Manhattan-born Davis Polk was once nicknamed 'the Tiffany of law firms', presumably for its classiness and high-value transactions.
Breakfast at Tiffany's
Like a character from an Edith Wharton novel, Davis Polk is an upper-crust New Yorker from the 19th-century whose capital concern is sound investment. What started out as a one-man operation on Wall Street 160 years ago is a now a corporate finance giant with a turnover of around a billion dollars, 900 lawyers and ten offices dotted across the world's financial hubs.
More than anything, Davis Polk is famous for its culture of excellence. Have a gander at the Chambers USA rankings and you'll find the firm collects top-notch rankings in the US for capital markets, banking and finance, corporate M&A, and financial regulatory work (among other areas). The Chambers Global rankings show the firm excelling worldwide in similar practice areas. Over on these balmy shores, Davis Polk set up a London satellite office way back in 1972, but in 2012 it took the plunge and launched an English law practice and then a training contract two years later. Despite the newness of the practice the firm picks up a tidy Chambers UK ranking for capital markets.
In order to bag a place on the firm's almost box-fresh training contract, the chosen few must have a real penchant for finance. “I was always focused on doing transactional work,” proclaimed one source, who also pointed out (as all our interviewees did) that the firm's petite size was a major draw: “I'd done open days and vac schemes at bigger firms, but I preferred the small office environment where you know everyone and where the deal teams are a bit smaller. You get more exposure here to partners and senior solicitors than at a larger firm and you're encouraged to take on as much responsibility as you can handle.”
In keeping with the training contract's focus, seat choices are limited. Everyone completes stints in the office's broad corporate, credit and regulatory departments, and most trainees jet off to the New York office too – as you might expect, our sources weren't exactly kvetching about the prospect of going to the Big Apple for six months. Trainees are assigned their first seat before arriving but subsequently talk through their rotation preferences with the training principal. Given that there's no contentious practice in London, trainees complete a five-day litigation course in the office.
Credit where it's due
Davis Polk's corporate seat covers M&A and general advisory work, plus debt and equity capital markets matters. On the M&A side, trainees can hone their skills on both public and private transactions. The financial institutions and technology sectors are particular strengths here, with clients including J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley and software company Temenos. Trainees recently worked on the closing of Mastercard's £700 million acquisition of UK payments company VocaLink. “I've really enjoyed doing a lot of the drafting,” piped up one interviewee, “whether that's sections of the prospectus or board minutes and other ancillary documents.” Further tasks include “researching queries that come up and having the opportunity to explain the answers to the client.” Another source recounted handling “a blend of very dull due diligence plus looking at warranties and the share purchase agreement” and noted that “the London office is largely a satellite office in terms of the work, which is mostly derived from the New York office, so we tend to be assisting on matters that have English law components rather than advising UK companies.”
“After the Brexit vote we started a newsletter called Lex et Brexit.”
On the capital markets side, trainees are involved in “everything from drafting the disclosure report and the underwriting agreements to due diligence and verification, as well as negotiating the auditor comfort letter.” Another source told us: “I did a lot of research for business development and drafted memos on topics like whether a particular company can issue shares.”
The regulatory seat offers up a mix of competition law, financial services regulation and tax work. “It's very exciting,” reported one interviewee. “After the Brexit vote we started a newsletter called Lex et Brexit that came out every week, and then fortnightly, that considers the impact of Brexit on issues like the implementation of European directives and cross-border business. A lot of our clients are American and want to know about the impact on business – there have been a lot of calls!” Competition work might see a trainee involved in “managing the global competition filings for an overseas company acquiring another. I would draft the Form CO [which notifies the European Commission of the proposed merger] and its annexes, submit it to the Commission and keep people in jurisdictions from the Middle East to South America up to date.”
The firm's credit practice does what we at Chambers Student would call banking work. Trainees plunge into “transactions with a lot of money at stake” such as “a really interesting one which involved 14 different jurisdictions.” The same source continued: “I liaised with local counsel on the notes offering, credit facility and corporate authorisations, such as specific signing requirements.” Another interviewee reported: “I drafted ancillary documents like board minutes and resolutions, and I handled the closing and the conditions precedent check list. Towards the end of the seat I got to review the facility agreement and provide comments alongside my supervisor.”
Some of our sources had spent half a year in the New York HQ's capital markets department, which makes a bit of a change from London life. “Over there, the capital markets team is almost like a machine, when you consider the deal volume,” one source told us. “I did a whole mix of work involving drafting and co-ordinating deals, although on a much quicker turnaround than in London.”
We heard a familiar refrain – “it's very up and down” – when we asked trainees about the hours. “I might leave at 7.30pm or at 10 or 11pm,” a source said. One interviewee admitted: “It's tough sometimes. My first nine months was on the whole pretty crazy. I'd come in at around 9.30am and often be at work until very late at night. Sometimes though, you can go home at 5.30pm.” Davis Polk has “laptops and docking stations so you can take your whole computer with you and work from home in the evening.” Mind you, with a whopping qualification salary of £117,500 on the table, it's no wonder that trainees were sanguine about working into the wee hours. In addition, there's a strong “team effort culture” – for example, “when you're there at 2am, the partner will be there too ordering pizza for everyone.” Plus, “people are pretty good at managing things so that you don't have to work at the weekend unless it's absolutely necessary.”
“Everyone is nice and helpful, but they do keep work and life separate.”
Interviewees reported that the office atmosphere is “pretty polite – you never hear anyone raising their voice or anything like that. People are friendly, but not wildly social. Everyone is bright and approachable but there's not a party atmosphere.” One source described the firm-wide politeness as meaning you need to “read between the lines if someone asks you to do something” as “things may be said in cloaked terms.” We heard that the firm's London office “attracts the same type of people as New York.” That is to say “on the whole everyone is nice and helpful, but they do keep work and life separate.”
Such remarks caused us to envision tumbleweed drifting slowly through Davis Polk's social calendar, but actually “we've got a Christmas party and occasionally have drinks when new people arrive or if someone leaves. Sometimes in summer we'll go to the pub or something, but that's maybe a once a month thing.” A chipper trainee revealed: “I feel really lucky that in my batch of four trainees we get along really well, and we actually see each other outside work. I think the firm could do a little more socially, and it'd be nice if we had some events just for women, as the firm is very male dominated, especially in London. When I started we had a couple of events just for female lawyers but for some reason there haven't been any more.” Firm-wide there are six affinity groups including the DPWomen Women's Initiative.
The qualification process is straightforward, trainees told us. “You indicate your preferences and have an informal chat with the training partner.” In 2017, the firm did not disclose its retention rate.
How to get a Davis Polk training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2018): 14 January 2018 (opens 1 December 2017)
Training contract deadline (2020): Davis Polk recruits trainees directly from the vacation schemes.
Davis Polk fills its new trainee intake solely from those who've attend one of its two summer vac schemes. London training principal Will Pearce explains: “The feedback we’ve received from applicants is that they are applying for a smaller, more focused group of law firms and that they want the chance to check out what a firm is really like in a vacation scheme over a two-week period rather than just in an interview over a couple of hours.” Furthermore, “beyond having excellent academics, fit is crucial in a small office. Getting to know the candidates well is as important for us as it is for the applicants themselves.” Be aware that the application window for 2018 vac schemes (and therefore 2020 training contracts) opens on 1 December 2017 and closes on 14 January 2018.
To apply for the vac scheme, Davis Polk sticks with the tried and tested CV and covering letter. “We ask that you give us a CV, breaking down your grades, work experience and those extracurricular activities you think are relevant,” says Pearce. “I'd say less is more – but don't try and hide anything! Even if you got a low mark in one of your exams.”
The covering letter should explain a candidate's reasons for studying the law, why they want to study at an international firm, what attracts them to Davis Polk and why they are suited to it, but Pearce tells us: “I'm looking for someone thoughtful who has done their research and someone who understands what Davis Polk is about.” It pays to get specific: “It’s good to pick out a deal we've worked on which interests you. We're unashamedly a New York-headquartered firm, but a student really impresses by drilling down and saying what people in London have been working on. It shows that they've taken the time to think about the firm and what they’d be working on as a trainee, rather than regurgitating our careers website.”
Successful applicants are invited to two interviews to try and snag a place on the vac scheme, spending around two hours at the office in total. The first of the two interviews is with a couple of partners, but first applicants are given half an hour to read a briefing note for a fictional transaction. “In the first half of the interview we want to know about the individual,” says Pearce. “We don't have stock questions and there might be a few left field things, just to see how candidates react.” The second half focuses on the fictional transaction and briefing note, and is “essentially a commercial awareness test,” looking at “what you would be doing as a lawyer.” The partners then take questions from the candidate.
The second interview is with an associate and a current trainee, and scales back the pressure slightly. “It's an informal chat. It's very much to give the candidate an idea of the people who work here,” says Pearce.
The vacation scheme
The firm runs two vac schemes; each lasts for two weeks with one starting in late June and the other starting in in mid-July. Each scheme takes roughly ten candidates, but that's not written in stone. “If we have 16 superstars, we'll do two schemes of eight; if we have 26, we'll make it work somehow, rather than saying we don't have enough places.”
Aside from a variety of social events with partners and associates, students will spend time learning about each of the London office’s practice areas and get stuck into some real trainee work. “Over the summer, some practices might be a little slower, so to give a more representative experience we do a case study where students do research and draft a client memo. It's not formally marked because some students might be working on real deals and so have less time to complete it.” In the second week, students take part in a team exercise where they prepare and carry out a mock client meeting.
The firm holds open days for both first and second-year students where it gives talks about the firm's recruitment process, goes through case studies to practice interview skills and puts on drinks for attendees. “We want people to like us for who we are and what we do, so we'll talk on open days about people's different career opportunities. We're very happy to give constructive career advice.”
More on capital markets
Read our in-depth feature, Capital markets explained, for more on this tricky subject matter.
Davis Polk & Wardwell London LLP
5 Aldermanbury Square,
- Partners 10 (over 140 worldwide)
- Other fee earners Over 40 (over 750 worldwide)
- Total trainees 8
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 9
- Graduate recruiter: [email protected]
- Training partner: Will Pearce, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 4
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or higher
- Vacation scheme places pa: Approx 20
- Dates and deadlines
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 December 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 14 January 2018
- Davis Polk recruits trainees directly from the vacation schemes.
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £50,000
- Second-year salary: £55,000
- Post-qualification salary: £117,500
- Holiday entitlement: 20 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: Yes
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Hong Kong
- Overseas seats: New York
- Client secondments: Yes
Main areas of work
Davis Polk trainees will work closely with and learn from our senior lawyers in London and in our offices around the world. Each trainee will be assigned to a senior lawyer who will serve as a mentor and provide advice and guidance throughout the program. Given the quality of instruction, the meaningful legal experience gained on major transactions and the opportunity to be a part of a dynamic practice at one of the world’s truly preeminent law firms, there is no better place than Davis Polk for an aspiring solicitor to begin a career. Davis Polk trainees will also have the opportunity to experience a six month secondment to our New York office.
During each vacation scheme, students will have the opportunity to work on international transactions for a variety of the firm’s clients and attend information sessions focused on the work of each of our practice areas. Students will have the opportunity to experience Davis Polk’s culture through interactions with lawyer mentors and attendance at social events. We will be accepting applications for 2018 summer vacation schemes (please visit our website at www.careers.davispolk.com for information on how to apply) from 1 December 2017 through to 14 January 2018. We expect to offer approximately 20 places on vacation schemes in 2018.