Covington & Burling LLP - True Picture

Life sciences, EU regulation and tech; Washington DC-headquartered Covington is no cookie-cutter US firm.


“Covington doesn't fit the typical 'American firm' mould,” one of our trainee interviewees declared. “A lot of the work we do is EU-centric, so we don't feel like an outpost.” Another insider praised the firm's smaller intake, meaning “you don't get lost in a sea of faces.” Trainees were also keen to point out that “we're not a big corporate machine. We have niche and unusual strengths, which makes the work more interesting and changes the culture a little bit.” One of those niche strengths is work for the pharmaceutical industry: Chambers UK gives the firm a tippy-top ranking for both its transactional and regulatory life sciences work and clients include pharma giants AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Abbott. Other specialist areas are tech and government-related work: the firm is Chambers-ranked for data protection and parliamentary and public affairs. “All the work we do tends to have an interesting angle to it, whether it's in disputes or corporate," one trainee reflected. "We do stuff from cutting-edge artificial intelligence work to assisting the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world finding cures for cancer.”

"We have niche and unusual strengths."

Covington does work for clients across a range of practice areas (it's ranked by Chambers UK for arbitration, insurance and mid-market corporate work for instance); “Covington is a legal mogul," ventured one trainee, "but it doesn't compete in the same banking and corporate spheres that other US firms do. We're best at regulatory work, problem solving and lobbying. Our links with government and industry are especially prominent in the US.” And the firm isn't shy about hiding these links: it's been known to attend law fairs with a huge banner sporting a picture of the US Capitol Building and is entrenched in the world of political lobbying stateside. But US work doesn't dominate things this side of the pond, as "the majority of our clients in London are international, and we often work on matters in various jurisdictions," training partner Daniel Cooper tells us. Further international expansion has been one recent trend: in 2018 the firm opened an office in Frankfurt and has increased the amount of work that it's been doing in Dublin of late.

Read a feature sponsored by Covington & Burling on Working at an American firm in London.

Trainees are required to sit in both the dispute resolution and corporate departments and must submit their two remaining seat preferences prior to joining the firm, although we heard that if any trainees change their mind about upcoming seats the firm may be able to make adjustments. “Employment and tech are very popular,” one newbie revealed, “but to be fair, we don't offer a plethora of different options so you choose the firm based on those.” A limited number of client secondments with pharmaceutical clients crop up, as well as an overseas seat in the Brussels office. Appraisals are handed down in the middle and at the end of each seat by the supervising partner. In 2018, the firm kept on seven of its eight qualifiers.

Grandpa's cough medicine

Covington's commercial litigation team grew significantly in 2017 after a team from ex-firm King & Wood Mallesons joined the ranks. Trainees get involved with witness preparation, cross-referencing and preparing the “occasional bundle” for clients spanning the pharmaceutical, industrial, media and finance sectors. Regulatory, fraud and cybercrime work all rear their head and the work is “extremely fast-paced,” one newbie reported. Another confirmed that “you have to get up to speed pretty quickly and know exactly what's going on with cases.” And there's quite a mix to get to grips with: the team recently advised a world-famous brand on a large counterfeiting bust; it helped a tech company try to obtain injunctive relief in relation to a new product; and it represented the majority shareholder in an investment company in a dispute over a £500 million hotel portfolio. “The work can be research-heavy,” trainees reflected, “but there are more interesting things too like writing tactical memos and helping clients assess whether to settle at mediation by looking at the merits of their case.”

The corporate department has a life sciences twist, while at the same time it "covers capital markets, M&A and joint ventures, which is better than being stuck doing one specific thing.” Pharma clients include AstraZeneca, Merck and Allergan, but the team also serves businesses from the technology, media and luxury brands sectors. Longstanding client Bacardi recently sought the team's advice on its acquisition of a minority stake in Dublin-based Teeling Whiskey prior to introducing it to the US market. The team also advised Johnson & Johnson with its sale of Compeed to HRA Pharma, headquartered in France. In addition, one newbie told us: “I did venture capital work and worked with small companies and start-ups who are trying to move their business to the next level.” Another insider reported doing “some company secretarial work,” but assured us that “we’re not swamped with it at all time.”

“I’ll be advising on a European or global level at any given time.”

The media and technology team boasts big-name clients like Microsoft and Viacom, as well as the US National Football League and pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly. The bulk of our insiders reported their workload being made up mainly of GDPR-related inquiries, compliance tasks and responding to questions from US clients about data transfers. “Because it's an advisory department,” explained one trainee, “I would mainly be involved with research,” but later in the seat there is "an opportunity to draft notes and emails yourself."

A seat in real estate and tax is heavy on the responsibility. “There are two partners here so you essentially get exposed to everything that a qualified lawyer does,” one source explained. On the real estate side, clients include property developers, investors and asset managers. Trainee tasks include dealing with lease negotiations, disposals and “conducting due diligence on various properties involved in M&A transactions as well as drafting front-end reports.” A few years back the team advised the Giorgio Armani group on the acquisition of a significant real estate portfolio. “Tax work is very complicated,” one insider confessed, “so I would get involved in more discrete tasks like research memos and looking at taxation of partnerships for US clients.”

Revenge of the nerds

“In terms of what culturally unites us, we're quite thoughtful and intellectually curious,” our sources at Covington agreed. “We also have a good sense of humour,” another source added, while a third described the trainee cohort as “geeky!” In line with the firm's strengths in regulation, life sciences and pharmaceutical work, “Covington tends to hire very academic people" and "you'll come across people here who did a PhD or have experience in academia. There are definitely a few geniuses knocking around!” To conclude, insiders said they are “proud of being nerds – and I'm not afraid to embrace my nerdy side!”

“I know nothing about cricket... but I do know that we're all going!”

Trainees gave a solid thumbs-up when asked about firm social life outside office hours. Besides the annual Christmas and summer parties (the latter is often hosted in the office's open-air courtyard), we heard there's also a softball league which trainees regularly participate in. Trainees are also allocated a social budget to organise events throughout the year and enjoy mingling around the “well-attended” drinks trolley every month. And there's more: “We're currently organising a trip to the Twenty20 cricket,” one source reported. “I know nothing about cricket... but I do know that we're all going!” On a more regular basis, trainees “are always up for going out for a drink or two during the week or even a proper night out.”

Trainees typically start their day at 9am and “rarely leave before 8pm,” with seats in disputes, employment, and media and tech providing the longest hours of all, averaging 9am to 9pm days. No seats preclude the occasional late night though, however. “It can be up and down. I've had a few all-nighters,” one insider shared, “but we don't have a culture whereby trainees regularly stay till midnight or 2am.” Another insider added that “if you're not busy, there's no expectation for you to stay beyond 6pm. It's frowned upon if you're here without needing to be.”

Go to to find out more about what it's like working at an American firm in London.


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Arnold & Porter which also has many life sciences clients

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How to get a Covington & Burling training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 18 January 2019

Insight day deadline (2019): 28 February 2019

Training contract deadline (2021): 12 July 2019

Vacation scheme

In the summer, Covington and Burling opens its doors to as many as ten budding individuals curious about joining the firm. “Our vacation scheme offers students the opportunity to gain an insight into the firm and its culture,” says Claire Astbury, the firm's legal recruiting & professional development manager. “Students spend two weeks within two practice areas, undertaking a research project within a third practice area. This allows students to gain a taster of the range of areas they could practice in and the lawyers they could be working alongside.”

For one trainee we spoke to who'd taken part in the vacation scheme “the highlight was a negotiation workshop. They split everyone into two teams and you're given a fictional scenario to work on. One of you acts for the buyer, the other for the seller, and you negotiate to see what you can get past the other side.”

As Astbury explains, there's plenty more involved: “Students undertake group activities and hear presentations from different practice groups, alongside firm-sponsored social activities and networking opportunities that allow students to get a real feel of the firm.” Current trainees recalled visiting The American Bar at the Savoy as part of this social commingling – how fitting.

Assessment days

Covington run a two-stage interview process, with candidates performing a written exercise, as well as taking part in a panel discussion and interview.

Trainees recalled being challenged to argue on one side of a topical scenario, having been given materials to review on that subject. “That was one of the things that made the firm stand out,” judged one source. “It made me think that they were actually taking the time to see how I think, and how that relates to the firm's work.” Covington's training principal, Hilary Prescott advises that “you should expect the assessment days to challenge you, so be ready to think on your feet, speak articulately about your experiences and current affairs, as well as demonstrate commercial awareness.”

Ideal candidates

Covington requires applicants to have strong grades at A level and a 2:1 degree. “We are looking for students who are passionate about a career in law and looking for an intellectual challenge,” says Astbury.

The firm offers up to eight training contracts each year, and while there are clear advantages to this approach, the advanced responsibility means it's not for everyone. Our trainee sources remembered their interviewers checking they knew what they were signing on for: “When I was interviewed the partners asked whether I had applied to other US firms – they were trying to gauge whether I was actually interested in a US firm, with a smaller intake.” That's a question that's worth some consideration.

Working at an American firm in London

Are US firms really so different? Covington's trainees help us sort the myths from the reality (sponsored feature)

Covington & Burling LLP

265 Strand,

  • Partners 30
  • Associates 69
  • Total trainees 15
  • UK offices London
  • Contacts 
  • Graduate recruitment team: [email protected], 020 7067 2072
  • Training partner: Hilary Prescott
  • Application criteria 
  • Training contracts pa: Up to 8
  • Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
  • Minimum UCAS points or A levels: ABB or equivalent
  • Vacation scheme places pa: Up to 10 on each scheme
  • Dates and deadlines 
  • Training contract applications open: 4 October 2018
  • Training contract deadline, 2021: 12 July 2019
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 4 October 2018
  • Vacation scheme 2019 deadline: 18 January 2019
  • Insight day applications open: 1 February 2019
  • Insight day deadline: 28 February 2019
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £43,000
  • Second-year salary: £47,000
  • Post-qualification salary: £100,000
  • Holiday entitlement: 25 days per annum
  • Sponsorship 
  • LPC fees: Yes
  • GDL fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £8,000
  • International and regional 
  • Offices with training contracts: London
  • Client secondments: Opportunities are provided to trainees to undertake a six-month client secondment in the second year of their training contract.

Firm profile

Covington & Burling LLP was founded in Washington DC nearly a century ago. Today, the firm has over 1,000 lawyers globally across offices in Beijing, Brussels, Dubai, Johannesburg, 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 30 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 2017 and appears in The Lawyer Top 30 International Law Firms, 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), project development and finance, 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. 

Training opportunities

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, project finance, life sciences, tax, technology and media; client secondments may also be available. We also offer an overseas secondment in our Brussels office. We aim to distinguish our trainee programme by offering a genuine support network which includes associate buddies and undertaking regular performance reviews. 

Vacation scheme

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. 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 get to know us. 

Other benefits

Trainees have access to a full benefits package including: pension scheme, health insurance, life assurance, independent financial advice, 25 days’ holiday per year, an employee assistance programme, child care vouchers, a dental plan, emergency care cover and interest-free season ticket loans. 

Open days and first-year opportunities

Insight Days are aimed at candidates who are still researching their legal careers. The one day programme provides an insight into the firm, its practice areas and the skills you will need to develop in order to become a successful lawyer. They are a perfect opportunity for candidates who are not yet eligible to apply for our summer schemes, but who wish to get a head start in gaining some legal experience.

To apply, please send a CV and covering letter to the Graduate Recruitment Team, explaining the reasons why you would like to attend. Applications are open from until 28th February, 2019. Eligible candidates will need to be in the first year (or second year of a four-year course) of a law degree, or the second year of a non-law degree.

University law careers fairs 2018

Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Exeter, KCL, LSE, UCL, Oxford, QMUL, Warwick.

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018

Ranked Departments

    • Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: AIM (Band 4)
    • Data Protection & Information Law (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Mainly Policyholders (Band 2)
    • International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 5)
    • Life Sciences (Band 1)
    • Life Sciences: Regulatory (Band 1)
    • Life Sciences: Transactional (Band 1)
    • Parliamentary & Public Affairs: Public Affairs (Band 1)
    • Private Equity: Venture Capital Investment (Band 2)
    • Product Liability: Food (Band 3)