Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP - The Inside View

If it’s “excellence in the world of finance” you’re after then take a bite out of this Big Apple big hitter.

You’re probably familiar with the salary wars that have dominated the legal headlines in recent times, with firms making salary-topping announcements and upping the game for their competitors. One such firm that threw its hat in the ring was Davis Polk, raising salaries for all associates qualified for four or more years just one day after Milbank had made an announcement of its own. The market was shaken: phones ringing off the hook, calculators flying across offices… Well, not really, but it was certainly making headlines across the industry. Managing partner and firm chair, Neil Barr, tells us: “Our foremost priority is that our associates know we appreciate them. Our lawyers are not only uniquely talented and dedicated, but they are working exceedingly hard. They should be compensated accordingly.”


At the very least, it's a clear-cut sign of good financial health. With profit per partner reaching more than $6 million in 2020, the firm became the second biggest law firm by that measure in the US. But despite what these numbers might suggest, this isn’t a firm that’s all about the billable hour: “This was the one firm I interviewed at where I felt they cared about more than how many hours you could bill. People care about each other outside the firm’s wall, that’s why I came here.”


The majority of juniors joined the New York HQ, with the DC and California bases taking a handful each. Unsurprisingly, another attractive draw for potential associates was the firm’s prestige: “This is the best firm in New York,” declared one source confidently. Our sister guide, Chambers USA, has awarded the firm nine top-tier rankings in the Big Apple alone, for everything from antitrust and litigation to corporate/M&A and bankruptcy. All in all, the firm has earned 40 rankings across New York, DC, California and nationwide.


The Work

Expertise in such a high number of practices was a major motivating factor for interviewees: “The flexibility to work in different practice areas, but also to specialize immediately was critical.” All new associates choose to join either the corporate, litigation or tax groups. The corporate folks do two six-month rotations in groups like capital markets and finance, while litigators work across all the contentious subgroups until fourth year, when they pick a specialty. Other practice areas and subgroups that housed juniors included real estate, financial institutions, and investment management. Regardless of the practice area, professional development coordinators are on hand to dish out the different matters: “99% of your work in your first year comes from the coordinator, who also listens to your interests; come second year you can request to work with certain people and they can ask to work with you.”


Congressional investigations is a burgeoning practice at Davis Polk, but civil litigation, white-collar crime, and bankruptcy rule the roost in the firm’s litigation department. Civil matters cover a wide range of areas, including consumer class actions, securities litigation, international arbitration, commercial disputes, and professional liability cases: “The firm has a reputation for representing financial services organizations, but I’ve actually worked with all sorts of companies, from manufacturing to tech clients.” Second-years inevitably held more responsibility than newbies – for instance, our more senior interviewees got pretty involved in depositions: “I’ve second-chaired depositions both on the offensive and defensive side.” Deposition prep work was one source’s favorite part of the job: “That’s where a lot of the legal research on claims and doc review comes together.”


More junior associates acted as “the master of facts – we’re the people closest to the details so if the partner has a question about strategy, they’ll come to us for the particulars.” These folks also helped with witness preparation by drafting cross-examination materials. The most leanly staffed cases saw rookies handle the doc review and create presentations for partners on the relevance of different documents. Although this department received the lowest scores in our survey for client contact, sources felt “the matters are incredibly interesting and the partners are very friendly. I couldn’t be happier in my group.”


Litigation clients: Walmart, Morgan Stanley, and Dean Foods. Achieved the dismissal of an anti-terrorism lawsuit against its client, AstraZeneca (and other pharmaceutical and medical device companies) for allegedly aiding terrorist attacks in Iraq.


Folks in capital markets reported getting more client contact than their counterparts in litigation. Associates typically focused on underwriter-side work; some felt it was a bit of a narrow focus “and misses the sizable M&A portion of the market.” Nonetheless, the firm is equally proficient in equity and debt capital markets, as well as derivatives, high-yield products and other niches. Juniors typically help out with bond deals, IPOs and follow-on offerings: “We get to work on lots of different types of deals.” Sources praised the group for awarding them responsibility early on, “which is good in terms of getting experience; the firm doesn’t have as many mid-levels so by second year you’re expected to work as if you’re more senior than you actually are. I’m often the one running deals.” Another interviewee added: “This is an incredible group to be in because the work is so high-caliber.” As such, associates thought there was certainly an opportunity to develop their careers in this group.


“This is an incredible group to be in because the work is so high-caliber.”

As is the case in most capital markets groups, juniors found that “the work is demanding and time-intensive, with unpredictable hours.” One elaborated: “I can think I’m free all afternoon then something will come in last-minute and I have to work until midnight.” The good news is that “they do try to make sure we’re doing okay and not being completely destroyed.”


Capital marketsclients: Santander, Gilead Sciences, J.P. Morgan. Advised the underwriters in connection with a $3 billion offering of notes by Home Depot.


Hours and Compensation

Billable hours: no requirement


The working hours at Davis Polk are bang on market average, with associates putting in around 55 hours a week. Of course, there are practice area variations: litigators worked longer days, working out at around 60 hours a week, while IP folk clocked slightly fewer hours than the average. Just over half of our interviewees thought the workload was manageable; others had learned from past mistakes: “I once had several cases in my docket that were all at a lull, so I took a couple more on. Then they all picked back up at the same time, so I asked our professional development coordinator to help me figure out how to manage it all.”


The firm certainly hasn’t been short of work, to the point where one source noticed “when I feel down at work it’s because I’m so busy, although there’s always someone billing more than you.” Luckily, associates aren’t burning the midnight oil doing admin work: “We have truly excellent support staff who are available 24/7, so there’s always someone to help with the reference library at 3am.”


In addition to the market-leading salary, all associates automatically get an end-of-year bonus, plus two special COVID-19 bonuses this year. Both compensation and bonuses are lockstep, “which means we can get to know each other rather than compete with each other. If people stay up late to finish work, it’s not to beat the person working next to them.” This type of financial structure is especially important when it comes to DE&I, as it “prevents the possibility of bias.”


“When I accepted my offer, I did so knowing the affinity groups here are part of the firm’s fabric.”

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

One associate who was initially concerned that their identity would affect their relationships at a BigLaw firm were relieved to find “I never think about my race or gender at work.” Another source added: “When I accepted my offer, I did so knowing the affinity groups here are part of the firm’s fabric.” Recent improvements in management’s engagement with these groups include quarterly meetings between managing partner Neil Barr and the individual diversity groups. As far as initiatives go, interviewees felt “the firm does what it can. We’ve had lots of talks about the BLM movement and Asian hate crime.”


Naturally, different practice groups have different levels of diversity: “Lots of the partners in capital markets are LGBTQ. I was also really impressed with the number of diverse partners in finance – it’s something you don’t often see in that sector.” Overall, sources reckoned diversity among partnership is higher than other firms: around a third of partners elected in the latest cycle were diverse individuals, and overall, Davis Polk places in the top quartile of firms for its representation of ethnically diverse partners.


Career Development and Culture

Roughly one third of those surveyed thought partnership was achievable at Davis Polk, but the most common answer for how long associates intended to stay at the firm was for two to five more years. Subsequently, retention was cited as a slight issue by several sources.A better work/life balance and improved training were the most common answers associates gave when asked what would improve their job satisfaction. While some felt “we have a scattered form of self-training that leads to incremental development,” others reckoned the firm is “very good if you tell them a skill set you want to develop – they’ll find you that work.”


Each newbie is assigned an associate mentor to guide them through first year, then a partner mentor from second year onwards: “They don’t assign the partners until second year so that we can try different work and give input about which partners we want to mentor us.” While some felt associate mentors could have done with a bit more training, juniors had a lot of praise for partner mentors: “During the pandemic, my mentor encouraged me to pick up the phone and ask questions.” Over lockdown, every junior associate was also paired with a virtual office mate: “I spoke with mine almost every day. Kindness and good humor to first-years has been even more important than I anticipated during the pandemic.” When the office opens up fully again, we heard that the firm is planning to utilize a health and wellness center that works in the same building.


"There’s very much a ‘we’ mindset here."

Thinking about their relationships with their colleagues, sources explained: “There’s very much a ‘we’ mindset here.” Despite the inherent stresses that come with a career in BigLaw, interviewees were keen to emphasize that “people are kind and respectful to one another, even when under pressure.”


Pro Bono

Pro bono was a big highlight of working at Davis Polk: pretty much every associate we surveyed thought the work was meaningful and agreed the firm is committed to pro bono. “It’s treated the same as billable work and we can use the same resources for both pro bono and billable matters.” Davis Polk hands out awards to those who have been most committed to pro bono and donates a grant to the winner’s chosen organization.

Some thought the lack of a billing target meant “there’s no incentive to do it because people don’t need to push up their hours,” but others reckoned “having no minimum billable requirement means pro bono doesn’t detract from paying-client work.” In fact, multiple senior associates have developed specialist pro bono practices. As for our interviewees, folks had assisted education bodies with corporate governance, and assessed litigation risks for nonprofits. Davis Polk also runs an immigration hotline, and partners with the Cari Club – a nonprofit organization that helps associates get board places with other nonprofits. 


Pro bono hours

  • For all US offices: undisclosed
  • Average per US attorney: undisclosed


Strategy & Future

Davis Polk isn’t the sort of firm to be “all things to all clients,” explains Neil Barr. Instead, the firm is focussed on “providing high-impact, high-margin legal services in our four large transactional practices - capital markets, finance, M&A, restructuring.” Neil Barr also made it clear “We are a US-centric firm, so I don’t anticipate major geographical changes on the immediate horizon. It is very important that we have a global presence where we do, in the key business and financial centers.”

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 four attorneysfor 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.  

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. 

Interview with Neil Barr, Chair and Managing Partner of Davis Polk

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 demand for our services is higher than ever. Recent business activity has lined up very well with where we have invested our resources – our strengths have been truly amplified.

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 personnel 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. Every month or two since March 2020, I have held a firmwide Town Hall, where I discuss everything from business levels to my family’s new puppy. I very intentionally include ample time for questions in each meeting, to further emphasize open lines of communication and transparency with the entire firm.

But 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 again delivered exceptional client outcomes last year, again 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 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: Why did the firm look to become a compensation leader in the market?

NB: Our foremost priority is that our associates know we appreciate them. Our lawyers are not only uniquely talented and dedicated, but they are working exceedingly hard. They should be compensated accordingly.

CA: What have you learned over the last two years?

NB: The last two years have demonstrated exactly what makes Davis Polk special. Our community has 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.

We have learned a lot about what can work in a remote environment. Our lawyers met high demands with tenacity and upheld our steadfast commitment to client service without missing a beat.

At the end of the day, though, 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.

Our offices are open again, and our priority now is getting back to seeing each other in person, and supporting and training our new lawyers.

CA: Are there other developments in the firm’s immediate future you think our readers should be aware about? Any office moves/upgrades? Significant lateral hires/ practice growth?

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. Geographically, I do not anticipate major changes on the immediate horizon – we are a U.S.-centric firm, and it is very important that we have a global presence where we do, in the key business and financial centers.

And while we will continue to look to the lateral market when we see a strategic opportunity, the majority of our partners will be homegrown. Our 2021 partner class promoted nine associates and counsel from nearly as many practice areas, and in 2020, we elevated eight lawyers across six practice areas. Many of these colleagues began their careers here as summer associates.

We are also excited about the new Davis Polk 2L Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Fellowship for rising 2L students (Class of 2024), which looks to recognize students who have demonstrated a commitment to advancing DEI in the legal profession and their communities.

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 alternative legal service providers – 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 2021 summer associate class was the most diverse we’ve ever had – 55% of our summers were women and 60% were racially/ethnically diverse or LGBTQ+.  And I am pleased that we are partnering this year with Diversity Lab in seeking Mansfield Rule 5.0 certification.

In 2019, we brought on Francine Rosado-Cruz as Davis Polk’s first Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer. Francine has been instrumental in taking our DEI efforts to the next level. She has been especially influential in educating our community, establishing for example, a robust DEI training curriculum. She also led the formation of our partnership with the NeuroLeadership Institute to use social psychology, behavioral psychology and neuropsychology to improve our interactions.

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,
New York,
NY 10017
Website www.davispolk.com

  • Head Office: New York, NY
  • Number of domestic offices: 3
  • Number of international offices: 6
  • Lawyers (US): 810
  • Contacts 
  • Main recruitment contact: Cristóbal V. Modesto (cristobal.modesto@davispolk.com)
  • Hiring Partners: Lara Samet Buchwald and Pritesh Shah 
  • Recruitment details 
  • Clerking policy: Yes
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2022: 156 (1Ls - 22, 2Ls - 134)
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2022 split by office: New York = 129 (1Ls - 16, 2Ls - 113) NorCal = 17 (1Ls - 5, 2Ls - 12) DC = 9 (1Ls - 1, 2Ls - 8) Asia = 1 (2Ls - 1)
  • Summer salary 2022: 1Ls: $4,134.62/week 2Ls: $4,134.62/week
  • Split summers offered? Yes
  • Can summers spend time in an overseas office? Yes 

Main areas of work
Antitrust and competition, capital markets, civil litigation, data privacy and cybersecurity, derivatives and structured products, environmental, ESG, executive compensation, finance, financial institutions, investment management, IP and tech transactions, mergers and acquisitions, private equity, real estate, restructuring, tax, trusts and estates, and white collar defense and investigations.

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 us for their most challenging legal and business matters. The firm’s top-flight capabilities are grounded in a distinguished history of 170 years, and our global, forward-looking focus 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 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: davispolk.com/careers
LinkedIn: linkedin.com/company/davis-polk-&-wardwell-llp

This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2022

Ranked Departments

    • Capital Markets: Debt & Equity (Band 1)
    • Intellectual Property: Patent Litigation (Band 5)
    • Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 4)
    • 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)
    • 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)

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