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 past 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. This reputation is felt right down to trainee level, with one insider mentioning that “the work is very rewarding as you are working on complex and high-profile deals which are often covered in the national media”.
In the UK, the firm is led from London with further offices in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield and is 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”. Overall, the work undertaken by trainees is “generally a good mix of typical trainee tasks with more high-level experience, depending on the department”. Another insider elaborates: “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!”
Training is reported as being “excellent”, if a little “poorly timed”. An “ample amount” of webinars are hosted by a mixture of the firm’s internal Knowledge team and industry experts, meaning that trainees benefit from training on both seat-specific topics as well as general legal skills.
As for supervision, one rookie states that “both teams and individuals are invested in their trainees”, with another commenting that the trainee supervisors in particular “take their roles both as legal and pastoral mentors very seriously”. Regarding both training and supervision, there is a culture of staff being “receptive” to any feedback provided by trainees.
Trainee culture is described as being “incredibly supportive”, an element cited as being “one of the best aspects of the firm”. This positive culture extends beyond the trainee cohort, with one spy reporting that “all members of staff, including all of the partners I have worked with, have been very approachable and friendly”. The approachability of the majority of partners is mentioned by many of the trainees, creating a “very comfortable environment in which to ask questions and give things a go”. Though there are some outliers: “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 insider told Legal Cheek.
Work/ life balance is “generally good, but depends on the office and department you are in”. One rookie reported that while the work/ life balance offered by the firm has “peaks and troughs, the advantage is the flexibility so if you do have a busy day and you have a pre-booked appointment, you can still attend that appointment and finish off your work at your own time”.
A major selling point of DLA is the option for international secondments, of which there are “plenty of opportunities”. While the number of trainees completing international secondments still appears to be recovering in the wake of the pandemic, our data reveals that prior to this point, around a third of trainees typically spent time abroad with the firm in locations including Dubai, Bangkok, Moscow, Sydney, Singapore and Hong Kong. With 90 offices in more than 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, Starbucks, 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” — though one insider did express discontent that the canteen “used to be good pre-Covid but they stopped serving evening meals”. The effect of the pandemic on the perks offered extends beyond the canteen, with trainees reporting that the firm “made little to no effort” to replace the old-style perks of mid-month drinks, larger trainee events etc. However, as the return to the office continues this does appear to be picking back up — albeit with continued disparity between teams and offices. One rookie told Legal Cheek that the “best perks are team socials but these are entirely dependent on the partners and how much they actually care. Some are amazing in this regard, others just squeeze you for billables”, with another reporting that “the perks in offices outside London are pretty minimal”.
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 £95,000 and £65,000 respectively. This increase in regional NQ pay — up 35% on the previous rate — is particularly pleasing, as previously there had been grumbles at the firm about the pay rise disparity between London and the regions. This focus on fairness of pay across the firm looks set to continue, with the firm stating a focus on “fairly rewarding the contribution of our lawyers across all locations”.
DLA has had a string of consistently good financial results, and 2021/22 is no exception. Despite the closure of its two Russian offices, global revenues soared by a huge 10.8% to $3.47 billion (£2.84 billion)), with profit per equity partner also producing astronomical growth of 17.6% from the previous year to $2.5 million (£2.04 million). While much of this growth was fuelled by the US side of the business, the firm also cited the UK as one of its regions benefitting from the strongest growth.
In previous years, trainees complained about “basic” IT provision and “laptops from the mid-90s”. While last year, this seemed to be changing — with one insider discussing “a roll out of new technology” — progress in this area seems to have stalled. One spy in this year’s survey reported that “the laptops we are given add an hour or more of time to our day just waiting for things to load. They always crash”. The equipment accompanying this tech also seems to have been forgotten about – one trainee reported there was “no budget for buying monitors, desks, chairs etc, and the proprietary docks needed to plug the laptops into 2 monitors need to be paid for yourself at £120 ish with no reimbursement. They offered to courier one of the two monitors to you during Covid but with no stand so you had to balance it or lean it on something”.
Despite the potentially problematic set-ups, trainees praised the firm’s new approach to WFH – “the firm’s ‘New Deal’ policy allows for an honour system where we are expected to spend 50% of our time over the course of the year in the office. I prefer this as it allows for more flexibility for everyone, not just flexibility week by week”.
When asked about the firm’s attitude to legal tech, the mood was hopeful but also frustrated at the speed of take-up of new technologies: “There are certain technologies that are very revolutionary but are slow to be taken up as it is based on whether clients will agree to it, or if the senior lawyers know about it and push for it to be used”, one trainee told us. While generally the legal tech situation at the firm is “improving every day”, another junior lawyer stated that “lots more could be done in this area”.
The firm is currently undertaking a refurbishment plan of its offices, which is particularly exciting for regional trainees. This began in 2018, with the firm moving into a new London office which has been described as being “10/10” and “the crowning glory”. The “simply stunning” building also comes with a gym, “good changing facilities” with towels and lockers, and a canteen, although without subsidies the “food is too expensive”. While the newer offices such as London are open plan, creating a “much more friendly vibe”, this means “it can get noisy when multiple people are on calls. Also annoying to have to dash into meeting rooms to take private/client calls as everyone can hear everything otherwise”. Outside of London, the refurbishment plan continues, with one rookie reporting that “the new cafe has boosted the Leeds office, but the new pending Leeds office will very likely raise this to a 10!” and another stating that “the current office is slightly dated, but we are having a new office built next door, which will be really impressive and I am looking forward to this”.
A final point praised by trainees is the firm’s environmental stance. The “lots of talk about ESG initiatives” clearly translates into practical action. Aside from the firm sourcing its electricity from renewable resources, there have also been smaller changes felt by trainees in the office — “I appreciate that all disposable items in the canteen and free sanitary pads in the bathrooms are all made from biodegradable materials. There is also a compost bin at all tea points to allow for food waste to be composted easily when you eat at your desk.”