DLA Piper picked a peck of perfect places, attracting big-ticket work across the globe and the UK.
DLA or BFG?
Much like that gentlest of giants, the Great Dane, DLA Piper might appear dauntingly huge, but it's actually "one of the friendliest” many-legged legal beasts out there, according to its trainees. Not only that, DLA's “people make you feel valued.” This colossal force came to be in 2005 following a three-way transatlantic merger between the UK's DLA, Chicago's Gray Cary, and Piper Rudnick of Baltimore. Fast-forward a decade and DLA Piper is the third highest-grossing firm world-wide (with revenues of around £2 billion, since you ask). The UK is home to just seven of the firm's 95 offices (including one in Edinburgh), though many British teams operate on a 'One UK' basis across the offices, which are spread around London, the Midlands and the North. Many interviewees were keen to highlight DLA's awesome “international presence and capabilities” as reasons they joined: “You get the opportunity to work with colleagues all over the world almost every day.” The firm operates in no fewer than 40 different countries.
Recently, DLA has shuttered a few of its smaller offices – Berlin, Canberra and Tbilisi. Trainees reckoned “the firm is essentially trying to look where clients need it to be,” hence is “moving out of jurisdictions that aren't as profitable.” In 2017 the firm entered an alliance with a firm in Peru and fully integrated its Lisbon office into the DLA brand.
As well as the international reach, trainees loved the “incredible quality of work” on offer. As you might expect, the global Chambers directories rank many DLA practices all over the world – if you're interested and have a spare hour or three, search for DLA on chambersandpartners.com. UK-ranked departments, both in the regions and nationally, include real estate, corporate M&A, litigation, projects, outsourcing, media and entertainment, and telecommunications. Trainees get exposure to “really big-name, international clients, wherever they are in the world,” which “makes everything so interesting!”
At the time of our research, sources reported that a new grad recruiting team was tweaking the seat allocation system. Trainees now list their four desired seats in order of preference (rather than in alpha order as they used to). “They try as hard as possible give you one of your preferences,” we heard, and “generally everyone ends up where they want.” However, “it's obviously not always possible, as it's based on business needs.” Going forward, trainees reckoned “there seems to be more dialogue than previously. We have a mid-seat review with grad recruitment, and the emphasis is to put more weight on that meeting. It's a more collaborative process.” Every office offers seats in the core departments, although in London there are a number of subgroups or specialist areas within departments.
Punch and judicial review
Corporate is split largely into three sections: M&A, private equity and capital markets. As a result “you can go in and have a completely different experience from another trainee in corporate.” The M&A side deals with both public and private companies. Trainees got involved in tasks like “managing data rooms, drafting ancillary documents, producing board resolutions, and negotiating amendments to those.” On top of that, sources tried their hand at drafting things like disclosure letters and share purchase agreements, and assisting with the disclosure meetings themselves. On the private equity side, “the speed of transactions is much faster.” The firm acts for mostly mid-market private equity houses including Beech Tree and ABRY Partners, and regularly tops Mergermarket's rankings of top advisers by deal volume. Recently the M&A team advised Heineken UK on its proposed acquisition of Punch Securitisation A, a portfolio of about 1,900 UK pubs owned by Punch Taverns. Sources felt the corporate seat was “very hands-on” as trainees could “get stuck in and assist with anything from due diligence reports, reviewing contracts and pulling out any issues, to actually assisting on the day of completion.” Overall, trainees felt they “had quite challenging and high quality work.”
The litigation and regulatory department covers an array of areas including insurance/reinsurance, professional negligence, corporate crime investigations, financial services regulation and international arbitration. Generally speaking, “the client base is so varied, it could be any type of client from any sector.” Specialist teams like financial litigation often act for large banks like RBS, but the wider commercial litigation “acts for all sorts of businesses – one was an IT software development business, and another was a bakery! It's that varied.” Many also noted that a lot of the firm's work is multi-jurisdictional, and “that's where the firm really adds value to clients – for example, if they need advice from Dubai, we have an established office there.” On the “interesting bigger cases,” trainees assisted a lot with “cliché trainee tasks like bundling, proof -reading, and disclosure reviews,” but sources understood “these are things you have to do though, and you're certainly not doing them all the time.” Smaller cases include airline claims, which “are good because they're low level so trainees get to draft claim forms or witness statements.” Many therefore got involved in the first drafts for defences or particulars of claims.
The regulatory side involves more advisory work overall, interspersed with the odd witness interview and preparing skeleton arguments. One trainee also highlighted “drafting a final report that went to a client, which was really great work.” Recently, the team acted for Standard Chartered Bank in both litigation in the Commercial Court in London and a potential arbitration in relation to the recovery of a $130 million loss caused by the collapse of a Middle Eastern oil trader.
DLA's massive real estate department is divided into five groups: core real estate, disputes, planning, construction, and finance. Core real estate has your classic landlord/tenants work, as well as “buying and selling of big properties.” Trainees often get stuck into the management side of things, looking after properties, leases and general transactions. This includes keeping data rooms up-to-date, and liaising with the other side to get documents. “As the seat went on, I started to be given more responsibility – I was running my own management matters, and drafting things like where a tenant wants to renew a lease, or has a problem and needs to alter the terms of the lease.” Interviewees had also dealt with regular short-term lettings and deposit deeds.
Development and planning work also make up a large bulk of the team's work. This side deals with residential developers and queries surrounding planning permission, as well as dealing with local councils. “It's a very good mix of contentious and non-contentious work,” sources reckoned. The contentious side sees a fair share of planning appeals – “I got to go to the Court of Appeal in my first seat which was a really good experience!” one source enthused. On the non-contentious side, some trainees had been involved with the drafting of Section 106 agreements (planning permission, essentially). Planning also covers infrastructure work, though most sources had “done less of that – it depends on if there's a big project on at the time or not.”
The finance and projects department sees lawyers advise on large commercial infrastructure projects, often on the transport and energy front, as well as publicly-funded projects like hospitals and schools. One source spoke of “huge franchises wanting to refranchise huge agreements for managing train networks,” while another noted getting involved in “the sale of a solar farm portfolio, acting for the sellers.” Many described the seat as “quite client-facing: that was really helpful to break those barriers where you think of the client as untouchable.” Recently, solicitors have been advising the Department for Transport on the controversial multibillion-pound Airport Capacity Programme, considering the need for airport expansion in the South East at either Heathrow or Gatwick.
The popular intellectual property and technology seat is “very technical, but very interesting at the same time.” There's a fair bit of commercial work in this seat – anything from “advising on terms and conditions” to “corporate support and reviewing/negotiating contracts.” One source reported needing “a good level of commercial awareness, as there can be more commercial contracts and technology outsourcing agreements.” Other experiences of this seat have included government contract work and drafting relationship documents for joint ventures. Sports and media is also a popular branch of the department: the team continues to act for the Premier League on a number of copyright issues, including the campaign against large numbers of public venue operators (ie pubs) which have been showing footie on the telly without a licence. So far there have been around 300 disputes and 40 issued High Court cases.
Trainees are big fans of client and international secondments. They can apply for them three months into each seat, though for the latter you usually have to have done the seat you'll be doing abroad in the UK first. Those interested submit their CV and a business case outlining why they want to do the secondment. “It's all pretty easy,” sources felt. “We didn't have to organise it ourselves. The firm does everything through its global mobility team.”
“The expectations are high, but you know that going in,” trainees admitted. “There's a hard-working culture, but trainees are always encouraged not to stay late unnecessarily. When work needs to be done, everyone will work collaboratively to achieve that.” Hours varied from seat to seat, with corporate generally taking the cake for most fluctuating hours: “It was either really okay, or really crazy.” And when the hours veer towards crazy, sources emphasised that “you don't feel you're here at four in the morning with no support.” When it wasn't crazy, many reported leaving anywhere between 6.30pm and 8pm, then with more steady seats like employment, even leaving between 5.30pm and 6pm.
“...an awful lot for charity.“
But it's definitely not all work and no play for trainees at DLA. There's an induction week for graduate trainees from around the world in London where “people from different offices can get to know each other” while getting a variety of training sessions. There's also a number of drinks events, whether organised departmentally, among trainees or via the office's social committee – recent highlights have been a swanky cheese and wine evening, and an evening of junk yard golf. Individual offices also have specific events: the Liverpool office flutters off to the Grand National every year, while in Edinburgh they do Burns Night. Trainees from the other offices can attend this latter event and our London interviewees in particular enthused about their Scottish expedition. The Manchester office is subscribed to Manchester Trainee Solicitors Group, which hosts a popular summer ball, among other things. Generally, there's also “an awful lot for charity. For example, recently we had a mixed charity netball match. We also have charity dress-down days.”
On top of that, pro bono is “a pretty big deal.” Sources felt “the pro bono here is actually amazing. We have a dedicated pro bono team, and so many different clinics and projects to get involved in. You can even do a whole six months with the pro bono team.” However, it's worth noting this department is based in the London office, though “they regularly ask for help from the whole network of trainees.” The firm has various partnerships with non-profits, including Unicef and Mind, a mental health charity.
When it comes to retention and qualifying, sources felt: “If you work hard, show good attitude, and do well then there's space for you.” In 2016, the qualification process itself was revised. 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, in line with the firm's 'One UK' policy. “You can apply for up to three, and you rank them in the order of what you want. Most don't apply for more than one or two though.” Candidates submit their CV, then “it's up to the department to hold interviews at their discretion – usually if two or more people apply for the same job.” We also heard that “one big push is being transparent and not to mess you around. If you're not going to get the job, they let you know well in advance, so you have time to put yourself out on the market and hopefully get something else.”
75 of 96 qualifiers were kept on in 2017.
How to get a DLA Piper training contract
Training contract deadline (2019 start): 12 November 2017
The application form
DLA Piper receives over 3,000 applications in total for 70 training contract places a year. Future trainees need a minimum ABB at A level and a 2:1 degree. They also need to achieve a commendation on the GDL (if applicable) and the LPC. UK graduate recruitment and development manager Katie Sands tells us: “Although we are looking for intellectual calibre, ambition, drive, and resilience, we're also looking for those who can think innovatively and have an interest in responsible business – not just making money.”
Both vacation scheme applicants and those going straight for the training contract complete the same application process. “We've streamlined the process this year, making it much simpler to complete,” Sands reveals. In terms of work experience, law-related stints are not essential, but the firm's recruiters will be looking to gain “an understanding as to why a candidate is interested in law, and how they can demonstrate that through the experiences they've had to date.” Sands explains that a prior involvement in pro bono activities will go down well: “We are industry leading in our pro bono work, so showing an early commitment is viewed very favourably.”
Those who impress at this stage are invited to take a verbal reasoning test. If candidates make the cut, they are then required to answer a set of motivational questions that assess their interest in commercial law as a whole, but also their specific interest in DLA Piper. This is followed by the completion of an occupational personality questionnaire, which, Sands explains, “allows us to understand a candidate's personal behavioural preferences.” Candidates that show they have what it takes are invited to the final stage – the assessment centre. Vac schemers complete the assessment day before their schemes.
The assessment day
The day involves being formally welcomed to the firm by a senior partner or a member of the firm's executive committee. “Candidates get to meet fee-earners from all over the UK, which gives them an insight into our 'One-UK' approach,” says Sands. There are three exercises to complete, and candidates are briefed on what they involve the day before they attend the assessment centre.
Thankfully, attendees don't have to wait long to find out the outcome of their assessment: they are contacted the day after with feedback and the result. Those who are given good news are subsequently assigned a buddy – a current trainee at the firm – who provides the candidate with support and guidance before they start their traineeship at DLA.
DLA Piper now recruits over 90% of its trainees from its vacation scheme. The three-week scheme – regardless of which office participants are in – starts with vac schemers all journeying to London for a four-day induction. On the first day, participants hear from the firm's CEO and other senior leaders at the firm. This is followed by two days of professional skills training, which covers everything from communication skills to networking to general employability. The last day of the induction focuses on learning the ins and outs of operating a responsible business. Upon returning to their respective offices, participants complete an office-specific induction before dividing the rest of their time between two departments.
At the end of the week, a supervisor (usually a senior associate or partner) sits down with their assigned vac schemer to deliver feedback. Participants complete work that our trainee sources felt was “pitched at the right level.” As one told us: “We were genuinely assisting on real work. By the end of my scheme I could really see myself fitting in at the firm.”
Participants are assessed throughout the scheme on various projects (as well as through participation in compulsory 'practice group insight' and 'thought leadership' sessions).
The world's biggest law firms
With over 90 offices in more than 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.” 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. In a surprising turn of events, 2017 saw Chicago-born Kirkland & Ellis jump from fifth to second place, overtaking both DLA and Baker McKenzie. This means that for the first time in years the first and second spots are not occupied by firms that operate under a 'Swiss Verein' structure. However, DLA still ranks within the top five in terms of revenue. 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,
- Partners 1,300
- Associates 4,000
- Total trainees 150
- UK offices Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Sheffield
- Graduate recruiter: Katie Sands, graduate recruitment and development manager UK
- Training partner: Duncan Mosley
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 70
- Applications pa: c. 3,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Minimum A levels: ABB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 100
- Dates and deadlines
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 September 2017
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: 31 December 2017
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £27,000 (English regions and Scotland), £44,000 (London)
- Second-year salary: £30,000 (English regions and Scotland), £49,000 (London)
- Post-qualification salary: £42,000 (English regions and Scotland), £75,000 (London)
- Holiday entitlement: 28 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: Yes
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Birmingham Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Sheffield
- Overseas seats: Multiple (circa 15 per seat move)
- Client secondments: Multiple (circa 10 per seat move)
Main areas of work
DLA Piper has the following practice groups: corporate, employment, finance and projects, intellectual property and technology, litigation and regulatory, real estate restructuring, tax.
Students spend the second and third weeks of the scheme undertaking work experience placements in two of the firm’s practice groups. The scheme also has daily practice group insight sessions and thought leadership seminars.
University law careers fairs 2017