If bigger really is better then the world’s largest law firm by headcount is leaving its rivals in the dust.
How many offices? (Den)tons of them
International law firms are a dime a dozen nowadays, but Dentons takes the concept to whole new heights. “It’s probably more difficult to name a country that we don’t have an office in by this point,” one trainee laughed. “This is one of the only firms that can truly describe itself as international.”
With a mind-boggling 170 offices across the globe, a figure that might have gone up by the time you finish reading this, it can be easy to lose track of developments at Dentons. One of the most important changes for trainees in the UK was a merger with Scottish firm Maclay Murray & Spens in 2017: “Trainees were heavily involved in the integration project and a lot of work’s gone into making sure people get to know each other.” One insider reasoned that “the firm’s taken a big risk with the Pac-Man approach to growing, but the ambition displayed here is really appealing.”
“We want to start being seen as one of the best firms globally.”
The firm’s structured as a Swiss Verein (no, it's not a pastry), with separate profit pools in different locations and a fair amount of authority granted to local management. Trainees told us that the massive global network “really helps on cross-border matters.” Several noticed that Dentons has been “taking on more big M&A deals and cases recently, the work’s now at a higher calibre than previously. The strategy here is very clear, we’ve been expanding for a long time and now we want to start being seen as one of the best firms globally.” The firm already picks up 20 or so nationwide Chambers UK rankings in areas including environment, rail transport, trade finance commodities, franchising and more.
When we came calling for research there were nearly 60 trainees in the London office, plus another 12 between Milton Keynes and Watford. Moving between them and the City for a seat is rare but trainees were keen to say: “There is definite overlap in the work. As a Milton Keynes trainee I’m sometimes working on matters with just London partners.”
Dentons trainees thought their seat allocation process was “more admin-heavy than at a lot of other firms, we have to fill out forms for each rotation and if there’s competition for a seat we submit a CV.” Sorting everyone out is “always going to be tricky and as a trainee you’re at the mercy of what’s popular each year,” but a system shake-up by the firm’s new HR department has been very warmly received. “They’ve listened to everyone’s concerns a lot more,” according to one source. “It seems now that most people get at least some of their choices.” The new regime has also brought in a trainee forum to discuss possible changes to the training contract: as a result, trainees now have work mobile phones and the chance to work one day a week from home. “If you’d spoken to me last year I’d have whinged a lot more but they’ve really taken feedback on board,” one source concluded.
Trainees now get to voice preferences for all their seats including the first and talk through the rotation a month in advance with the firm’s training partner. Banking is compulsory for all Londoners, while those in MK are required to do a stint in real estate.
Banking is the firm's largest department and consists of three subgroups. Group A does general banking including acquisitions, leveraged finance and inter-bank lending; group B handles asset, project and trade finance; and group C does derivatives, capital markets, regulatory and structured finance work.
In group A, trainees got to do “more project management and work with other departments across the firm.” Dentons mostly advises major banks like Wells Fargo and Emirates NBD and international work is par for the course. The firm recently acted for a fund on a €164 million mezzanine loan to Romanian company Chimcomplex so it could acquire the assets of a large chemical business there. Trainees saw a mix of real estate finance, insolvency and financing for acquisitions, which can require “helping out corporate with due diligence.” We heard that supervisors in the department “are keen to give you as much responsibility as you want. I was managing work streams and identifying client queries as well as doing standard CP checklists.”
“You can get quite a lot of client contact and drafting opportunities.”
It’s a similar story in group B, where “the trainee’s role is making sure you’re on top of project management and ensuring the conditions precedent are satisfied.” Asset finance for airlines is one of the biggest work streams – Dentons represented Emirates on deals including the financing of five Boeing 777 and two A380 aircraft – but there’s a growing renewable energy practice. The firm recently advised the International Finance Corporation in relation to its Ethiopia-based Scaling Solar Program in support of a local power utility; trainees did “quite a bit of work” linked to Africa including on “revolving credit facilities for companies that need money at particular times of the year.” By the end of the seat our interviewees were “almost running transactions, following precedent documents. You can get quite a lot of client contact and drafting opportunities.”
Dentons’ corporate department is a popular (i.e. competitive) seat option. The firm’s stock-in-trade was historically mid-market M&A but it’s been shifting to higher-value deals for private equity clients like Stonepeak Partners and KKR – the latter instructed Dentons for its €6.825 billion acquisition of Unilever’s margarine and spreads brands including Flora and ProActiv. “I was lucky to get in on the infancy of massive deals like that so I got loads of responsibility,” a source revealed. Collaboration with other departments is key here and trainees manage due diligence, draft asset and share purchase agreements and collect documents from across the firm. M&A is the department’s “bread and butter” but IPOs are on the table too. “The team makes a real effort to let you draft different types of documents as the team is really busy,” though that means “hours can be extremely challenging. Private equity clients can be demanding so you’re under a lot of pressure.”
Transactional seats come with longer hours than others at Dentons. Banking was at least “predictable” for our sources, whereas one suggested: “A seat in corporate changes your perspective on sacrificing free time for work.” There was less moaning in other departments and we heard more than once that “the firm doesn’t want trainees burning the candle at both ends. The expectation is you’ll work hard but it’s not as bad as the horror shows at larger City firms.” Average finishes across the firm sat somewhere between 6 and 7.30pm; Londoners tended to be in the office later than Milton Keynes colleagues.
Real estate is split into several subgroups including retail, planning, regeneration, development and finance. In Milton Keynes, the real estate team is the largest in the office – they recently assisted Taylor Wimpey during its acquisition of a new housing development site on the outskirts of Reading. A seat there has “quite a large retail element, Sainsbury's is one of our largest clients,” and infrastructure work for organisations like National Rail is also common. Trainees get their own caseload: “I’m managing portfolios, putting together reports on title and getting option agreements sorted. Clients call me when they want to come in to talk things through.” Higher-value and specialist matters call for “more of a support role; I assisted on due diligence and share purchase agreements.” London does real estate work too, advising director Mike Ashley on the acquisition, leasing and development of more than 50 House of Fraser stores.
Milton Keynes trainees are encouraged to go to Watford for a seat in financial disputes. Interest rate swaps are often the source of such squabbles: Dentons tends to act for major banks in these cases. Trainee also worked on “complex repossession cases and ad-hoc misrepresentation disputes,” some of which culminated in multi-day courtroom trials.
“I’ve done everything from debt recovery to complex million-pound disputes.”
Outside of financial services the dispute resolution team handles energy, arbitration, IP, media and transport cases. The firm staffs most trainees in one subsection, but that’s no obstacle to work variety: “I’ve done everything from simple debt recovery to complex million-pound disputes,” one source told us. Some disputes are UK-only but cross-border work is easy to find. In one example case, Dentons acted for private equity group Griffin in a dispute with Poland over interpretation of an investment treaty. The Milton Keynes team represents lots of automotive clients: a car rental giant called on their expertise for the defence of a group action brought in Israel. “Inevitable trainee tasks” like bundling balance “with more actual drafting,” while London sources were more likely to describe the seat as “research-heavy. With Brexit coming in the tasks have become more challenging.” Keep in mind that each office comes with different litigious options – “there’s a very strong property litigation team that’s only in Milton Keynes,” for example.
Secondments are offered at the same time as regular seats but trainees complete a separate application form to explain “why you’d be suited.” The firm now sometimes interviews for spots if they’re in high demand. Overseas seats like Singapore and Dubai gave trainees “a better understanding of the Dentons model, taking over different firms around the world and what that entails.” Given how many offices the firm has, some felt there could be more options for globetrotting, especially given the growth of the trainee cohort and increased competition that comes with that. There are however also various secondments to clients including Barclays and AIG, plus a spot in Airbus’s Toulouse office that’s both an international and client secondment – secondment squared?
Milton's paradise found
So what about Dentons’ bases back in Blighty? While Watford is “incredibly modern,” London has “a lovely client floor but the rest needs updating, I think they last decorated in the 90s!” Milton Keynes meanwhile “feels a bit cramped at times but they’re making it a lot swankier which we’re looking forward to.” Dentons makes up for lack of swank with “friendliness. The London office feels friendlier than other City firms and Milton Keynes is another step up from that because it’s open-plan and everybody’s so approachable.” London’s bigger headcount means “culture definitely varies between teams. Bringing in a lot of laterals changes the feel of those departments.”
Each team hosts its own social events including separate Christmas parties. Trainees tend to be “good at arranging our own stuff, whether that’s barbecues at our homes or going to the pub on a Friday.” We heard more about socialising in MK: trainees are all included on the social committee and “they really pull everyone together for events like go-karting so you can see people you wouldn’t otherwise.” Dentons has now merged the English social committees (more merging, of course!) so additional cross-office bonding might be on the cards in future.
“It’s a bit hit-and-miss because there’s just so much training.”
Our sources were largely optimistic about the future, whether because of a thriving diversity initiative and various active affinity groups or a thorough training curriculum that schools lawyers at each level. “It’s a bit hit-and-miss because there’s just so much training but drafting workshops are especially useful,” we heard. Feedback on a trainee’s progress “can vary depending on your supervisor,” which caused some problems when reviews rolled around. “They’re very subjective and people often interpret the criteria differently. You can come out with very different scores, which isn’t great because they’re important during the NQ process.”
As with seat rotations, qualification at Dentons is “admin-heavy. We fill out an application form then the process is different in each department.” Some organise interviews and even a written test, which trainees thought was “a lot of work if you’ve already sat with the team. It’s designed so that fourth-seaters applying to a department they’ve not been in for long aren’t disadvantaged.” Many of our sources were enthusiastic about sticking with Dentons, but there were some who “felt conflicted knowing how much more US firms pay NQs.” Milton Keynes trainees had an extra axe to grind, arguing “it can be frustrating when senior associates here are being paid less than people in London with a lot less experience.”
There was more enthusiasm about long-term career opportunities, especially the firm’s associate development programme. “The firm puts on various courses so when you’re nearing promotion level, you’re ready,” trainees explained. Across the UK and Europe, Dentons promoted nearly twice as many partners in 2019 than the year before; the firm also welcomed 39 out of 51 trainee qualifiers into its associate ranks.
A word of caution if you’re considering applying for a Milton Keynes training contract with an eye to qualifying in London: “I’d think twice because there are so many London-based trainees and moving across can be very difficult.”
How to get a Dentons training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2020): 3 January 2020 (spring and summer)
Open day deadline (spring 2020): 3 January 2020 (spring and summer)
Training contract deadline (2022): 30 June 2020
Applying to Dentons begins with an online form. As part of the initial screening process, the firm scores each applicant on three core factors: academics, work experience and personality.
Graduate recruitment manager Alex Mundy tells us: “We do have our target universities, but the main thing for us is that people meet the grades.” The minimum is a 2:1 degree, plus ABB at A level. When it comes to work experience, “we like to see that candidates explored what it would be like to work in a commercial law firm – and if it's a City one, then all the better,” Mundy says. Personality criteria, on the other hand, are drawn out through questions “tailored towards candidates' achievements and extracurricular activities.”
Around 15% of the firm's 1,700 applicants are invited to take a Watson-Glaser critical thinking test. The firm keeps the pass mark for this under wraps.
The interview itself “encourages conversation and gets you talking about yourself,” according to the firm's current trainees. “The questions are designed to get you to demonstrate your ability in certain areas – for example, planning, organising and coping under pressure.”
Straight to training contract hopefuls who impress enough in the first round get a crack at the second stage. Candidates face an assessment centre consisting of a role play exercise, a written exercise (which is assessed by senior associates), a case study and a final partner interview.
All in all, “we're looking for ambitious, driven and determined candidates because that's what we are as a firm,” Mundy says, reminding applicants that “you've got to want to work for an international firm, as trainees end up getting involved in a lot of cross-jurisdictional work here.”
Dentons hosts two-week schemes in both Easter and summer in London, and during the summer across Milton Keynes and Watford. In London, on top of getting a taster of the firm's work there are a few social events dotted throughout the scheme; one of these involves an afternoon treasure hunt, which Mundy says is “a great way to get to know the City.” Our sources' number-one tip for getting the most out of the scheme? “Speak to as many current trainees as possible – that'll contribute a lot to your understanding of what the firm's about.”
How to ace law firm competency interviews
One Fleet Place,
- Partners: 196
- Associates 409
- Total trainees 98
- UK offices 6
- Overseas offices 179
- Graduate recruiter: Alexandra Mundy, [email protected], 0207 320 3751
- Training partner: Nigel Webber, nigel.webber[email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 46
- Applications pa: 2,500
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: ABB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 36
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: September 2019
- Open Day Deadline: 3rd January 2020
- Vacation Scheme Deadline: 3rd January 2020
- Training Contract Deadline: 30th June 2020
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £44,000 per annum in London, £31,000 in Milton Keynes and Watford, and £24,000 in Scotland
- Second-year salary: £48,000 per annum in London, £34,000 in Milton Keynes and Watford, and £26,000 in Scotland
- Post-qualification salary: £75,000 per annum in London,£48,000 in Milton Keynes and Watford, and £40,000 in Scotland
- Holiday entitlement: 24
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £6,000 in London, £5000 outside of London
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Milton Keynes and Watford
- Overseas seats: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney
- Client secondments: 13
Our Work Culture
One of the things that makes Dentons unique is our polycentric approach: we have no one global headquarters and no dominant national culture. This approach, along with our commitment to inclusion and diversity places a premium on the contributions of all of our lawyers, professionals and trainees, and makes for a uniquely positive culture in which you can grow and expand your career
Want to get a feel for what a legal career with us is really like? Our Vacation Schemes balance real work with training and networking, to give you a holistic view of Dentons and an insight into our way of life. We offer two-week long vacation schemes in the below locations:
•London (Easter & Summer)
•Milton Keynes & Watford (Summer)
•Edinburgh & Glasgow (Summer)
We see our trainees as the future of our Firm, which is why we focus numerous resources into their development. You’ll receive daily support from your supervisor, trainee representatives, trainee partners and our human resources team.
Locations: Aberdeen, Central Belt (Edinburgh & Glasgow), London, Milton Keynes & Watford.
Being enthusiastic about tackling all tasks, both big and small, is essential, as is having the drive and ambition that will enable you to succeed in a highly demanding work environment.
You must have, or expect to achieve, at least a 2:1 degree (or equivalent) and a minimum of ABB at A Level.
For more information, visit our website at: www.dentons.com/uk-graduates
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
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