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 top three biggest law firms is one of 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 more process driven departments do not provide very stimulating work, however make up for it through client contact and level of responsibility. The more intellectually challenging and stimulating departments have less client contact, however the day to day work is much more entrenched in the actual law”.
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 a legal and pastoral mentors very seriously”, with one rookie revealing that they received feedback on “almost every piece of work”.
A reasonably tight trainee cohort adds to the student appeal. One insider reveals that: “Everyone gets on pretty well, no major falling out, everyone was genuinely pleased for those who got NQ offers and upset for those that didn’t.”
Work/life balance is not bad, reports another trainee: “Apart from a few hellish weeks, my normal hours are 9ish to 6/6:30ish (although others haven’t been so lucky)!” Another revealed that “the corporate and finance departments can tend to get quite busy”.
A major selling point of DLA are the international secondments, of which there are “plenty of opportunities”. Around a third of trainees have spent 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 was 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, IHG, 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 but not a huge amount more. “What perks?” grumbles one rookie, “Somewhat concerningly for a global law firm, the firm only managed to negotiate a paltry £8 off the standard price of a gym membership… And that’s probably the best perk!” Worse, the coffee machines are said to “put chunks of soup into your drink”. The culinary situation is rescued by free breakfasts in the canteen before 9:30am. London-based lawyers also enjoy a discount at the Barbican centre.
DLA has had a string of consistently good financial results, and 2019/20 is no exception, with global revenues rising 8.5% to £2.1 billion and profits per equity party up 3% to £1.1 million each. The total lawyer headcount also increased slightly to 3,894.
DLA has also bounced back well from the massive cyber attack it suffered in 2017, which saw the firm’s email and phone system knocked out for days.
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.” 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.
Meanwhile, the firm was quick to provide remote-workers with monitors and laptops following COVID-19, with IT support available 24/7. Although departments schedule team calls each week, however, one novice said they felt “a bit forgotten” and was concerned that their training would be “massively compromised by the reduced contact” with senior lawyers.
The firm moved to a new London office in 2018 which was no let down. The new base is “10/10” and “very impressive”. 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 “brand new 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”. One respondent adds: “There is a great disparity between the offices around the UK. London, the mothership, is the crowning glory. Leeds is slowly decaying, but we are promised a move shortly”.