Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP - The Inside View

Juniors described DP as "a corporate powerhouse with the premier capital markets practice in the world.” That’s as good a starting point as any…

More than 170 years young, Davis Polk has had plenty of time to establish itself as a leading legal outfit. It’s been working for J.P. Morgan, the USA’s largest bank, for almost that long – Mr. Morgan himself hired the firm for multiple huge projects in the 19th century. Now we’re in the 2020s and Davis Polk remains a big money mainstay, picking up top nationwide Chambers USA rankings for banking and finance, corporate M&A, restructuring, financial services regulation, securities litigation, tax and capital markets. The last of those is a DP specialty: it’s one of just a trio of firms ranked top worldwide by Chambers Global for both debt and equity capital markets.

The firm’s offerings don’t stop there: associates get to bond with partners and are never treated like commodities (we’ll stop the finance puns now). “It was the most relaxed interview I had,” a source told us. “Lawyers can be awkward personality-wise but whether you’re a partner or associate, everyone here is normal.” The New YorkHQ brings in nearly 90% of junior associates. There were 20 in Northern California at the time of our calls, and another nine in DC.

“It was the most relaxed interview I had.”

As for the top end, the firm has begun a transition to a modified lockstep compensation structure for partners, perhaps to address the burgeoning laterals market. Managing partner Neil Barr explains: “We reviewed our process and concluded that we need more flexibility in compensation."

Beyond the headlines you may have heard about Davis Polk's Covid bonuses and market-busting salary increases in summer 2021, we thought it equally important to share that the firm scored highly for its general response to the pandemic. It features in our Covid-19 top 25>

The Work

Juniors have some way to go before they need worry about that. Everybody initially picks between the firm’s three main practice areas, corporate, litigation or tax. Some corporate New York juniorsdo two six-month rotations in groups like capital markets and finance; litigators work as generalists for three years then join a practice group in their fourth. Sources took most of their work from a dedicated staffing coordinator, “though occasionally a partner will pull you onto a matter if you’ve worked on something similar before.” Some chose the firm specifically for its work allocation structure: “Many other firms operate an open-market system that breeds a mean and competitive culture.”

“The great thing about Davis Polk is the culture of working on projects with attorneys from all over the firm.”

First-years “get involved in everything” in capital markets, including IPOs and debt deals. Due diligence is part and parcel of the practice, “but we also get to do first drafts of underwriters' agreements and prospectuses, and handle closing documents.” The firm is equally proficient in equity and debt capital markets, as well as derivatives, high-yield products and other niches. Interviewees suggested they received “incredible responsibility and autonomy. As juniors we have much more extensive partner contact, relative to other practice groups.” One explained further: “I don’t love that we’re expected to do basic things like schedule calls, which paralegals could do; but I have more responsibility than peers at other firms who aren’t even on email chains.” They and others clarified that if you rejoin capital markets after first-year rotations, “you’re not stuck doing menial tasks anymore.”

Capital markets clients: JPMorgan Chase, Comcast, Tyson Foods. Advised ExxonMobil on multiple billion-dollar note offerings, including its first investment-grade deal post-COVID.

The financial institutions group covers bank regulation, fintech, and national security as well as capital markets and M&A in those areas.Attorneys specialize as they become more senior. “The great thing about Davis Polk is the culture of working on projects with attorneys from all over the firm,” one said. “You might be working on what’s labeled a fintech project, but then you’ll end up coordinating with people from various practices.” Banking primarily involves remediation issues, with the firm advising clients on how to improve practices to meet the requirements of a regulator. Securities “involves a good amount of work related to blockchain and fintech. We’ll try to figure out how to get exposure to nontraditional assets, how they interact with traditional securities law and how regulation works in a new, evolving area.”

Finance clients: Citigroup, HSBC, Facebook. Advised Morgan Stanley on its $13 billion acquisition of electronic trading platform E*TRADE.

“In my two and a half years here, I’ve worked on pretty much every possible type of matter.”

Civil litigation, bankruptcies and white-collar are three of the largest work streams in Davis Polk’s litigious practice. “Most juniors are on at least one big case of each type,” a source shared. “In my two and a half years here, I’ve worked on pretty much every type of matter.” Other common flavors include antitrust, securities litigation and international arbitration. The bankruptcy side of the practice “is fast-paced and complex: I learned lots of lawyering skills there.” Sources noticed an uptick in bankruptcies as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The level of responsibility available depends on the staffing structure: “Sometimes it’s just me, a midlevel and a partner so I get lots of hands-on experience; but if it’s a larger matter I’ll do some document review and discovery.” The bread and butter in white-collar defense and investigations is regulatory and criminal investigations, “helping clients navigate the process” of Congressional inquiries, as well as sanctions work.

Litigation clients: AstraZeneca, Walmart, Roche. Secured victory for the Civic Center Community Group Broadway in a case involving the landmarking of the 346 Broadway Clock Tower.


“Some more senior associates take life a bit more seriously,” but our sources generally found the Davis Polk crisis response to be “What can I do to help?” rather than a volley of criticism. “Having everyone’s initial response to a meltdown feature some level of sympathy matters to me.” Interviewees noted that there can be a tendency for firms to “treat juniors like children who’ve never worked before, but here there’s a sense that we’re bringing something to the table even while we’re still learning.” Over in the smaller DC office “the firm pays a lot of attention to recruiting people who fit with our friendly vibe. Even partners you don’t work with will stop by to ask how you’re doing and chat about sports or the news.”

Both New York and DC host regular social events. “The whole office gets together every other Friday for lunch and everyone including big name partners attends,” a junior in the capital declared. 2020’s lockdown period saw Davis Polk host virtual pizza making classes: “We did it on Zoom so that we could see everyone’s dough.” Insiders in Northern California reckoned their office is a bit less sociable. “We’re all friends but people spend their free time with family and friends,” one explained. “I don’t really want to hang out with someone on a Saturday when I’ve been on a deal with them all week.”

“I’ve been very impressed with how seriously people take maternity and paternity leave. DP doesn’t let it derail people’s careers.”

Davis Polkers across the country suggested “the firm is very understanding of associates with young children and ensures we have time to hang out with our families.” Though some were unsure about the feasibility of making partner while bringing up kids, two recent partner promotions in New York’s capital markets team came fresh off the back of parental leave. “I’ve been very impressed with how seriously people take maternity and paternity leave,” an interviewee there said. “DP doesn’t let it derail people’s careers.”

Career Development

Juniors hoped for more well-defined mentorship and professional development during and after the COVID-19 pandemic: “The transition from working in the office to working remotely was handled seamlessly in terms of logistics and keeping us updated, but training could be better.” Some associates who’ve spent the majority of their time at the firm in a virtual setting felt “out at sea” in terms of training. “DP usually does mentorship-based training, which is hard to replicate over the computer.”

Sources praised their mentors for offering virtual lunches and weekly group training, “but that existed pre-pandemic. There haven’t been any supplementary opportunities and I feel like they’re invested in us as a group but not individually.” The firm told us that weekly opportunities have been available, including bringing in outside consultants. Others praised colleagues “who make an effort to grab a coffee and ask if I’m getting the experience I want, but I couldn’t point to anything specific the firm does to aid mentorship.”

Diversity and Inclusion

Associates suggested managing partner Neil Barr “has done a really good job of communicating the importance of D&I from the top down,” but also that Davis Polk “comments more on what’s going on in wider society, rather than take responsibility for its own culture.” The firm has recently hosted panel discussions on diversity with partners talking about their experiences as diverse citizens; and after the George Floyd shooting, New York’s finance group hosted a talk on police brutality in the USA. The firm recently formed a group dedicated to racial injustice pro bono and added racial justice resources to the intranet.

“It’s always discussed in our town halls – but at the end of the day this is still BigLaw.”

Francine Rosado-Cruz came on board as chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer in September 2019. “She’s been helping us gain a better understanding of equality and inclusion issues in the profession and how they manifest here,” Neil Barr explains. “She’s spent a lot of time working with an internal committee to make sure we understand how people view their experience here.” Sources were torn on how well Davis Polk has done on diversity: in Northern California we heard that “many women, especially women of color, leave quickly. DP has firmwide affinity groups, but our office is too small to have more than a couple.” More positively, interviewees thought Davis Polk “cares more about mental health than the average firm. It’s always discussed in our town halls – but at the end of the day this is still BigLaw and if a deal comes in that needs launching within a week, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Hours and Compensation

Billable hours: no requirement

Despite the lack of formal target, our junior sources reckoned 60-hour weeks are the general expectation for second-years and above, and many felt overworked. “Senior associates don't have time to help juniors learn, which causes burnout,” several noted. “We are severely understaffed and overworked and there doesn’t seem to be recognition of that from partners or steps to alleviate these issues.” One unlucky source worked a 90-hour week when their assignments converged; another “worked a number of what were supposed to be vacation days. Now we’re working from home, there’s an expectation that you’re always available.” The firm confirmed to us that there is no hours expectation, and that experiences can differ between practice groups.

“This job can be painful, but we do get breathing space after busy periods.”

It wasn’t all bad news from interviewees: “Everyone from junior to partner level has been nothing but kind and respectful, even during stressful moments. This job can be painful sometimes, but we do get breathing space after busy periods, which is impressive given how busy my group is.” We also rarely hear complaints from Davis Polk associates about compensation, and this year was no exception. “I’m not at all worried about my salary,” one declared, and bonuses are lockstep and automatic for all. “Unlike some peer firms, Davis Polk gave out very large COVID-19 bonuses.” The firm led the market on this trend, and subsequently rained on Milbank's parade by topping that firm's salary rises with their own larger increases in summer 2021. NQs at the firm can now expect to make $202,500... not bad.

Pro Bono

Sources suggested they felt comfortable taking on pro bono without partners pressuring them to focus on billable assignments. The New York HQ and smaller offices both circulate monthly emails outlining newly available matters. “We take on what we want,” a junior explained. “Nobody puts a gun to your head, it’s all voluntary.” As at many big firms, litigators often do the lion’s share of pro bono, “but all practices have access to it.” Some continued working on matters they’d started during the summer program; typical projects include clemency cases and parental rights issues. The passing of New York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act created a new work stream: “We find people who’ve been convicted of domestic violence-related crimes and try to get them re-sentenced using this new law. Our firm is at the cutting edge for this type of work.”

Pro bono hours

  • For all US offices: 41,332
  • Average per US attorney: 104

Strategy & Future

Neil Barr suggests the firm’s immediate priority is “to make sure we all productively weather the COVID-19 storm, and that both the business and our people are safe and sound.” Looking longer-term, the firm’s strategy will involve adapting to a changing legal landscape: “Different competitors are emerging, including alternative legal services providers,” Barr notes. “The criteria to be successful in the next ten years will change: firms like Davis Polk need to be nimble, client-oriented, and go to areas of the legal market that can’t be commodified.”

“The criteria to be successful in the next ten years will change.”

Get Hired

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 between four and six attorneys for interviews – two of these interviews will typically take place over 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.”

Summer program

Each summer, two junior associates (typically one from corporate and one from 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.

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.

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): 806
  • Contacts 
  • Main recruitment contact: Cristobal V Modesto (cristobal.modesto@davispolk.com)
  • Hiring Partners: Dana Seshens and Pritesh Shah
  • Recruitment details 
  • Clerking policy: Yes
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2021: 179 (1Ls - 10, 2Ls - 169)
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2021 split by office: New York = 153 (1Ls - 5, 2Ls - 148) NorCal = 16 (1Ls - 4, 2Ls - 12) DC = 7 (1Ls - 1, 2Ls - 6) Asia = 3 (2Ls - 3)
  • Summer salary 2021: 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, finance, litigation (including antitrust, bankruptcy, general commercial, IP, securities, 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 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 topflight 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, 2021

Ranked Departments

    • Capital Markets: Debt & Equity (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property: Patent Litigation (Band 5)
    • Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 4)
    • Antitrust (Band 5)
    • Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 3)
    • 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)
    • Media & Entertainment: Corporate (Band 3)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts (Band 3)
    • Real Estate: Mainly Dirt (Band 4)
    • Tax (Band 1)
    • Technology (Band 3)
    • Antitrust (Band 2)
    • Antitrust: Cartel (Band 3)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 1)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring: The Elite (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Equity: Issuer Counsel (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Equity: Manager Counsel (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: High-Yield Debt (Band 2)
    • 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 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)
    • Hedge Funds (Band 3)
    • International Trade: CFIUS Experts (Band 3)
    • International Trade: Export Controls & Economic Sanctions (Band 3)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 4)
    • Private Equity: Fund Formation (Band 4)
    • 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)

More about Davis Polk's summer program:


More from Davis Polk:

Visit the firm's careers page for more information.

The work at Davis Polk

Professional Development at Davis Polk

Women at Davis Polk

Diversity and inclusion at Davis Polk