Davis Polk & Wardwell is one of the original ‘white shoe’ US firms, a grouping that is broadly analogous to the UK’s Magic Circle. The phrase derives from a type of shoe that used to be popular at Ivy League universities in the 1950s. Founded in New York City in 1849, the firm quickly gained some rising star clients, including John Pierpont Morgan. Morgan’s businesses became JP Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, which to this day remain clients of the firm. Today, Davis Polk is best known for its high-end capital market, M&A and financial regulations teams.
With the most recent financials showing net income at over $1 billion (£842.3 million), Davis Polk is roughly the size of a top 10-20 UK firm, but its profitability is much higher. Davis Polk’s latest profit per equity partner (PEP) figure crossed $7 million for the first time in its history, standing at $7.01 million (£5.91 million). This alone is a 10.4% increase on the previous year, which itself benefitted from a whopping 40% uptick on the year before. Whilst this unprecedented level of growth may be slowing, it’s certainly not stopping for the America’s big players. And this growth is not isolated to a particular practice area, the firm reports, with all of their primary areas — M&A, capital markets, finance, litigation and restructuring — posting robust figures. Previous deal highlights include advising Honda on its $2.75 billion (£2.32 billion) green bond issuance, the first of its kind for the client, as well as advising the lead arranger in connection with a $2.5 billion (£2.11 billion) loan issued to Crocs (yes, the shoe company!).
Unsurprisingly, training at the firm’s London office focuses on the corporate and credit practices. Trainees also have a chance to spend time in a more specialised seat such as tax, financial regulation or antitrust. Information from the Legal Cheek Trainee and Junior Lawyer Survey suggests that the training is less structured than in other firms. This is in line with the broader US firm culture where junior lawyers are expected to “learn on the job” rather than being coddled. According to the trainees, this is no bad thing: “Time spent doing actual classroom style formal training is lower than at other firms, but at this stage in my career on the job training is much more beneficial and the notable exposure to more senior lawyers adds further value to this”, one spy explains.
It’s not just the training which is suiting the Davis Polk rookies, but the quality of work too. As one mole puts it: “Particularly compared to the work my contemporaries are doing at other firms, the nature of work and responsibility that trainees are given is very stimulating”. Complemented with the “great support/guidance” offered by the partners and other senior lawyers at the firm, this clearly makes for a winning combination.
A trainee intake of just four — which will increase to six in August 2023 — means it is vital for the intake to bond quickly. “Our lean team means that it’s important for everyone to get along on a personal level, and work well together”, one trainee explains, whilst another notes how this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: “In such a small firm, personal relationships become even more significant and this contributes to a supportive atmosphere”.
However, the lack of a wider group of peers can result in quite a serious atmosphere. While supportive of each other, Davis Polk’s young are quite focused on their own work. This goes in hand with US law firm culture where expectations of trainees are in line with those for other junior lawyers. But again, this treatment is regarded as no bad thing in the eyes of the trainees because it means that they receive “regular interaction” with partners and counsel who are described as being “very supportive and always willing to answer questions”. Another bonus noted by the insiders is that “there is no feeling of hierarchy on transactions”.
The firm, on the whole, took the pandemic in its stride. Rookies report receiving an “additional budget” to set up a “comfortable” home-working set-up. The firm has also been reported to reward employees for their hard work during the pandemic, offering a range of gifts including “ski bundles (GoPros and ski passes)”, as well as “travel bundles (hotel gift-vouchers and cases)” and “wine bundles”, amongst other things. And as things continue (hopefully!) to get back to normal, trainees remain happy with the firm’s approach: “The firm adapted really well to WFH during the pandemic, and is now encouraging a return to the office (while retaining an extent of flexibility)”, one spy tells Legal Cheek.
You’ll work hard at Davis Polk. Those partner profits don’t come from nowhere! Busy days get even busier once the New York office gets going around 4pm UK time. “You do not make plans for a weekday”, says one insider. However, another more buoyant rookie says that “there are notable peaks and troughs, although this is not atypical for transactional work. The good thing is that when there is a trough you are encouraged to enjoy the rest”.
The firm’s “spacious and comfortable” office is located between St Paul’s and Barbican Tube stations, and just a stone’s throw from the Museum of London. It’s your typical grid of stainless steel and glass, and is shared with banks including BNP Paribas and Nordea Bank. Lawyers have shared use of the building’s 18th floor cafe with views across London. Whilst it may not be the snazziest or most-talked about office, as one junior lawyer succinctly puts it, “modern office, good location”. What more could you need?
When it comes to legal tech, the trainees have little to say. Whilst the scores given in this area are on the lower side — indicating that, like many American firms, trainees are expected to do the hard work and not computers, in order to learn — one rookie notes that as a whole the “firm works really efficiently”. This suggests that things are just fine in the Davis Polk ship, with or without the latest tech.
The social life at Davis Polk also isn’t a major focus of the firm. A trainee notes that “there are very few social events” while another adds “generally not a lot of perks in terms of socialising”. As with many US firms in London, the main perk is the eye-watering salary: NQs at Davis Polk trouser a recently increased sum of £160,000.
Another major appeal of the firm is that all trainees have the opportunity to spend six months of their training contract in Davis Polk’s head office in New York, pandemic permitting. This element is regularly cited by junior lawyers as one of the best parts of the TC experience: “The 6-month seat as a trainee is a fantastic experience — trainees are properly integrated into a practice group in our NY head office, and get exposure to substantial US law work (while being able to live in/enjoy central Manhattan)”, one trainee enthuses. Students who fantasised about becoming a lawyer after watching Suits, take note!