Looking for high-quality work for big clients in London or outside? Then follow the call of these globe-spanning Pipers.
If ever there were a law firm which could claim – as the British Empire once did – that the sun never sets on it, then it's DLA Piper. This mega-firm has over 90 bases in around 40 countries on “every continent except the cold one,” as one trainee put it. In the UK, DLA has seven offices (one in Scotland and the other six in England) from which it operates what it calls a 'One UK' policy. This means “there's a real push for people to work cross-office” and trainees work on matters with colleagues from across the country, and indeed the world. One regional source explained the benefits: “I wasn't completely sold on doing a training contract in London, but I did want to do international and London-standard work. Because of our 'One UK' policy I can, while not having to live in London!”
DLA employs so many lawyers that “it's actually stopped keeping count” of how many there are, but we reckon it's around 4,000 globally. However, trainees insisted this is not indicative of an impersonal approach to business or training –“the higher-ups don't keep quiet about the fact that they want you to develop, to grow, to be the best. Although we're a colossal operation, no one ever forgets my name, and when I first joined I was constantly being stopped by partners introducing themselves.” This kind of pastoral care starts before your first day, with new recruits encouraged to join 'Portal' – DLA's trainee forum – where they can “log in, chat, exchange experiences and organise meet-ups” with future colleagues.
"When I first joined I was constantly being stopped by partners introducing themselves.”
The UK, or to be more specific, Sheffield, was the birthplace of DLA – one of the three firms that merged to become DLA Piper back in 2005 (the other two were American). And Britain is still integral to the firm's international growth, a point demonstrated by the fact that 14 of the 48 partners made up by the firm in 2016 were based in the UK; that's only just behind the US's figure of 18 even though the States has nearly double the number of DLA lawyers as the UK does. The 14 partner promotions were shared between London, Liverpool and Leeds, showing the continued importance of of the North of England to the firm. “People talk a lot about the 'Northern Powerhouse' but we're actually living it," enthused one trainee.
All of the firm's offices win a glitzy array of Chambers UK rankings in their respective regions and the firm is very highly regarded nationally for areas ranging from outsourcing to projects. In the Midlands, North West and Yorkshire the firm wins rankings in Chambers' top two tiers for its core practices of corporate, litigation, banking, real estate, restructuring, tax and employment, while in London the firm's practices occupy a strong mid-market position with a score of Chambers rankings.
Learning your ABC
Seats are available across all of DLA's practice groups: corporate, litigation and regulatory, employment, tax, real estate, intellectual property and technology, and finance and restructuring. London offers a few more options than the other outposts. As one trainee explained, “every office offers seats in core departments like real estate, litigation and corporate, but London divides them into subgroups and has more specialist areas on top of that.” Before trainees join, and two months before each rotation, they receive a form with a basic explanation of all the seats and what they can expect from each one. They then put forward three or four preferences in alphabetical order.
About three months into each seat there's also the opportunity to apply for international or client secondments. For the former you have to have done the seat you'll be doing abroad in the UK first and you have to put forward a business case with your application. Interviewees who had been abroad had loved every minute of it. Recent client secondments included postings to HSBC and the Premier League.
"It's problem solving with very high stakes."
On the regulatory side, DLA works with big clients like British Airways and Tata Steel to help formulate company policy, especially with regards to health and safety laws. The Manchester team work a lot with BA on small customer claims. “A lot of the time it's a trainee's job to look into the regulations and find out how things apply to a particular context. It's problem solving with very high stakes – most regulatory clients come to us because there's a serious penalty involved if they don't comply with the rules.”
Corporate has three main work streams into which trainees can dip their toes: M&A, private equity and capital markets. But trainees are not restricted to their supervisor's niche –“we're encouraged to speak up in team meetings if we have capacity to help. For instance, you might say something like 'I'm a little bit quiet at the moment and I'm interested in private equity.'” It's a busy seat and “trainees live the clichéd corporate lifestyle of frequent 14-hour days followed by quieter periods after completions,” especially in London. Sources had performed company searches, dealt with stamp duty land tax forms and acted as project managers, overseeing data rooms and the due diligence process. One interviewee added: “Towards the end of the seat I was doing bespoke note-taking, speaking to clients, and running completions: making sure everyone was signing the right pieces of paper.” This last task is harder than it sounds, as apparently, “people will sign anything!” The department's clients include “large local businesses” plus national and international clients like defence contractor Babcock, the London Stock Exchange, Serco, William Hill, Bridgestone and Etihad Airways. Birmingham is a focal point for the practice, since the head of the UK corporate team, Charlie Cook, is based there. Another of the office's partners, John Campion, recently led the firm's team working on the $5.2 billion merger between UK sterilisation and decontamination firm Synergy Health and US rival Steris.
“I've been involved in a big social housing project for a Northern council.”
Real estate is divided into five groups: core real estate, real estate disputes, planning, construction and real estate finance. London houses all four, while Birmingham offers all but the last, and Sheffield and Leeds have planning and core real estate. The two North West offices work as a complementary pair –“Liverpool deals mostly with planning and disputes, while Manchester handles core real estate; basically there's one team operating across the two offices.” A trainee told us what the work involves: “We sell lots of plots of land and properties, so as a trainee you may be managing ten to 20 files at any one time, which is great for the project management experience it offers.” Property clients across the network include Balfour Beatty, Sheffield City Council, Aviva, Royal Bank of Scotland and CBRE. The planning seat offers up “a mixture of infrastructure projects and big developments,” a source told us. “A lot of my time was spent working on a big motorway project.” But it's not just motorways: the firm recently advised Transport for Greater Manchester on £205 million plans to extend Manchester's tram network to the Trafford Centre; the matter included dealing with objections from several major local landowners.
Trainees in a projects and finance seat take work from both sides of that coin. Lawyers here advise on large commercial infrastructure projects as well as publicly funded ones like hospitals and schools. One source told us: “I've been involved in a big social housing project for a Northern council.” Another reported: “I worked on a refinancing deal for a charity, acting on behalf of the bank lending to the charity.” Day to day, trainees “attend meetings, contact clients and draft small project agreements and intercreditor deeds. If the matter is especially large, you'll likely be keeping track of all the documents and looking after the schedules.” The team recently worked with HSBC and GE Capital in connection with a private equity fund's acquisition of a majority interest in the family-owned Big Bus Tours.
Dance Dance Revolution
The impression garnered from our sources is that DLA is essentially a small firm trapped inside a mega-firm's body. "Sometimes I feel like our 'One UK' policy should be called 'One family' instead," said one trainee, a tad soppily. Before trainees start their contracts they get into the family spirit by “going to a nice big country house hotel for an induction.” In 2015, 120 trainees (including the Hong Kong intake) spent a weekend at Crewe Hall, a “huge Jacobean palace” in Cheshire. There's a balance of work and play: “There are PSC sessions plus advocacy and drafting training, as well as dinners, sports contests and loads of arcade games.” Sources praised it as a weekend that really breaks down barriers: “When you get to stand next to the CFO on a dance mat, it's hard to feel intimidated – though he did have some pretty good moves.”
Those good moves will come in handy as, by all accounts, DLA has a social scene that'll make shaking your tail feathers a regular occurrence. Sources vied for the title of 'most sociable office', with Liverpool receiving an especially ringing endorsement: “It's proper social here. People are always going out on a Friday and there are regular cocktail nights and dinners. The firm is also a sponsor of the Junior Lawyers Division annual ball and we always have a table at that.” Elsewhere, every office has a social committee that organises regular nights out, while in London there are a number of more healthy activities to get involved in –“there's a netball team, five-a-side football, rugby and an interdepartmental singing contest.”
“It's proper social here."
In 2016 DLA's qualification process was “completely overhauled for the better.” Here's how it now works: a jobs list comes out at the beginning of April and trainees have two weeks to apply to any department or office on that list. The application involves a 500-word 'business case' on “why you want to join the team, and what you would bring to the practice.” Then “that goes into your application along with your mid-seat and end of seat reviews.” Unless you're applying to another office, there is no interview –“if you've done six months in the seat, that's enough time for them to know whether you're good enough.” Retention rates are generally around the market average and in 2016 the firm kept on 59 of 74 qualifiers UK-wide.
DLA regularly organises 'roadshow presentations' in which employees from different offices go to another country in order to meet their colleagues overseas.
How to get a DLA Piper training contract
Vacation scheme deadline: TBA
Training contract deadline: TBA
The applications formDLA Piper receives approximately 3,500 applications a year for up to 75 training contract positions. Future trainees need a minimum ABB at A level and 2:1 degree. They also need to achieve a commendation on the GDL (if applicable) and the LPC. That said, head of graduate recruitment Sally Carthy tells us: “Where candidates do not meet some of the base criteria, they may go forward into the process because they have a wealth of relevant experience.”
Both vacation scheme applicants and those going straight for a training contract complete the same application form. “We keep the majority of the questions fairly open,” Sally Carthy tells us. “We're looking for candidates to tell us why we should take their application further. They should demonstrate their understanding of the commercial legal arena and how their skills and experiences make them suited to it.”
The assessment dayCandidates undertake a variety of different assessments including psychometric tests, interviews, presentations and written exercises. These focus on a candidate's commercial skills rather than specific legal expertise. Vac schemers complete an assessment day during their schemes, while direct applicants who pass the first round stage then go on to the second stage and complete the same assessment day. “You inevitably stress about it a lot, but actually I found it quite friendly and informal,” said one trainee. The day involves a group exercise, two written exercises and an interview with two partners. Firm representatives are reluctant to share much detail about the exercises, but trainees in the past have reported proofreading tests, five-minute presentations, and a scenario-based commercial awareness task where they had to advise a struggling business on how to turn itself around.
Sally Carthy characterises the partner interview as a “challenging and searching conversation rather than a hostile interrogation.” As one current trainee recalled: “It wasn't a discussion about things like the political situation in Syria; it was a practical chat, with a focus on how I'd interact with clients and how I would fit into the firm.” That said, “it was quite a grilling,” they continued. “I was asked to tell them about myself without repeating anything on my application and CV, which was a bit of a stumbling block.”
DLA Piper takes between ten and 45 vac schemers in each of its UK offices, with around 130 places available in total each year. The two-week scheme sees participants split their time between two departments. In between assessed tasks and various partner-led practice area presentations, vac schemers complete work our trainee sources deemed “real and pitched at the right level” As one told us: “We were genuinely assisting on work. By the end of my two weeks, I could really see myself fitting in at the firm.”
#Our sources agreed “there's a heavy onus on social events and getting to know current trainees,” telling of drinks dos and pub crawls. Vac schemers conclude their placement with the assessment day outlined above, and from here the firm decides who to make training contract offer to.
The world's biggest law firms
With over 90 offices in around 40 countries, DLA is a vast outfit by anyone's standards. Its roots go back to turn-of-the-century Yorkshire, when it was known as Dibb Lupton, a firm founded by former mayor of Leeds Sir Charles Lupton. In the mid 1990s, two successive mergers produced Dibb Lupton Alsop. By 2005 DLA had grown steadily in the City, and formed European and Asian alliances to further develop its international reach. Its merger that year with top 50 US firm Piper Rudnick was just what it needed to catapult it into the global market.
DLA has built its success on mergers, and there's a good reason for that. When we think of multinational harbingers of globalisation, we think of brands. Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung are currently among the world's most valuable companies, and that's down to the fact that they can roll out their products and sales models under a single banner, wherever they go. Becoming the McDonald's of the legal world is not without its complications, though – when you're selling services to multinationals instead of ordinary people, automated emails and the like simply won't cut it.
The distinctions between legal systems in different countries is another obstacle. Global companies like Starbucks can market products en masse by making slight alterations to cater to local tastes – sakura chocolate frappuccino, anyone? Law firms, however, are restricted by both the type of advice they can offer and set-up they can use depending on the jurisdiction. For this reason, partnerships and link-ups with local firms boasting existing reputations, client bases and domestic expertise are the best way to build a global mega firm.
DLA Piper doesn't possess the instant brand recognition of either magic circle members in the UK or long-established New York firms in the US. As one trainee opined: “In Manchester everyone knows who DLA is, and in London we have a reputation as a firm that's grown really quickly. But in Singapore and Bangkok, some people have never heard of us.” That is surprising to hear, given DLA is the world's second largest law firm by revenue. Still, with offices in almost every corner of the globe, it's only a matter of time before DLA's reputation becomes as expansive as its coverage.
In years past DLA has expressed an aim to become the leading global law firm in both size and turnover. Revenue-wise, DLA had previously battled it out with Baker & McKenzie, but in 2015 a new number one pipped them both to the top spot: Latham & Watkins. In 2016, for the second year running, Latham maintained its primacy with a whopping $2.65 billion annual take with DLA coming a close second with $2.54 billion. DLA partner Duncan Mosley tells us: “The concentration has turned to exploiting what we've got to the full, which is this fantastic conglomerate around the globe, and to integrate it fully with the US to be a truly global firm.”
DLA Piper LLP
3 Noble Street,
- Contact Linda Luong, senior graduate recruitment advisor
- Method of application Online selection procedure: interviews, group exercise, assessment day, psychometric tests
- Closing date for 2019 TBA (check firm website for updates)
- Training contracts pa Up to 75
- Applications pa 3,100
- % Interviewed pa 17%
- Required degree grade 2.1
- Training salary
- First year:
- £42,000 (London)
- £27,000 (English regions)
- £24,000 (Scotland)
- Second year:
- £47,000 (London)
- £30,000 (English regions)
- £26,000 (Scotland)
- Holiday entitlement 25 days
- Post-qualification salary
- £70,000 (London)
- £41,000 (English regions)
- £38,000 (Scotland)
- % of trainees offered a job on qualification (2016) 87%
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