offers: 341Acceptances: 104

Each summer, two juniors (one from corporate and one from litigation) take a break from their work to become full-time summer coordinators. 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. A few lucky 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.

Notable summer events: pizza making classes; Broadway shows; fitness classes; wine tastings; sporting events; advance film screenings; and cocktail receptions.

Top tips: “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.”

And finally...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 managing partner Tom Reid

Chambers Associate: How would you characterize Davis Polk's market position in 2018, heading into 2019?

Tom Reid: We're a very diverse firm compared with some of our peers. Davis Polk is in ten cities across the world practicing four different types of law, and we're present not just in the core areas of M&A and financing but regulatory, asset management etc... We've got a very strong tax department that does a lot of standalone work as well as corporate support matters. In litigation we have an unparalleled white-collar practice and a strong civil litigation team with clients ranging from Wall Street banks to other law firms. Our IP practice is also going from strength to strength, as is our insolvency team.

There's obviously room for improvement in everything we do, but I wouldn't swap our capability in any practice area with that of another firm. The challenges we face aren't because we're losing market share but because the market as a whole is declining. With the financial crisis now behind us litigation has fallen, but it hasn't been a problem for us. Coming to the close of 2018 the question is not if this will be a record year, but by how much it will be.

CA: So what are the main challenges that law firms will have to adapt to in the future?

TR: As clients and technology evolve we're making sure we're dealing with the most sophisticated and complex problems effectively. Clients now have outstanding lawyers in large in-house legal divisions, and the key to success is working with them and finding out not how we replace them, but how we complement them. On our largest projects we're working with other firms and we're expected to know how one another works in order to cooperate for the client's benefit. We're well-positioned for this evolution as we make sure that all our partners are aware that what's best for the client is best for the firm.

Lawyers don't tend to be great business people or technologists, and a lot of thinkpieces are suggesting that technology will render us obsolete. I certainly don't think that will be the case. The trick to adapting is not looking for a gigantic market changing app, but making sure that you don't miss any of the little pixels that are emerging on the screen of change in order not to miss the whole picture. It's a game you've got to play patiently.

CA: Davis Polk has a reputation for professionalism and good manners, which associates emphasized during our interviews. What's the secret to keeping this culture consistent?

TR: That's a great question and one I spend a lot of time considering, because it's quite ephemeral. I've got to do my part and talk from the top, but the biggest guarantee of continued professionalism and respect at Davis Polk comes from focusing on how we recruit people. We've got all the brightest and best candidates to consider so what we look for is how people interact in groups. Recruiting for that quality is paramount.

Another aspect of it goes back to technology – we try to enable remote working for associates via technology stipends and don't insist that they be in the office at all times. Whether it's a family emergency or the cable guy coming over, we take a flexible approach. However, people talk about firms having 'face time requirements' and we unashamedly do. It's not measured, that would be silly, but we believe that another way culture is transferred is by speaking to colleagues and learning through personal interaction. Maybe in 100 years time that'll sound like the approach of a dinosaur but I don't think it will. You can work remotely and be a great lawyer but the more senior you become the more important it is to build an advisory skillset. Anybody who's been to law school and has access to our resources can give technical answers to questions, but we prize ourselves on giving judgments. Those are all about nuance and understanding dynamic situations, and there's no better way to learn that than watching human beings do it in real life. The Davis Polk office is a fun place to be, and if you have to work than why not do it around other people? Associates do their best here when they enjoy the social interaction that comes with being part of the firm.

CA: Why is law an attractive profession for students to join today?

TR: Over the last ten years the financial professions have had to consider existential questions – whether that's about the hammering bankers' reputations took after the financial crisis or the invasive regulation that's now affected life at banks. Private equity too has taken a reputation hit which the legal profession hasn't, as we've been the butt of jokes since the days of Shakespeare at least!

I also think that younger people today are so impressively focused on wanting their workplace to have a higher purpose than the work, and the law can provide that. Getting to solve problems for a client whether they're big money spenders or it's pro bono makes coming to work in law very attractive for the 20-something of today

CA: When did you decide to become a lawyer? Why?

TR: I made the decision in my late teens while living in the UK and was the first lawyer in my family – others had gone into medical or education-oriented careers. Most lawyers think of themselves as trial lawyers first and I wanted to be a barrister until I came to New York and decided I was more suited to transactional work. I can't pinpoint the time I chose that route: it was probably some random Tuesday!

CA: What achievement are you most proud of?

TR: Being managing partner of Davis Polk. It's the finest law firm in the world and to have that responsibility is truly humbling. I feel like I need to earn it every day, and if it remains that daunting then it's something I should continue to be very proud of.

CA: Looking back at your career and the knowledge you've gained, what advice would you give to students who are about to enter the legal industry?

TR: Bear in mind that being a great lawyer is not about graduating top of your class in law school. That's a great start, but it needs to be built upon through years of learning your craft and becoming a technical expert. Then it all changes again over time. While it's important to be technically sound and agile and efficient at working with modern technology, in order to build a long and rewarding career the skill that will help you the most is getting to know your clients as people and getting to know their businesses. Become a trusted adviser so you can approach problems in as well-rounded a way as possible. Keep yourself open to learning about people and their businesses: another reason why law is such a great profession is that there aren't many others where relationships and trust are as important. With the trust of clients, you'll get to know their businesses so well.

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): 803
  • Contacts 
  • Main recruitment contact: Cristobal V Modesto (cristobal.modesto@davispolk.com)
  • Hiring Partners: Maurice Blanco and Dana Seshens
  • Recruitment details 
  • Clerking policy: Yes
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2019: 120 (1Ls: 11, 2Ls: 100, Other: 8)
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2019 split by office: NY:105 (1Ls: 9, 2Ls: 89, Other: 7) Northern California: 9 (1 Ls: 1, 2Ls: 7, Other: 1) Washington DC: 5 (1 Ls:1, 2Ls: 4)
  • Summer salary 2019: 1Ls: $3,700/week 2Ls: $3,700/week
  • Split summers offered? Yes
  • Can summers spend time in an overseas office? Yes

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, restructuring, corporate governance, intellectual property and technology, financial regulation, derivatives, fintech, environmental, executive compensation, real estate, and trusts and estates.

Firm profile
Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP (including its associated entities) is an elite global law firm with world-class practices across the board. Industry-leading companies and global financial institutions know they can rely on Davis Polk for their most challenging legal and business matters. The firm’s top-flight capabilities are grounded in a distinguished history of more than 165 years, and its global, forward-looking focus is supported by 10 offices strategically located in the world’s key financial centers and political capitals. Approximately 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 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.

Social Media:
Recruitment website: careers.davispolk.com
LinkedIn: davis-polk-&-wardwell-llp

This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2019

Ranked Departments

    • Antitrust (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Debt & Equity (Band 1)
    • Antitrust Recognised Practitioner
    • Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 4)
    • 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)
    • 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)
    • Technology & Outsourcing Recognised Practitioner
    • Corporate/M&A (Band 4)
    • Antitrust (Band 2)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 1)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Derivatives (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Equity: Manager Representation (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: High-Yield Products (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Issuer Representation (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Manager Representation (Band 1)
    • Corporate Crime & Investigations (Band 2)
    • Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 1)
    • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 2)
    • FCPA (Band 3)
    • 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 2)
    • Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 1)