Davis Polk & Wardwell London LLP - True Picture

This American powerhouse on UK soil offers trainees “lots of responsibility from a very early stage” in high-end corporate and finance work.

Davis Polk training contract review 2022

The Firm

In the good ol’ US of A, Davis Polk is pretty much a household name. So much so that our friends at Chambers USA consider the firm part of the American elite, with it winning nationwide top-tier rankings in its core banking, corporate, capital markets, and tax departments – among others. Its accolades are legion in America. But in the UK, where it has one office in London and has practised for over 40 years, folks aren’t playing second fiddle. While “it’s a very well-established Wall Street firm,” the London base is a “smaller office but with that international prestige.” Its only UK rankings come from its high-end M&A capabilities, and debt & equity capital markets work, but this is still BigLaw in the Big Smoke.

“…everyone is really personable and really keen to explain things.”

To get the picture, consider the types of clients the firm represents. The likes of AstraZeneca, Rolls-Royce, Goldman Sachs, Comcast, and more flock to the firm for advice, with a refined trainee pool – the firm takes on four trainees a year – thrown in on many headline-hitting deals. Which, we’re told, is part of the appeal. “I always knew I wanted a smaller trainee cohort,” one source shared. “I wanted a more hands-on learning approach by doing rather than a structured training programme.” Thankfully, according to another rookie, “everyone is really personable and really keen to explain things.”

The Seats

Over 50 lawyers ply their trade in the capital across a tailored offering of all things corporate and finance. Trainees fall in as such, following “quite an established path” in the firm’s corporate (M&A, equity, and debt capital markets), finance, and other “support departments” like antitrust, tax, or financial regulation. “I always got my first choice of seat,” told one source. “That’s the benefit of having no competition due to a smaller cohort.” In the pre-pandemic age, trainees would all do a six-month stint in the firm’s New York office; though things are (understandably) up in the air with international placements at present, this placement will be back on track when circumstances allow.

“It was pretty amazing to me as the managing partner of the London office was running it and it was very intense, but I learned a lot.”

The firm’s corporate department broadly straddles a range of public and private M&A and private equity transactions, as well as both debt and equity capital markets work. The former saw the firm advise Reliance Industries and Jio Platforms in connection with agreements from Facebook, Google, and more. It also advised UBS in its support of Unilever’s cross-border unification merger. Its capital markets work ranges from advice to the Emirate of Abu Dhabi’s three bond offerings with a combined value of $15 billion, to advising on Royalty Pharma’s $2.5 billion IPO and Ocado’s £657 million placing of new ordinary shares. Sources had found work in all permeations of corporate work, be it “all-hands on deck for a huge cross-border M&A deal,” supporting US counterparts with a “surge of SPAC deals where resources were needed across the world,” or helping companies “raise capital to fund an M&A deal” on a billion-dollar financing round. “That huge deal was my first as a trainee. It was pretty amazing to me as the managing partner of the London office was running it and it was very intense, but I learned a lot.” Typical trainee tasks included running the due diligence process and conditions precedent checklists, coupled with “less clerical tasks,” like progressing on to “more drafting responsibility.”

Any corporate practice worth its salt requires a robust competition department. Accordingly, sources predominantly found work “on merger compliance on the transactional side where large M&A deals trigger EU or UK filings.” The firm reportedly does do some abusive market dominance work, but London’s size prevents it from taking on many contentious matters.One trainee also dubbed work as “anything ex-US. Anything that requires filing outside the US for companies with direct foreign investment.” Work on “huge mammoth deals,” like Ingram Micro’s $7.2 billion acquisition by Platinum Equity from HNA Technology, or Ingersoll-Rand’s $15 billion combination of its Industrial Segment with Gardner Denver Holdings, keeps trainees busy. “I was having to coordinate filings in 20 jurisdictions,” said one source. “I had to act as a main client contact as well as converse with lawyers and regulators across the world. It was lots of responsibility at an early stage.” When travel wasn’t a thing of the past, this meant filing in person too. “We actually went to Brussels to submit the filing to the European Commission,” said another trainee. “It’s cool to get a taste for how antitrust works in different jurisdictions.”

“I had to act as a main client contact as well as converse with lawyers and regulators across the world.”

In finance, sources are “separate from corporate and deal with loans and bonds” to high net worth individuals and “revolving credit facilities with banks.” Working on both the lender and borrower side, sources had helped on private equity financing, public M&A, derivatives, and securitisations. The likes of Barclays, Citibank, and Ford Motor Company rely on the firm’s services, with finance practitioners advising a Tencent-led consortium on the financing of its acquisition of additional equity interest in the Universal Music Group. It also advised arrangers regarding a $1 billion unsecured term loan facility agreement to Sasol Financing USA. “We don’t really work with just domestic clients,” told one trainee. “They tend to be multinational.” Sources had drafted corporate authorisations, board minutes, and shareholder resolutions, as well as “lots of support on closings,” which involved circulating signature pages and execution documents. “You got more opportunity to interact with clients and opposing counsel there,” according to one trainee.

The specialist tax department sees sources doing mainly research for supervisors. “Like law school, 95% of it was legal research, helping out on tax advice delivered by a partner of counsel.” The department handles many of the tax implications from corporate finance and private equity work, for clients such as Natura Cosméticos, The Brink’s Company, and Pfizer. Notably, the firm provided tax advice to Ferrero in its acquisition of British cereal maker Eat Natural, as well as advice to IHS Markit in connection with its all-stock merger with S&P Global. “Tax tends to be very advisory,” said one source, “so you were feeding into that process for supervisors, which meant little client contact.”

Trainee Life

“It’s too small here to have a hierarchy,” one junior reflected when discussing office culture. “It’s a very flat structure.” Dynamics markedly differed from their US counterparts. “Even when people are swamped, no one’s shouting here.” The more intimate nature of the office reportedly caters to self-starters, as one source said: “If you want to learn things, you have to be proactive and ask. But it’s an open dialogue between you and your supervisors.” We’re told socialising can be limited though. “I wouldn’t call it the most social firm, but I’d say it’s a friendly and professional environment.” In part, time-bound pressures prevent regular frivolity. “We go for drinks every now and then,” one source revealed. “But only when things are quiet.”

“…it’s a rite of passage and I’m still learning things, which justifies the hours.”

The question then beckons: how often are things quiet? While “staying up late to do unimportant things isn’t valued at the firm,” hours can be… well, typical for a US firm. We’re told corporate “can be pretty insane,” with all-nighters and regular AM finishes common. “Transactional seats are quite volatile,” said one source who had once clocked a 95-hour week in their seat. The “saving grace” though is that it isn’t constant. “You have busy periods, but you only stay late if absolutely necessary.” Across other departments sources found between 7 to 8pm to be a “reasonable finish.” A further saving grace for sources is the compensation. Trainees were quick to highlight that while joining the firm “has never been about the money,” DP trainees are among the best paid in the country. “It’s no secret that the firm does pay well,” according to one source. “But you must be prepared to work really hard. You get paid to be on call.” Another added: “The difficult hours is a baptism of fire, but it’s a rite of passage and I’m still learning things, which justifies the hours.”

Sources were quick to highlight the “diverse bunch of employees at the firm,” citing various nationalities operating in London’s hallways. And while the more formal diversity initiatives come from the US, things in the UK are “more organic and less contrived, as our cohort is very diverse.” That said, sources did highlight that there are no female partners in London, “which isn’t great. There could be more done in retaining talent.”

Sign the Polk-a dotted line…

Qualification at the firm remains informal, with trainees dubbing the process “a casual conversation.” In 2021, Davis Polk retained both of its qualifiers.

How to get into Davis Polk

Vacation scheme deadline (2022): 8 January 2022 (opens 1 December 2021)

Apply for training programme via vac scheme

Initial applications

Davis Polk fills its trainee intake solely from those law students who attend its vac scheme. London training principal Will Pearce explains: “Applicants are really sophisticated and well researched. We find that they focus their applications on a small number of law firms and want the opportunity to check out what a firm is really like on a vacation scheme rather than relying solely on impressions formed in an interview.” For Davis Polk, “beyond having excellent academics, we’re looking for applicants who have a good understanding of what we are about and who are thoughtful about whether they think they would fit, something that is crucial in a relatively small corporate finance-focused team. Getting to know the applicants individually is really important for us.” Be aware that the application window for 2022 vac schemes (and therefore 2024 training contracts) opens on 1 December 2021 and closes on 8 January 2022.

To apply for the vac scheme, Davis Polk relies on a CV and covering letter. “We ask that you send us a short CV setting out your grades, relevant work experience and those extracurricular activities you think may be relevant to your application,” says Pearce. “I'd say less is more – but don't try and hide anything! Set out the subjects you are studying in your law degree and the grades you have achieved even if you got a low mark in one of your exams.”

The covering letter should explain a candidate's reasons for studying law, why they want to work at an international law firm and what attracts them to Davis Polk, but Pearce tells us: “I'm looking for someone who has done their research and understands what Davis Polk in London is about.” It pays to get specific: “It’s good to pick out a deal we've worked on which interests you. Yes, we’re a New York-headquartered firm, but a student really impresses by calling out deals the London team have worked 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 the pages on our website.”

More broadly, Pearce says: “We’re looking for smart, enthusiastic people who are committed to pursuing a career in corporate finance. We want people who are self-confident, without being overbearing, and who are able to demonstrate that they’re good team players: there is no room for sharp elbows.”

He adds: “Some applicants are swayed by money; some by law firm brands. But I’d say most important is working out where is the place that you can be yourself and that you think you will find someone to guide and mentor you through the early stages of your career.”

The interview

Successful applicants are invited to interview to try and snag a place on the vac scheme, spending around two hours interviewing in total. The first and second of the three short back-to-back sessions are with partners. "We want to get to know people individually,” says Pearce. “We don't have stock questions and there might be a few curve balls thrown in, just to see how applicants react.” The partners each take questions from the applicant.

The third session is with an associate and/or a current trainee, and scales back the pressure slightly. “It's more of an informal chat. It's very much designed to give students an idea of the people who work here and the opportunity to ask those questions that they don’t want to ask a partner,” says Pearce.

The vacation scheme

The firm’s vac scheme comprises two groups of between eight and ten students per group. In summer 2022, each group will spend a week with the firm, with the first group starting in late June or early July and the second group starting in mid-July.

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 real trainee work. “We strive to ensure everyone has the same opportunity.  To give everyone a representative experience of what it’s like to be a trainee, we do a case study where students research a real-life corporate finance issue and draft a client memo. It's not formally assessed because some students might be working on real deals and so have less time to complete it.” Students also take part in a team exercise, based on the research and drafting exercise, that involves preparing in a team for and then attending a mock client meeting.

Open days and Getting to Know Davis Polk sessions

The firm regularly holds open days for both first and second-year law students with presentations on the firm's recruitment process, case studies to help develop commercial awareness and hone interview skills, and end-of-day cocktails for attendees. “We want people to like us for who we are and what we do, so there is no hard sell and we talk openly about people's different career paths and opportunities. We're very happy to give constructive career advice.”

With continuing restrictions on in person gatherings, the firm have been running and will continue to run a number of virtual ‘Getting to Know Davis Polk’ sessions each November; these last about two hours and give students an opportunity to learn more about the firm, talk to trainees and interact with the recruitment partner directly.

Pearce concludes: “Spend the time properly researching and shortlisting firms that interest you, rather than taking a scattergun approach. We find the most successful applicants have done that and you get the sense that rather than smashing out thirty random applications, they’ve selected a dozen firms they’re really interested in.”

Davis Polk & Wardwell London LLP

5 Aldermanbury Square,
Website www.dpw.com

  • Partners 8 (Over 160 worldwide)
  • Other fee-earners: Approx. 50 (Over 950 worldwide)
  • Total trainees: 7
  • UK offices: London
  • Overseas offices: 9
  • Contacts  
  • Graduate recruiter: Emily Lawrence, londonrecruiting@davispolk.com
  • Training partner: Will Pearce, will.pearce@davispolk.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: 1st December 2021
  • Vacation scheme deadline: 8th January 2022
  • Davis Polk recruits trainees directly from the vacation schemes.
  • Salary and benefits 
  • First-year salary: £57,500
  • Second-year salary: £62,500
  • Post-qualification salary: £147,500
  • Holiday entitlement: 25 days
  • Sponsorship  
  • SQE fees: Yes
  • Maintenance grant pa: £10, 000
  • International and regional 
  • Offices with training contracts: London, Hong Kong
  • Overseas seats: New York
  • Client secondments: Yes following qualification

Firm profile
Davis Polk is an elite global law firm with world-class practices across the board. Industry-leading companies and global financial institutions know they can rely on Davis Polk for their most challenging legal and business matters. The firm’s top-flight capabilities are grounded in a distinguished history of 170 years, and its global, forward-looking focus is supported by 10 offices strategically located in the world’s key financial centers and political capitals — New York, Northern California, Washington DC, São Paulo, London, Paris, Madrid, Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo. The firm’s lawyers collaborate seamlessly across practice groups and geographies to provide clients with exceptional service, sophisticated advice and creative, practical solutions.

Main areas of work
The London team consists of around 50 UK and US qualified lawyers. They represent corporate, private equity and investment banking clients on a wide range of capital markets, M&A and finance transactions, many of which are cross-border in nature. The team includes highly-rated tax, financial regulatory and antitrust and competition lawyers, who in addition to standalone advisory work, assist the corporate and finance teams on transactions.

Training opportunities
The two-year London training programme provides excellent training and a range of experiences to ensure a successful start to a career as an English law-qualified lawyer. Before joining, future trainees will receive training to help them complete the first and second stages of the SQE. Throughout the training programme that follows, trainees experience the corporate and finance practices, spend time in a specialist area of law (tax, financial regulatory or antitrust and competition), and work in the New York office for six months. They receive tailored training, take on real responsibility and have extensive access to partners.

Vacation schemes
Davis Polk expects to host two groups of law students on its summer vacation schemes, each for one week, from which the firm will recruit its 2024 intake of trainees. 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 2022 scheme will be considered from penultimate-year law undergraduates and law postgraduates wishing to join the training programme in August 2024. Applications will be accepted between 1 December 2021 and 8 January 2022. Interviews will take place in January 2022 and the firm expects to offer around 20 places for the scheme.

Getting to Know Davis Polk Sessions & Law Fairs
This autumn the firm will run Getting to Know Davis Polk Sessions virtually (6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on 22 and 23 November 2021) and attend a number of virtual law fairs. For details visit careers.davispolk.com/training-london

Other benefits
The firm offers trainees employment benefits including private medical insurance, life insurance, critical illness insurance, permanent health insurance, pension scheme, season ticket loan, subsidised gym membership, Employee Assistance Programme, medical cash plan, cycle to work scheme and 25 days holiday.

Diversity, Inclusion & Wellbeing:
To Davis Polk diversity means many things – gender and ethnicity, of course, but also place of origin, language, educational background, socioeconomic status, and interests and experience outside the law. This diversity is evident in the lawyers that work in our London office.
The London office promotes a collaborative and open culture, among others, running a DPWomen affinity group and participating in the City Solicitors Horizons programme run by Sponsors for Educational Opportunity London (SEO).

The firm believes that employee wellness makes a vital difference in the workplace and are committed to helping employees achieve their best possible health through programmes and services including:
• Health checks, nutrition consultations and yoga sessions
• Workshops on financial and mindfulness topics
• Complimentary subscription to the Calm app
• Health club subsidy/fitness reimbursement

Social media

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This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2021

Ranked Departments

    • Capital Markets: Debt (Band 4)
    • Capital Markets: Equity (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: High-end Capability (Band 5)