The tale of how DLA Piper rose from a humble regional outfit in Sheffield to become, via a series of bold mergers, one of the world’s biggest law firms ranks amongst the great business stories of recent times.
This success has inevitably bred some snarkiness, with the now ubiquitous DLA sometimes referred to as the ‘Coca-Cola of the legal world’. But even the firm’s harshest critics concede that its dizzying growth over the last two decades has in general been remarkably well-consolidated. Particularly impressive is the way that the firm has managed to carve out, simultaneously, a reputation for high-end legal expertise and volume work prowess.
In the UK, the firm is led from London with further offices in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield — and structured similarly to other national firms. Those in the capital earn more (see below) but an effort is made to apportion quality work as evenly as possible.
Admin-level tasks are sent to the firm’s paralegal-staffed ‘Legal Delivery Centre’ in Leeds, but trainees do receive their fair share of “grunt work”. The balance between typical trainee tasks and more interesting work is “wholly dependent on the seat and the supervisor”. Another insider explains: “The work can range between repetitive, tedious, admin tasks to running our own files with high levels of responsibility and client contact. Thankfully the repetitive tasks are few and far between!”.
As for training, one rookie reports: “We get very strong training internally and externally with both technical seat specific matters being covered and general legal skills.” Supervision is mostly “hands on” as trainee supervisors apparently “take their roles both as legal and pastoral mentors very seriously”, with one rookie revealing that they received feedback on “almost every piece of work”. However, this has been strained in some ways by remote working. One junior notes that “supervisors generally are great and give good on the job training, but when things are really busy it can be easy to feel like you’ve been forgotten about in the age of remote working”.
Trainee cohorts are also said to have “great camaraderie” which adds to the student appeal and functions as “a great support system” for rookies. One insider reveals that: “The trainee intake is great, everyone’s friendly with each other and very supportive — it’s a great cohort to train with, and a big selling point of the training contract”. Meanwhile, partners are said to be “very approachable and down to earth” and foster a “very comfortable environment in which to ask questions and give things a go”. Though this can vary: “Some partners, including some with training responsibility, are really not approachable at all. Others treat you with respect as though you’re on their level,” one spy told Legal Cheek.
Work/life balance is not bad, reports another trainee: “Good work/life balance, but very seat dependent. Some seats have 14-hour days for months and others are 9-6 consistently, but if you work all-nighters you usually get the days back and don’t have any issue booking annual leave.” Another details that “some teams definitely have a culture where you need to always be visible (generally the transactional teams), if they’re online then you should be too. Some also give you nothing to do from 9-5, but then bury you until 3 in the morning after that, while still expecting you to be available at 9am again. Others actively encourage you to sign off when you can and turn a blind eye to you taking a little time back”.
A major selling point of DLA are the international secondments, of which there are “plenty of opportunities”. When there’s not a pandemic on, our data reveals that around a third of trainees typically spend time abroad with the firm in locations including Dubai, Bangkok, Moscow, Sydney, Singapore and Hong Kong. With 90 offices in over 40 countries there is no shortage of choice. However, there has been discontent in recent years over DLA’s decision to scrap its policy of paying London and regional trainees equal salaries while on secondment abroad.
A multitude of client secondments were also up for grabs with trainees working with clients including Unilever, Heineken, the Discovery Channel, NHS Digital, The Royal Bank of Scotland and the Premier League.
Less impressive are the perks, which include all the law firm staples such as private medical insurance, 50% off gym membership plus a “great cafeteria with tasty food at a cheap price”. Beyond that, the pandemic has apparently stripped many of the old-style perks (mid-month drinks, big trainee events etc). As one rookie grumbles, “it feels like the firm has made little to no effort to replace this beyond a few Just Eat vouchers”.
The firm’s recently announced pay rises put DLA at the more competitive end of the market, with London and regional NQ rates now at £88,000 and £48,000 respectively. However, some juniors in the regions were left grumbling by the discrepancy in the uplifts.
DLA has had a string of consistently good financial results, and, despite pandemic disruption, 2020/21 is no exception. Whilst global revenues rose just 2% to £2.17 billion, profit per equity partner continued to soar 7.7% to £1.19 million.
In previous years, trainees complained about “basic” IT provision and “laptops from the mid-90s”, but now much has changed. An insider reports that there had been “a roll out of new technology across the office and all fee earners (including trainees) and most business support staff now have swanky new laptops (which also double up as tablets, complete with stylus), two monitors, and noise cancelling, wireless headphones”. On top of this the switchover to home-working was “seamless and very well done”.
However, sources say the firm’s legal tech situation may require further work. “There does seem to be legal tech mentioned at times but it doesn’t seem to feed into practice all the time,” one tells us, while another reports that “there are always new initiatives being implemented” but it is often “up to you to do the training and start using” the new tech.
The firm moved to a new London office in 2018 which was no let down. The base is “10/10” and “ really swanky”. The work floors are now open plan, creating “a much more friendly vibe” welcomed by newcomers as they get to know their team, while hot desk offices are available to those needing more privacy. The “simply stunning” building also comes with a gym, “good changing facilities” with towels and lockers, and a canteen but without subsidies the “food is too expensive”. Elsewhere, trainees complain that DLA’s Sheffield and Leeds offices are “in need of a revamp”, with one respondent telling us: “There is a great disparity between the offices around the UK. London, the mothership, is the crowning glory. Leeds is slowly decaying”. Legal Cheek is told that Leeds rookies are set to move to a new purpose-built development in 2023 though which is a “really exciting” prospect for those involved.