“If you want corporate finance work, early responsibility, and a guaranteed seat in New York… then Davis Polk is perfect.”
The magic money tree
It’s hard to talk about Davis Polk without bringing up money. For starters, the firm’s London office especially is “heavily focused on corporate finance” and moving money between big banks and multinational corporations. Those clients in turn pay Davis Polk a lot of cash for its troubles, generating a record $1.4 billion in revenue in 2018. Trainees sit at the bottom of the money tree, but they’re definitely not short-changed – Davis Polk has the highest trainee salary in the UK, paying first-years £55,000 and second-years £60,000.
And don’t be fooled by the firm’s small City headcount: zoom out on Google Maps and you’ll see a ten-office multinational network worthy of close to 20 top Chambers Global rankings. Trainees were “initially attracted by the firm’s status worldwide, and in particular in the US. But we generate plenty of work within London as well as outside it.” Despite Brexit looming, interviewees were happy to note that it remains the case that “this office leads Davis Polk in Europe.” Reflecting on the firm's relatively small size here they said that “the firm's strategy has always been one of organic growth – it's not going to go crazy and hire loads of laterals.” Training partner Will Pearce tells us: “We have proven it’s possible to handle massive cross-border transactions with a small team. We don’t have plans like other US firms in London to be a kind of ‘mini magic circle’ firm – our goal is to stick to what we’re good at.”
“This office leads Davis Polk in Europe.”
New York sits at the centre of the Davis Polk web; the firm started life here all the way back in 1849. It opened its London office back in the early 70s, but the first trainees didn't arrive on the scene until 2014. As a result, trainees told us that the training partner “is constantly looking for feedback and makes it clear we can shape the training contract.”
That said, the structure of the traineeship, seat allocation, and seat options are all fairly rigid in practice. The firm assigns trainees their first seat; after that “we discuss where we want to go during mid-seat reviews. The advantage of a small cohort is there’s very little competition.” Davis Polk only offers a handful of options so the vast majority of trainees do a seat in corporate, another in finance, and a specialist seat, plus six months in New York. For most the process is therefore “just a case of working out the order of your seats,” but if a trainee wants to bend the rules a bit “the firm can be very accommodating.” We heard about trainees who’d sat in corporate twice and skipped their spell in finance, or split their specialist seat between two different departments.
Sky’s the limit
Public and private M&A, capital markets and venture capital all form the work of the corporate group. “It provides such a varied experience as a trainee,” though most rookies “don’t tend to work on a huge number of deals” during their seat. On the bright side, “that means you get very involved in what you work on and the team comes to rely on your knowledge.” The London office collaborates a fair bit with the much larger American team – such as on Comcast's huge £30.6 billion takeover of Sky – but also has its own work stream. On the capital markets side Davis Polk recently acted for the underwriters on Ocado’s £143 million accelerated bookbuild: a short, sharp shares offering with little pre-warning. Other names on the books include Heineken, Maersk and several investment banks like Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs and UBS.
Trainees said that on huge public M&A deals one of their main tasks is “drawing up communications documents for the press,” while on private transactions trainees are likely to “spend more time on diligence exercises.” On capital markets deals rookies “take the lead in verification and put together board minutes and other ancillary documents.”
The firm has “very close historical ties with big banks like J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley.” Banks like these form the core of the finance clientele, so trainees work for the most part on lender-side financings for public acquisitions and “the everyday needs of corporations.” Here too, London often handles the English side of transatlantic transactions, such as a £5.2 billion loan agreement for US insurance broker Marsh & McLennan’s proposed acquisition of British counterpart Jardine Lloyd Thompson. Like in corporate, “there’s no escape from standard trainee tasks” including running conditions precedent checklists. But interviewees also found that “supervisors are keen to push you – I often got to practise drafting security documents and sections of facility agreements, and there was a lot of client contact.”
“Supervisors are keen to push us.”
Specialist seat options include tax, financial regulation and competition. All three teams get pulled onto major corporate finance deals to provide their specialist know-how, but handle some of their own matters as well. Trainees sometimes referred to competition by the American term ‘antitrust’, even when discussing “non-US filings, which London takes the lead on within the global picture.” In one example, Davis Polk advised Brazilian pulp and paper company Fibria Celulose on the antitrust aspects of its $11 billion acquisition by market rival Suzano. Our sources got well acquainted with paper, “checking through a lot of documents” as part of filing analysis. Some also got to “draft elements of filings, but that was more as a learning tool and they would never actually be submitted.”
Every trainee is guaranteed a seat in New York if they want it. They’ll normally join a department they’ve already sampled in London, most commonly corporate or finance. As the US is the “heart of everything that’s happening at Davis Polk,” trainees found their time in the Big Apple most helpful for meeting colleagues in person. One said: “When I went back to London I knew exactly who to ring with any questions about America’s role on deals.” Of course, trainees also enjoy “getting to be a tourist” and staying in “a plush apartment” overlooking Central Park.
We heard that “what you choose to do in New York can be a fairly strong indication of where you want to qualify.” The small trainee intake means qualification’s a loose affair, starting with conversations towards the end of seat three. “People tend to get to qualify into their preferred department,” and things only need to get more formal if more than one trainee is gunning for the same spot. All three qualifiers got a spot in their department of choice in 2018, and in 2019 all three qualifiers stayed on.
The firm’s small London headcount means “there’s no space for people to be anything other than super-welcoming. You get to know everybody quickly and we have genuinely strong professional friendships.” Social happenings tend to be driven by individuals rather than the powers that be: “Most juniors will try to have lunch together, and sometimes an email will go around asking who fancies getting drinks after work.” Trainees make the most of the few firm-sponsored socials. “After this year’s Christmas party quite a big group of us ended up in Karaoke Box until they kicked us out,” one interviewee fondly reminisced.
“Late nights and weekend work aren’t sprung on you.”
Closing time at the Davis Polk office can vary wildly. “Compared to the big British firms I’d say the peaks and troughs are more extreme,” one trainee guessed. “If it’s quiet I can leave at 6pm every day, but when it’s busy I’ll be finishing around 11pm, midnight or later.” Specialist teams tend to stick to a more reasonable nine-to-six working day. Keen to point out silver linings in the clouds, interviewees stressed that “late nights and weekend work aren’t sprung on you” and that “people don’t hang around when it’s quiet. Everybody appreciates that you should enjoy quiet spells while you can.”
Trainees also enjoyed “a real desire from supervisors to teach.” Most found their office-mate partner supervisor became more hands-off over time, but was “always willing to let you try something if you wanted to.” Every trainee gets two mid-seat and end-of-seat appraisals, one with their supervisor and another with the training partner. While appraisals are very structured, we heard that “there’s not much of a structured formal training programme” aside from the “really beneficial” 'Deal Basics' programme: it provides weekly two-hour sessions on various transaction types and runs for trainees’ first three months at the firm.
Davis Polk hosts practice area meetings every Tuesday, partly dedicated to advertising pro bono opportunities that trainees can get involved with – if they find time!
How to get into Davis Polk
Vacation scheme deadline (2020): 11 January 2020 (opens 1 December 2019)
Apply for training contract via vac scheme
Davis Polk fills its new trainee intake solely from those who've attend one of its two summer vac schemes. London training principal Will Pearce explains: “The feedback we’ve received from applicants is that they are applying for a smaller, more focused group of law firms and that they want the chance to check out what a firm is really like in a vacation scheme over a two-week period rather than just in an interview over a couple of hours.” Furthermore, “beyond having excellent academics, fit is crucial in a small office. Getting to know the candidates well is as important for us as it is for the applicants themselves.” Be aware that the application window for 2020 vac schemes (and therefore 2022 training contracts) opens on 1 December 2019 and closes on 11 January 2020.
To apply for the vac scheme, Davis Polk sticks with the tried and tested CV and covering letter. “We ask that you give us a CV, breaking down your grades, work experience and those extracurricular activities you think are relevant,” says Pearce. “I'd say less is more – but don't try and hide anything! Even if you got a low mark in one of your exams.”
The covering letter should explain a candidate's reasons for studying the law, why they want to study at an international firm, what attracts them to Davis Polk and why they are suited to it, but Pearce tells us: “I'm looking for someone thoughtful who has done their research and someone who understands what Davis Polk is about.” It pays to get specific: “It’s good to pick out a deal we've worked on which interests you. We're unashamedly a New York-headquartered firm, but a student really impresses by drilling down and saying what people in London have been working on. It shows that they've taken the time to think about the firm and what they’d be working on as a trainee, rather than regurgitating our careers website.”
Successful applicants are invited to two interviews to try and snag a place on the vac scheme, spending around two hours at the office in total. The first of the two interviews is with a couple of partners. "We want to know about the individual,” says Pearce. “We don't have stock questions and there might be a few left field things, just to see how candidates react.” The partners then take questions from the candidate.
The second interview is with an associate and a current trainee, and scales back the pressure slightly. “It's an informal chat. It's very much to give the candidate an idea of the people who work here,” says Pearce.
The vacation scheme
The firm runs two vac schemes; each lasts for two weeks with one starting in late June and the other starting in mid-July. Each scheme takes roughly ten candidates, but that's not written in stone. “If we have 16 superstars, we'll do two schemes of eight; if we have 26, we'll make it work somehow, rather than saying we don't have enough places.”
Aside from a variety of social events with partners and associates, students will spend time learning about each of the London office’s practice areas and get stuck into some real trainee work. “Over the summer, some practices might be a little slower, so to give a more representative experience we do a case study where students do research and draft a client memo. It's not formally marked because some students might be working on real deals and so have less time to complete it.” In the second week, students take part in a team exercise where they prepare and carry out a mock client meeting.
The firm holds open days for both first and second-year students where it gives talks about the firm's recruitment process, goes through case studies to practice interview skills and puts on drinks for attendees. “We want people to like us for who we are and what we do, so we'll talk on open days about people's different career opportunities. We're very happy to give constructive career advice.”
Interview with Will Pearce, Davis Polk’s recruitment partner and training principal
Chambers Student: What have been the highlights of the last year at Davis Polk?
Will Pearce: In 2018 the firm had its best financial year in its 170-year history as announced by outgoing managing partner Tom Reid. Here in London, big highlights were obviously acting as lead corporate counsel to Comcast on the $40 billion Sky takeover and Temenos on its £1.4 billion bid for Fidessa, in addition to numerous other private M&A, capital markets and credit transactions. We’ve also just completed a two year project with Maersk to separate its energy division – this saw us advise on the $7.45 billion sale of Maersk Oil to Total and the demerger and $3.6 billion Copenhagen listing of Maersk Drilling.
CS: How is Brexit affecting the firm? How is it affecting your clients' business?
WP: We have a mixed, balance of clients – corporates, investment banks and private equity funds – and here in London we advise not only on UK-led but also global transactions with the other offices in the Davis Polk network. Because we’re not overly dependent on the UK market, we’re perhaps not as worried about the impact of Brexit; our roles on international corporate finance transactions hopefully mean it won’t have as much of an impact on us as other firms.
CS: What does the firm’s international network mean for the trainee experience?
WP: Every trainee who wants to spend (and everyone does) a six-month seat in our New York office, in addition to their corporate, credit and specialist seats in London. This is a great learning experience for our trainees and gives them the opportunity to really experience our firm culture and working in a larger office. We try to make sure the trainees spend time with a team in New York that they’re likely to work with when they come back to London and qualify. This helps our trainees build their professional networks from the outset.
CS: What is the firm's current business strategy in London? Trainees told us the focus is very much on organic growth…
WP: Over the last five or six years we’ve more than doubled the size of the London office with the addition of English law capability, and proven with our track record that it’s possible to work on big cross-border transactions with a smaller, high quality team in London. Our trainees are working with partners on massive deals they’ll read about on the front of the Financial Times, and get real responsibility as part of a team here. Both benefits of working in a smaller, more focused environment.
Davis Polk doesn’t have plans to replicate the growth of other American firms like Kirkland and Latham here in London, nor to be a ‘mini magic circle’ firm. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just not our model. The plan is therefore very much to stick to what we’re good at, developing our core transactional practice areas and growing organically with the addition of the three-to-four trainees a year model we’re running.
CS: Taking into account future growth, do you foresee an increase to the trainee cohort size?
WP: The opportunity is certainly there to grow the size of our partnership in London and with that comes the opportunity to expand our training contract programme, but growth will be measured as we’re keen on maintaining the hands-on experience for our trainees. It’s very important that they come in and get to do real work for real clients on real deals.
CS: More generally, do you have any advice for readers who are about to enter the legal profession?
WP: It’s very competitive at the moment, the number of training contracts keeps falling and the days in which you had the luxury of trying out various vacation schemes without any idea of your direction of travel are over. Like us, many firms now only hire from their vacation schemes. The key thing is to think long and hard about what kind of lawyer you want to be, what kind of work interests you and what kind of firm you want to work for.
Take time from your studies to visit open days and meet people at different firms, get a real feel for what sort of firm you want to work for and be very focused with your applications. Having a good rationale for applying to a firm shows that you as a candidate are thoughtful and you’ve done your research: that automatically makes a law firm pay more attention to you during the application process.
CS: Is there anything else we haven't already talked about that our readers should know about Davis Polk?
WP: It’s easy to get lost in firm rankings, prestige and starting salaries during your research, but one thing students should also focus on is the idea of mentorship and whether partners at the firm will invest in them as individuals. In one of our future trainee intakes, every future joiner highlighted that having a good number of partners who could act as a career mentor was a really important factor that influenced their decision to join Davis Polk. Money and prestige are one thing, but candidates are beginning to walk in thinking ‘is this a firm where people will look after and invest in me?’.
Davis Polk & Wardwell London LLP
5 Aldermanbury Square,
- Partners 8 (over 155worldwide)
- Other fee earners 60 (over 952worldwide)
- Total trainees 6
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 9
- Graduate recruiter: Emily Lawrence, [email protected]
- Training partner: Will Pearce, [email protected].com
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 4
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or higher
- Vacation scheme places pa: Approx 20
- Dates and deadlines
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 December 2019
- Vacation scheme 2020deadline: 11 January 2020
- Davis Polk recruits trainees directly from the vacation schemes.
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £55,000
- Second-year salary: £60,000
- Post-qualification salary: £135,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £10, 000
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Hong Kong
- Overseas seats: New York
- Client secondments: Yes
Main areas of work
During each scheme, students will have the opportunity to work on transactions for a variety of the firm’s clients and attend information sessions focused on the work of each practice area. Students will gain first-hand experience of Davis Polk’s culture through interactions with lawyers and attendance at a number of social events.
Applications for the 2020 scheme will be considered from penultimate-year law students, final-year nonlaw students and postgraduates wishing to begin a training contract in August 2022. Applications will be accepted between 1 December 2019 and 11 January 2020. Interviews will take place in the second half of January 2020. The firm expects to offer around 20 places for the scheme, and students will receive a salary of £500 per week.
Open Days & Law Fairs The firm organises an open day for second year law students (22 November 2019) and for first year law students (6 March 2020) and attends a number of on-campus law fairs. For details visit careers. davispolk.com/training-london.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: Equity (Band 2)