Covington & Burling LLP - True Picture

An interest in life sciences and tech wouldn't go amiss at DC-founded Covington's London office.

Designer genes

An eclectic mix of developments dotted Covington's 2015. It bolstered its tech-y rep by launching its very own international arbitration app; strengthened its disputes practice by nabbing King & Wood Malleson's litigation head; and proved it was no fuddy-duddy by becoming patron of Central Saint Martins' MA fashion course in London. With 2016 came Brexit, but Covington's not worried: with its sterling regulatory and public affairs practices, the firm expects the referendum result to yield plenty of new opportunities.  

Giving students the low-down on the fashion industry's legal issues isn't all that Covington's London lawyers do, of course. The firm's only UK base is well known for its life sciences practice, which earns top-spot recognition in Chambers UK for both its transactional and regulatory strands. Lawyers here have been advising biotech company Illumina on a project to decode 100,000 human genomes, and the fruits of their labour are already beginning to help detect and treat illnesses.

“People often assume that we're just a life sciences firm,” one source told us, “but we do work for other clients in a mix of industries.” A fair number are drawn from the tech and energy spheres, but you're also likely to encounter some recognisable names from the worlds of banking, food and beverages, sport and fashion. “We do a lot of commercial work in the high-end fashion brand space,” trainees revealed, making those links to CSM's MA course clear. When it comes to other practice area strengths, Covington also scores high points for its public affairs, data protection, insurance and venture capital work in Chambers UK.

“You're not pigeonholed, but if you find an area you like, you can do more of it.”

Sources in the dispute resolution department had sampled a mix of litigation, international arbitration and white-collar crime matters. You'll encounter a fair few pharma-oriented disputes here; one recent case saw the team secure a settlement for two inventors who brought a royalties claim against the company that was marketing their drug. “We also handle a lot of insurance disputes on the policyholder side,” trainees told us, “and in arbitration we do lots of energy work.” Research is core to the trainee experience: “You'll spend a lot of time looking into very obscure points of law, but there's also court filings to attend to and you'll be communicating with court officials either by phone or in person.” Others had done their share of proof-reading, but also got to attend arbitration hearings.

A seat in corporate – the firm's largest department, making up about 25-30% of the headcount in London – is a varied affair, with matters spanning M&A deals, commercial contracts and capital markets work. “You're not pigeonholed, but if you find an area you like, you can do more of it,” one source beamed. There's “a very strong life sciences angle” here too, and the group recently represented California-headquartered Amgen as it acquired a Netherlands-based biotech company, Dezima Pharma, for $300 million at closing. Covington also acted for Bacardi on its acquisition of the Banks Rum brand, as well as charity the English Federation of Disability Sport as it assigned a trade mark to Nike. Trainee tasks generally revolve around the more organisational side of things (filling out forms, preparing board resolutions, taking minutes) but more substantive tasks are available: some of our sources had drafted share purchase agreements, while one trainee recalled being “heavily involved in drafting sections of a prospectus on a $100 million deal.”

"It requires a lot of creative thinking and analysis.”

The life sciences department – which services pharma giants AstraZeneca and Novartis – is divided into regulatory and transactional work. On the latter side, Johnson & Johnson called upon the team as it set about buying antibody specialists XO1. Regulatory matters, on the other hand, see the team deal with “topical issues like the transparency of clinical trial data, as well as the process that surrounds bringing a drug to market.” The complex nature of the work makes it “a hard first seat; it's very different from anything you learn in law school!” Alongside checking commercial agreements and drafting memos, trainees conduct a lot of research into food and drug companies. As the industry is regulated at a European level, “you pick up lots of EU law research skills.” A case in point: Covington recently advised vitamin supplements company Vitabiotics on the EU regulations that govern health and nutrition claims.

The popular tech and media seat comes with “a lot of data protection work.” One source sat here “when a data transfer agreement between the US and the UK was overhauled – we had clients ringing all the time asking how they should deal with it!” A diverse client list includes Facebook, Deutsche Bank, ExxonMobil and Paramount. Interviewees drafted many an update on data protection and cybersecurity developments, but also found themselves writing “memos on topics like drones, disabled access and even public procurement – the tasks are so varied.” All in all, trainees gave this one a major thumbs up: “It's an area where the law is catching up with constant developments, so it requires a lot of creative thinking and analysis.”

To the hip hip hop and you don't stop

You'll find Covington's London digs on the Strand, just a few doors down from the Royal Courts of Justice. The office's comparatively small size and petite trainee cohort (just 12 at the time of our calls) mean “you get a lot of responsibility; trainees often get the first crack at an important piece of work.” This is not, therefore, a place for shrinking violets. “There's no grace period: you have to be confident and enthusiastic, as people give you opportunities from the get-go,” one trainee commented. There are avenues of support though: all trainees are assigned “very approachable supervisors” in their seats, as well as “buddy mentors” in their first year.

We've flagged Covington's intellectual atmosphere in the past, but this year we received mixed responses when we prodded interviewees about it. “I would say there are a lot of people who really enjoy and take pride in what they do, and that might come across as dorky,” one source chuckled. Another felt “there are obviously the nerdy types, but you also have the more dynamic people who you'll put in front of the client, or the chattier people who you want to have a pint with. It takes all sorts.” This is true at the recruitment stage too: while one of our sources had a life sciences degree, others had studied subjects like law and philosophy, and picked up experience working as private tutors or in professional service firms. In short, you don't need to be a science whiz to nab a training contract here.

When things aren't too busy, trainees tend to work between 9am and 7pm. Although all-nighters are rare, staying in the office until the wee hours is not unheard of. When there's a hard deadline coming up, “you'll have consistently late nights for a few weeks – finishing between 10pm and 1am.” Despite some long hours, socialising is not off the cards. Friday drinks at local Daly's Wine Bar, as well as more formal dos including a Christmas party (held last year at Le Méridien hotel in Piccadilly) give trainees a chance to get together outside the office. For sportier souls, there's also the odd five-a-side football match and a softball team to sign up to. “Departments have socials too,” one source remarked. “Tech and media organised a hip hop dance class at Pineapple Studios last year. It was... interesting.”

All of our interviewees expressed a desire to stay at the firm, and they predicted a fairly smooth qualification process given Covington's historically high retention rates. Second-years can expect to be informed as to where available jobs are by late April/early May. If more than one person goes for the same position, candidates are interviewed. On the whole, we're told it's not an overly formal process: “Trainees just go and speak to people in the departments they're interested in.” In 2016, Covington posted a 100% retention rate for the second year in a row, and retained all seven of its qualifiers.

Some of our interviewees got to work on Covington's app: The Arbitration Handbook. “I should clarify that it's NOT a dating app for arbitration lawyers,” joked one source. It compiles resources relating to arbitral rules, treaties and national laws across the globe.

How to get a Covington & Burling training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 31 January 2017

Training contract deadline (2017): 17 July 2017

Vacation scheme 

“Our summer schemes are a great way for students to get a ‘taster’ of the firm and decide if a career in law is for them,” says Covington & Burling's HR officer Alexandra Reddington. “We operate the same candidate selection criteria for the vacation schemes as we do for training contract places, and many trainees have been recruited after spending time with us during the summer.”

Each year Covington offers up to ten summer placements on each of its two-week programmes. After sifting through some 400 or so applications, the firm shortlists around 40 candidates for a 45-minute interview with two senior lawyers. In addition, there's a tour of the office and an informal lunch, giving candidates plenty of opportunities to network and demonstrate why they should be offered a place on the scheme.

“Vac scheme participants sit with a senior lawyer and will be given as much hands-on experience as possible,” Reddington tells us. Students spend each of their two weeks in a different practice area, and there are also opportunities to get involved in a research project, participate in group activities and attend a series of presentations. “We also organize a number of social events so that students can have some fun and get to know us,” she adds.

Assessment days  

Covington typically attracts around 450 direct training contract applications. Around 40 make it through to a first-round interview with senior lawyers. Demonstrating you're a “clear communicator” is a must at this stage, Reddington informs us, as is “an ability to express commercial awareness.”

Around 25 candidates (note, this pool includes vac schemers) progress to a half-day assessment centre, which involves a written task and a discussion exercise, plus an interview with two lawyers. In years past candidates have been asked some pretty odd questions – for example, 'How would you describe your favourite sport to an alien?' – so be prepared to think on your feet.

Ideal candidates 

The firm requires new recruits to have strong grades at A level and a 2:1 degree. Its current trainees hold a wide variety of degree subjects between them, from law to history to sciences, and told us “we've all got different personalities and backgrounds, but one thing everybody has in common is a passion for whatever they've studied.”

Training principal Natalie Walter informs us that alongside an ability to communicate with clients, the firm looks for people who are “willing to hit the ground running.” Walter advises applicants to boost their credentials by undertaking legal work experience “as early as possible.”

Pharmaceutical regulation

A closer look at pharmaceutical regulation and Covington & Burling's life sciences work.

Covington & Burling LLP

265 Strand,

  • Total trainees 
  • 2010: 14
  • 2011: 13
  • 2012: 13
  • 2013: 14
  • 2014: 14
  • 2015: 12
  • 2016: 11
  • *denotes worldwide figures
  • Contact Graduate recruitment team, 020 7067 2000
  • Method of application Online application form, see website
  • Selection procedure First and second interview
  • Closing date for 2019 17 July 2017
  • Training contracts pa 7
  • Required degree grade 2:1
  • Training salary 
  • First year: £43,000
  • Second year: £47,000
  • Holiday entitlement 25 days
  • Post-qualification salary currently £95,000 pa
  • Overseas offices Beijing, Brussels, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, Silicon Valley, Washington

Firm profile

Covington & Burling LLP was founded in Washington DC nearly a century ago. Today, the firm has over 900 lawyers globally across offices in Beijing, Brussels, London, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, Silicon Valley and Washington DC. Covington’s London office, overlooking the Royal Courts of Justice, was established over 25 years ago. At Covington, you will have an opportunity to work on cutting-edge deals for international and UK corporates such as Microsoft, Astra Zeneca and Facebook, Fortune 100 businesses and leading technology, life sciences and media companies. We offer services across a wide range of practice areas, advising clients on their most challenging and complex matters. Most of the work has an international element, and all our practice groups operate across borders. Covington has been rated a top-ranked leading law firm in Chambers UK 2016 and appears in The Lawyer Top 30 International Law Firm, as well as Legal Business global 100 surveys.

Main areas of work

Corporate advisory (including capital markets, M&A, finance, private equity, venture capital and funds), commercial litigation, data privacy, employment, financial services, insurance coverage disputes, intellectual property, internal investigations and compliance, international arbitration, life sciences, tax, technology and media. As a trainee you will receive work assignments designed to develop your skills and will get the support and training to excel in your work. In addition, all our lawyers, including trainees, are encouraged to undertake pro bono work.

Trainee profile

We are looking for candidates with consistently high academic results (on target for a 2:1 degree or above and with strong A level results), commercial awareness, strong interpersonal skills and the ability to work well in a team.

Training environment

You will do four six-month seats, rotating between departments. All trainees will undertake a seat in corporate and a seat in dispute resolution. We offer optional seats in employment, life sciences, technology & media and client secondments may also be available. We aim to distinguish our trainee programme by offering a genuine support network which includes assigning associate buddies and undertaking regular performance reviews. We have an excellent record of retaining trainees on qualification and we aim to recruit trainees who are interested in making a long term commitment to the firm.

Vacation placements

Please submit an application form via the online application system, the details of which can be found on our website. Please apply by 17 July 2017. Each year we offer up to ten summer placements on each of our two-week programmes. Participants sit with a senior lawyer and will be given as much hands-on experience as possible. Students will spend each of their two weeks in a different practice area and will be given as much hands-on experience as possible. They will also get involved in a research project, participate in group activities and attend a series of presentations. We also organise a number of social events so that students can have some fun and get to know us.


Successful training contract applicants will receive payment of tuition fees for both the GDL and the LPC, as well as a maintenance grant of up to £8,000. We do not pay fees retrospectively for completed courses.