Covington & Burling LLP - True Picture

Life sciences is the lifeblood of Covington’s London office, where a small trainee cohort are “very passionate” about their firm’s work.

Covington training contract review 2021

The Firm

Can you confidently say that you are the best at something? Few of us would make such a bold declaration – but when it comes to life sciences, Washington, DC’s Covington & Burling can make a reasonable argument that nobody does it better. This is the only firm ranked for life sciences by Chambers Global, Chambers UK, Chambers USA and Chambers Europe; their expertise guarantees a steady flow of work from industry giants, including the likes of AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Merck. It also ensures the firm attracts a carefully selected crop of fewer than ten trainees a year “wanting to practice law at the highest level.”

Essential Read: Working at an American firm in London

Our interviewees didn’t shy away from the fact that “the work is often highly technical,” but they were keen to emphasise that a scientific background was not a prerequisite for joining the firm. “There’s a scattering of PhDs at Covington, but we’re not patent attorneys so a technical background isn’t essential,” one source made clear, adding that “it’s more important to be able to pick things up quickly – that’s a key skill for any lawyer!” Another weighed in: “The firm really appreciates people having different backgrounds. I get the sense that they put a big premium on personality and people with passion for a particular subject area.”

“There’s a scattering of PhDs at Covington, but we’re not patent attorneys so a technical background isn’t essential.”

Sources were also keen to highlight the “huge diversity of work on offer outside of the life sciences sector,” which spans everything from energy and technology to media and financial services. A look back at the firm’s Chambers UK rankings reveals additional accolades for private equity, product liability, data protection and M&A. There’s even a top ranking for public affairs work, a reflection of Covington’s lobbying prowess in the US. “Our disputes team is the firm’s dark horse,” one of our sources added. “We absorbed a lot of the big players from King & Wood Mallesons when it went into administration.” Many felt the nature and diversity of the work on offer sets C&B apart “from a lot of the other US firms operating in the market, which are much more focused on finance and private equity.”

The Seats

Trainees must complete mandatory seats in both the corporate and dispute resolution departments and pick two preferences to rank among the firm’s eight or so other seat options. More adventurous options include pharma-themed client secondments and an overseas seat in Brussels; the firm also recently opened up a new seat in the Dubai office. Most of our interviewees had no beef with the system, but conceded “it's not always clear how decisions are made,” agreeing that “some more structure would be appreciated.”

Two teams fit under C&B’s life sciences umbrella: the transactional group mainly handles contracts, licences and collaboration agreements, while another department handles the regulatory aspects. As well as pharmaceutical giants, the firm also represents biotechnology, digital health, diagnostic and medical device companies, often in regulatory proceedings before the European Commission, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), and the Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP). For example, recently they’ve advised pharma company PTC Therapeutics on procedural rights after requests from the European Medicines Agency for access to their clinical trial data. As for transactions, Covington acted for German-headquartered BioNTech on its $150 million IPO; and for AstraZeneca in mooted sales and licence to Cheplapharm of commercial rights to antipsychotic medications, for $280 million total.

“More recently we’ve been dealing with lots of coronavirus-related issues,” trainees revealed. “For example, a lot of clients are wanting to produce and manufacture hand sanitiser and face masks to get out to public and key workers; we help them with navigating the regulatory framework to achieve that.” One insider felt the level of technicality that comes with life sciences work can "somewhat limit your responsibility as a trainee,” adding that "there’s more of an emphasis on learning and training." However, our sources were still drafting clauses and small agreements, proofreading documents and attending meetings.They revealed that the regulatory seat is “extremely research-heavy. If you don’t love research, don’t do this seat,” one warned. Those who do enjoy it might consider opting for a spell in the food & drugs team, which is similarly big on getting trainees researching. A source explained: “You spend a lot of time looking at the restrictions around advertising a particular pill or product. It really makes you look at the adverts on the Underground differently!”

“It really makes you look at the adverts on the Underground differently!”

The broader corporate department also advises life sciences clients; others include globally recognised names from the tech, media and communications sectors. The team recently advised founders of British film visual effects company The Foundry on its £410 million sale to the US-based Roper Technologies. A source told us that “the team also handles some restructuring, private equity and venture capital deals.” They go on to explain the role of the trainee on matters: “You really get to grips with all the cogs in a company's structure. I was filing lots for Companies House and sitting in lots of calls with clients.” Cross-border transactions and collaborations with Covington’s US offices are common.

“Our disputes team covers all the sectors the firm is involved in,” trainees clarified. “We have clients in the financial services, energy, tech, media and life sciences sectors.” There’s also a sub-team that handles commercial and investor-state arbitration. Covington recently represented the World Anti-Doping Agency during defamation and negligence claims involving Liverpool Football Club and player Mamadou Sakho; they also acted for German-based Deutsche Telekom in a conspiracy claim brought by the administrators of Phones 4u. There’s plenty for trainees to cut their teeth on in this seat, from bundling and disclosure to “preparing presentations to a board of directors and helping to develop expert reports. I think disputes is one the groups with the best team spirits – there’s always lots of social events going on.”

Trainee Life

Speaking of socials, Covington has a softball team, a Christmas party and a multitude of welcoming drinks to keep keen trainees occupied. Interviewees made it clear that “people have lives and families outside of the firm, so they aren’t the sort to stick around for a drink every night.” Turning their attentions to the idea of a Covington ‘type’, trainees said: “People in the firm are normal but also very passionate about the work they do, not just from a work perspective but also in an academic sense.” One went further: “We’re quite nerdy. There’s definitely a ‘kooky’ character to the firm, as we have so many eccentric personalities.”

"…very passionate about the work they do, not just from a work perspective but also in an academic sense.”

Reflecting Covington’s American roots, pro bono is something that the firm takes seriously. There have been lots of immigration law cases that we’re encouraged to get involved with, the hours of which all count towards billables.” Less happily, the firm also brings with it a US work ethic and “the hours are not the friendliest.” Their intensity varied between our interviewees, but trainees indicated ten-hour-plus days were common. They should prepare for later nights as well, but also “quieter periods where you can leave at 6pm.” Transactional seats tend to have more demanding hours while litigious and regulatory departments will be a bit more predictable. One trainee summarised: “On average, I would say I’m eating dinner in the office twice a week.”

Fortunately, prospective trainees can look forward to some fantastic views when wistfully staring out the window 16 hours into a shift, as the firm is due to move to 22 Bishopsgate some time in 2021. “It’s the second-tallest building in London and we’re going to be on the top floor!” Quick to defend their firm, trainees declared that “the hours are similar to what you’d work at the magic circle,” which sounds about right. They also hoped Covington would ease restrictions on flexible working for trainees and NQs in the wake of Covid-19.

Trainees appreciated that “the firm tries to create roles where they can” when qualification season arrives. “Some departments are known for offering roles only every few years – such as employment,” we heard. “Corporate and litigation typically have the highest capacity for NQs.” Covington retained all eight qualifiers in 2020, and even brought in a ninth trainee to start in September 2020.


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How to get a Covington & Burling training contract


Vacation scheme deadline: 15 January 2021 

Insight day deadline: 26 February 2021 

Training contract deadline: 9 July 2021

Vacation scheme 

In the summer, Covington and Burling opens its doors to as many as  twenty 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 Jessica Frost, the firm's Legal Recruiting Senior Coordinator, EMEA. “Typically 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.” 

As Frost explains, there's plenty more involved: “Students undertake group activities and attend presentations from different practice groups, and from across our EMEA offices, alongside social activities and networking opportunities that allow students to get a real feel of the firm.” The firm welcomed their 2020 vacation scheme students virtually, “We designed a meaningful remote experience using digital tools, which we think harnessed the firm's uniquely collaborative culture but also gave a real insight how we operate as a business.” 

Assessment days 

Candidates perform a written exercise, take part in a panel discussion, a group exercise, and an 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.” The firm 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 are looking for an intellectual challenge,” says Frost.

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.

Working at an American firm in London

Americans and Brits go their own way on so many topics. But on the London legal scene, are US firms really so different?

Covington & Burling LLP

265 Strand,

  • Partners: 30
  • Associates: 52
  • Total trainees: 17
  • UK offices: London
  • Overseas offices: 12
  • Contacts 
  • Graduate recruiter: Graduate Recruitment Team,, 020 7067 2000
  • Training partners: Mark Young & Sarah Cowlishaw
  • 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 20
  • Dates and deadlines 
  • Training contract applications open: 1st October 2020
  • Training contract deadline, 2023 start: 9th July 2021
  • Vacation scheme applications open: 1st October 2020
  • Summer vacation scheme 2021 deadline: 15th January 2021
  • Open day deadline: 26 February 2021
  • 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: Up to £8,000
  • International and regional 
  • Offices with training contracts: London Overseas seats: Brussels, Dubai
  • 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, Covington has more than 1,000 lawyers and advisers across our global offices. We advise clients on their most challenging and complex matters. Our work has an international element, and all our practice groups operate across borders. Our distinctively collaborative culture allows us to be truly one team globally, drawing on the diverse experience of lawyers across the firm. At Covington, you will have an opportunity to work on cutting-edge deals for clients such as Microsoft, Astra Zeneca and Facebook, Fortune 100 businesses and leading technology, life sciences and media companies. We have represented Facebook, Inc in its US$22 billion acquisition of WhatsApp and its US$1 billion acquisition of Instagram. We also advised Illumina on a four-year project that will map genomes for breakthroughs into cancer and rare diseases. Most recently we have advised on a deal in which Pfizer & BioNTech have agreed to work together to develop a covid-19 vaccine.

Main areas of work
Corporate advisory (capital markets, M&A, finance, private equity, venture capital and funds), commercial litigation, data privacy, competition, employment, financial services, insurance coverage disputes, intellectual property, internal investigations and compliance, international arbitration, life sciences, project development & finance, tax, technology regulatory.

Training opportunities
Trainees complete four six-month seats. All trainees undertake a seat within the corporate and dispute resolution practices and optional seats in employment & benefits, life sciences regulatory and life sciences transactional, project development & finance and technology regulatory. Client secondments are available, alongside secondments to our Brussels & Dubai offices. All trainees are supervised by a senior lawyer and have access to a support network and a mentoring programme. Trainees benefit from the responsibilities and opportunities found within a close-knit office, combined with the resources and prestige of a leading international firm. You are quickly able to start contributing to teams and participate in meaningful work.

Vacation scheme
Our vacation schemes provide an opportunity to become integrated into the firm, and participate in real work, group activities and a series of presentations from across practice groups and offices. Students work on an independent research project focusing on a practice area of interest, providing a valuable insight into the work of a Covington lawyer.

Other benefits
Trainees have access to a full benefits package including: pension scheme, health insurance, life assurance, independent financial advice, 25 days’ holiday, 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 to become a successful lawyer.

University law careers fairs 2020

Diversity, inclusion and wellbeing:
Diversity and inclusion is a fundamental component of our firm's strategy and is embedded in our goals, plans and priorities. We also recognize and value the impact of diverse leadership and inclusive client teams to our business. To underscore our commitment, we have hired a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and approved our D&I Strategic Action Plan including goals to develop, promote and retain a more diverse lawyer population; to ensure leader accountability to D&I objectives; and to strengthen our client relationships grounded in our shared D&I values.

We are proud of our successes to date but recognize we can always and must do more. Our ongoing D&I initiatives include efforts to increase the diversity of our client teams and leadership through recruiting and development opportunities, addressing racial justice and implicit bias training for all Covington personnel, and empowering our diverse colleagues through affinity group and other programming.

We actively invest in leadership and career development roles for our diverse team of lawyers. The firm’s mentorship program is designed to give our associates opportunities to take on projects that will allow them to develop skills necessary to become a senior lawyer in the practice.

Covington is a Mansfield-certified firm and we are innovative and intentional with regard to the manner in which we assign lawyers to pitches and staff the matters on which our lawyers work. This intentionality carries over to the manner in which we make case assignments. Our assignment partners and practice group chairs work together to staff our matters to best meet the needs of our clients and ensure the professional development and promotion our diverse team of lawyers.

In response to recent events in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and efforts to address systemic racism, we have redoubled our efforts inside the firm. Specifically we are broadening and enhancing our training programs focused on supporting the contributions of our diverse colleagues as allies and advocates, and working to build a more racially just workplace. Our programs on implicit bias and leading inclusively are mandatory for all Covington personnel.

Covington supports six Affinity Groups: African American/Black, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, LGBT+, Women’s and Veterans. Affinity Groups contribute to our firm culture of inclusion and provide additional opportunities for mentoring, community building, and professional development. The Affinity Groups are open to all and actively promote intersectional programming recognizing the many identities of our people.

This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2020

Ranked Departments

    • Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 5)
    • Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 4)
    • Litigation (Band 5)
    • Data Protection & Information Law (Band 2)
    • Fraud: Civil (Band 5)
    • 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)
    • Projects (Band 3)