Covington & Burling LLP - True Picture

In its growing London office, US firm Covington can prescribe trainees life sciences work for the likes of AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Merck.

Them and US

By now we’re all too used to Brits getting red in the face about how much they really matter internationally. As the London contingent of a network that includes multiple global financial centres, our sources at US firm Covington made a similar point. They didn’t slap a slogan on a bus, nor march from Sunderland to Westminster; instead they opted for calm explanation. Despite Covington’s US roots, and “a globalised vision being pushed more and more,”those in London “never feel like it’s a satellite or a back office.”

Covington’s tally of 13 offices means it is actually far less sprawling than the most global firms. London, and its often European-flavoured work, really counts. But there’s more behind London trainees’ sense of self-importance. Beyond the “non-hierarchal culture” and the “real independence offered by the training contract,” it’s the “industry-leading” work that helps keep trainees’ chests puffed out. Specifically, the firm’s life sciences practice is given the highest possible ranking by Chambers UK. London’s gaggle of global firms tend to be more beige in their blanket corporate/finance tastes. Still, one trainee pointed out how “people misunderstand by only thinking we do life sciences, tech, and big pharma.” Covington’s US lobbying prowess and DC roots show in the London office’s top-ranked public policy and government affairs department, while clients also come from the media and financial services industries. Universal Music Group and American Express are two prime examples.

A project finance team (and seat) has also been added in a year that has seen the London office grow its revenue by 26%. Lawyer headcount, meanwhile, has cleared the 100 mark. But we’d still say the office is modest in size compared to its bigger City brethren. 2021 will herald the equally modest expansion of the trainee intake, from eight, to nine. And this size matters: “Within smaller groups, there’s a lot more respect for and focus on the individual,” assures Daniel Cooper, the firm’s graduate recruitment partner. “They’re never replaceable or seen as ‘Billing-Unit-Number-Twelve’. They’re a person, they’re valued, we’re invested, and care about their future.” Accordingly, fiveof seven NQs were retained in 2019. “The trainees have an elevated status because there’s such a limited number of us,” championed one source. “Everyone knows each other’s names.”

“I drafted on my own, and that went out in the form of a memo relatively untouched.”

A seat at every table

Trainees must complete mandatory seats in both the corporate and dispute resolution departments. Their other seat choices are submitted prior to joining. Pharma-themed client secondments and an overseas seat in Brussels provide for more adventurous options. The firm has also recently opened up a new seat in the Dubai office.

In the dispute resolution department, work might mean defending a Ukrainian businessman facing a billion-dollar claim of fraud over the sale of their interest in a metals company. It might also mean advising Duet Group, an alternative asset manager, against claims its members had attempted to lessen the holding an individual held in a Swiss hotel the group owned. Regulatory, fraud and cybercrime matters all landed on trainees’ desks, with work coming from the life sciences, industrial, media and financial industries. Trainees in this seat commended the amount of responsibilitythrown their way. While bundling proved unavoidable, more substantive tasks frequently cropped up. Whether going to court, preparing witness statements, or helping to strategise, it’s “a lot of experience early on.One trainee glowingly described a particular highlight: “I did a fair bit of research independently; I drafted on my own, and that went out in the form of a memo relatively untouched. It was very rewarding to know that it contributed to the actual case.”

There’s a lot of cross-over in Covington’s encompassing corporate department: life sciences clients feature, but the team also works with globally recognised names from the tech, media and luxury brands sectors. Bacardi is a long-standing client, and the team also recently aided luxury Swiss watch-maker Breitling SA on its acquisition of the distribution company it uses in South-East Asia. “It’s a broad team compared to other UK corporate specialisms,” reckoned one source. “We do public and private company work, with sub-teams within corporate like life sciences, while also doing increasing work for tech companies.” Trainees flit between M&A, venture capital, IPOs and other capital markets dealings, but some felt they were “a smaller cog in a bigger machine” compared to their role in other seats.Our sources also collectively recognised the irregular nature of work flow, and their responsibilities tended to diminish when the team was busy. “My only criticism of corporate,” mused one source, “is that the work is characterised by peaks and troughs. You either enjoy the thrill of the deal or you don’t.” Due diligence was the most common task, and that was described as “basic” by our interviewees.

“Our job is to help finish the article rather than getting the completed one.”

The life sciences department is worth discussing in more detail. Trainees, for one, believed it gives Covington a “geeky and nerdy” edge. “It’s very IP-heavy and fairly technical,” said one source. “There’s a lot of liaising with clients about who owns what and you need quite an in-depth understanding of the industry.” Of course, that understanding comes with time. “You need to be willing to learn,” explains Cooper. “Our job is to help finish the article rather than getting the completed one.” For the intellectually curious, this bodes well: “You’re covering brilliant scope with intelligent people – you find yourself getting lost in academic puzzles.” Trainees can complete a seat on either the transactional or regulatory side of things, and there’s stellar work in both fields. Covington recently advised Ziylo, an emerging pharma company pioneering a new diabetes treatment, on its $800 million sale to Novo Nordisk, a Danish multinational pharma company. The firm also advised GE Healthcare (a subsidiary of General Electric) on its appeal against the European Commission’s decision to suspend marketing authorisation for its product Omniscan. Trainees praised an experience where the “thinking hats are always on” to solve “fresh and innovative questions.” Others highlighted the scope of work on offer: “From the idea being created, to bringing it to market, to any post-market issues -- they really do everything.”

The tech and media seat, meanwhile, provided our sources with work “drafting privacy policies, data impact assessments and various regulatory advice on the impact of GDPR.” Lawyers recently advised Turkish household appliances manufacturer Arcelik on its GDPR compliance across Europe. With matters like these, another “key trainee task was to do a lot of work with local counsel.” Other clients include Microsoft, Viacom and Universal Music Group, who the firm helped implement an international business-wide data collection and sharing program.

Open books, open doors

“The firm will suit the more ‘bookish’ types,” declared one source. “We’re not a firm that has a wild social side to us.” Another elaborated: “People are friendly, with an open-door policy in place, but they typically come in to do the job and then go spend time with their family and friends.” But don’t be fooled, the firm – and primarily its trainees – aren’t resistant to some low-key revelry, as “there’s always a pub that people want to drink in.With a firm softball team, partner lunches and other team-building activities, the firm’s reportedly taking strides to move socials beyond just alcohol, too go-karting was one recent highlight. Overall, “everyone gets on really well. It’s not crazy, but we all enjoy spending time together.” In part, this cohesion is shaped by an integration meeting where all new joiners get to visit the DC HQ: “The exposure to the Washington powerhouse is fascinating; it gives you an amazing insight into people’s long and seasoned careers.”

Beyond the trainee cohort, “the culture is super-blended and I would chat with partners in the same vein as I’d speak to fellow trainees.” Partners and trainees are also alike in being “protective of their weekends, with no real facetime culture.” Nevertheless, hours can be gruelling – a handful of all-nighters were reported, and an 8pm finish was normal. But trainees were right to add some context: “The rumours are that American law firms are the worst, but comparatively, our hours aren’t that bad.” We agree… sort of. Other US firms are worse; other US firms also pay their qualifiers more. But the firm recently cranked up NQ salaries to £100,000 (matching or beating the magic circle), silencing any complaints from our interviewees. 

Covington has been growing worldwide in recent years. Frankfurt and Johannesburg now host the firm’s lawyers, and there’s also a small presence in Dublin.

How to get a Covington & Burling training contract


Vacation scheme deadline (2020): Winter: 12 November 2019; Summer: 17 January 2020

Insight day deadline (2020): 28 February 2020

Training contract deadline (2022): 10 July 2020

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.

The firm will be launching a one-week Winter scheme in 2019.

Assessment days

Covington run a two-stage interview process, with candidates performing a written exercise, group 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  nine 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.


Covington & Burling LLP

265 Strand,

  • Partners: 29
  • Associates: 52
  • Total trainees: 16
  • UK offices: London
  • Contacts: 
  • Graduate recruiter: Graduate Recruitment Team [email protected] 020 7067 2000 Training partner: Hilary Prescott
  • Application criteria: 
  • Training contracts pa: Up to 9 Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 Minimum UCAS points or A levels: ABB or equivalent Vacation scheme places pa: Up to 10 on each summer scheme Winter - up to 5
  • Dates and deadlines: 
  • Training contract applications open: 4th October 2019 Training contract deadline, 2022: 10th July 2020 Vacation scheme applications open: 4th October 2019 Summer vacation scheme 2020 deadline: 17th January 2020 Winter deadline: 12th November 2019 Insight Day applications open: 1st February 2020 Insight Day deadline: 28th February 2020
  • Salary and benefits: 
  • First-year salary: £48,000 Second-year salary: £53,000 Post-qualification salary: £120,000 Holiday entitlement: 25 days
  • 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 6 month client secondment in the second year of their training contract

Firm profile

Covington & Burling LLP was founded in Washington DC a century ago. Today, the firm has over 1,000 lawyers globally across offices in Beijing, Brussels, Dubai, Johannesburg, Frankfurt, London, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seoul, Shanghai, Palo Alto 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 overseas secondments to our Brussels and Dubai offices. 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. We will also be launching a winter vacation scheme in 2019.

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 1st February 2020 until 28th February, 2020. 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 2019

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

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019

Ranked Departments

    • Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 4)
    • Capital Markets: AIM (Band 4)
    • Data Protection & Information Law (Band 2)
    • Insurance: Mainly Policyholders (Band 3)
    • 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 2)