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 simultaneously carve out 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”.
And these high-profile deals have clearly benefitted DLA financially, as the firm is on its sixth year of consecutive growth. Despite the closure of its two Russian offices in response to the invasion of Ukraine, global revenues grew 6.2% to $3.68 billion (£2.88 billion), with profit per equity partner also producing impressive growth of 15% on the previous year to reach $2.8 million (£2.19 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 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, where NQ pay has recently been bumped up to a competitive £100k but an effort is made to apportion quality work as evenly as possible – as is evident in regional NQ pay also going up 5% to £68,500.
Admin-level tasks are sent to the firm’s paralegal-staffed ‘Legal Delivery Centre’ in Leeds, but trainees across the offices do still 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 high profile clients and quality of work at DLA means the work you are exposed to at DLA can be very stimulating and at times high profile and fascinating. As a trainee you will always be expected to be responsible for the ‘churn’ tasks which can sometimes be painful and lengthy. However, I have had many senior fee earners take the time to explain to me very interesting and complex tasks on occasion.”
Training is reported as being “excellent” if a little “poorly timed”, with some seat-specific training running weeks after trainees have already begun. Virtual and on-demand training is readily available on DLA’s intranet with an “ample amount” of webinars hosted by a mixture of the firm’s internal Knowledge team and industry experts, meaning trainees benefit from training on both seat-specific topics as well as general legal skills. In-person training can be seat-dependant with the quality varying with “how busy your supervisor is at the time” one spy tells us. But “generally, there are wide opportunities for training and many opportunities to learn from experts in particular fields.”
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 with regular seat reviews designed to “identify areas to improve”.
Another plus is the amount of responsibility newbies are gifted, with “good seniors” said to be willing to let trainees have the first crack of NQ level work. It makes it easier that DLA work with some of the highest profile clientele you’ll find in a regional or City firm, meaning interesting work is found across all the offices. In Manchester, trainees could be working with the likes of YO! Sushi owners, Snowfox on its sale of Zensho Holdings, whilst City newbies can expect to come across deals such as Warner Bros joint venture with BT Group, which DLA have recently advised on.
Trainee culture is described as being “incredibly supportive”, an element cited as being “one of the best aspects of the firm”. As one happy newbie describes it: “The trainee cohort is a big group of friends. We spend a lot of time with each other together in the office, after work and on weekends. We have a group chat where people ask questions they are unsure of, or ask someone to cover something if they are preoccupied, and everyone jumps to help.” 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, helped by the open-plan office space, 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”. Unsurprisingly, City trainees generally work later, and corporate seems to be the seat with the most unsavoury balance across the offices. But even here, it’s “very rare to work a weekend”. Expect to work late in busy periods, however, and one trainee warns against making any weekday plans altogether: “I wouldn’t make plans on a weeknight as there’s an expectation from fee earners that trainees should generally be available until late evening when they log off themselves.” Trainees looking for a better balance are advised to look into advisory or pension seats!
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 quarter of trainees typically spent time abroad with the firm in locations including Dubai, Bangkok, Budapest, Dublin, 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” and free breakfast — though one insider did express discontent that the canteen “used to be good pre-Covid but they stopped serving evening meals”. Social events also seem to be picking back up with teams allocated a £40 ‘fun fund’ each month and charity bake sales, and netball matches, making a return.
In recent years, trainees complained about “basic” IT provision and “laptops from the mid-90s” but this finally seems to be changing (albeit slowly). Although there’s no “flashy” tech at DLA, according to on source, standard legal software like Kira, Litera and Deepl are now commonplace across the offices and there’s a 24/7 support line for all your IT issue needs. The reoccurring problem of poor physical equipment unfortunately hasn’t been fixed with one desperate trainee declaring that “a working headset is a rarity!”
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”. Trainees would like to see a WFH budget for equipment, however.
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, an atrium with spiral staircase, a terrace overlooking St Paul’s, and a canteen… with a pastry chef of course. 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.”