CheekyLittleCareers caught up with Erin Zhang and Vivek Thanki to discuss life in the London office of elite US law firm Davis Polk and here’s what they had to say.
Why don’t you start by telling me about yourself? Without doing the hard sell what attracted you to Davis Polk?
Erin Zhang (1st Seat Trainee Solicitor): Hi I’m Erin – I’m originally from Singapore and moved to the UK for university, and have stayed ever since! I knew I wanted to do transactional work at a US firm from the outset – largely because of the small intake and the hands-on nature of the training. I did a few vacation schemes at different US firms, and while I enjoyed all of them, Davis Polk was my favourite by far, as I really liked the people I met and the office culture. As such, the key thing I would say is that (if the option is available to you) it’s important to experience a few different firms and see for yourself which one suits you best, because the cultures can be quite different.
Vivek Thanki (NQ Associate): I went to high school in Scotland, and did a law degree at King’s College London – from where I started to explore a career in City law. From my course modules, and from participating in a variety of law firm events and programmes, I found that I was interested in practicing transactional law. In the summer of my second year, I completed vacation schemes at both US and magic circle firms in London – I enjoyed the environment of a smaller office, and the variety of corporate finance work which Davis Polk has to offer. Ultimately, Davis Polk was where I felt most at home.
How has your training contract differed to what you imagined it would be like? Any hidden nasties you wish you’d been warned about before signing on the dotted line?
EZ: There wasn’t anything hidden or unexpected per se. I feel like Davis Polk was really upfront about how the trainee/corporate law experience would be, and because the London office is pretty small I had met most people on my vacation scheme and knew what to expect both in terms of workflow and office culture. One thing that I wish I’d better understood though, is that the hours can be pretty unpredictable, especially in transactional departments (e.g. Corporate and Finance), and it is not uncommon to have a slow day that suddenly ramps up towards the evening. What I’ve found helpful is to be upfront and communicative about this when making plans, and most of my friends have been really understanding when it comes to keeping plans flexible, so it hasn’t been a hard adjustment on that front at all. Nevertheless, it can be a bit different from university, where you have a lot more visibility regarding your time, so it’s a good one to keep in mind.
VT: I had the benefit of getting to know most people in our London office before I started my training contract, which made for a smooth transition into working life. Although it may be easier to do with a smaller firm, I’d encourage all training contract offer-holders to meet up with their future colleagues and revisit the office at any given opportunity between receiving their offer and starting work – it invariably gets you more familiar with the place/people (and vice versa). Perhaps as a result of my pre-existing familiarity with the firm, I can’t say my training contract differed substantially from my expectations. Work-wise, I was eager to get stuck in and learn as much as possible from day one – so although I knew that lawyers could work long hours, I wasn’t deterred by the prospect. Trainees are encouraged to take on responsibility (always with proper guidance and supervision), so I felt my training contract prepared me really well for work as an associate – which made for another smooth transition upon qualification. Certainly no nasties (hidden or otherwise!)
US law firms in London appear to come in all shapes and sizes and it can be confusing the tell them apart. Any tips on how to differentiate firms to determine if they’re right for me?
EZ: This seems to be a common refrain, but I think being thorough in your research will quickly show you that they’re actually quite different. For instance, US firms can differ by size (both in terms of the size of the office and size of the trainee intake – although they are usually proportional), international strategy, whether they implement lockstep, whether they have a litigation practice etc. Additionally, circling back to my previous point, these firms would also have differing office cultures – even if they might seem similar on paper in terms of statistics – so the key thing is to try being there if you want to confirm that that particular firm is right for you.
VT: Fundamentally, you need to be interested in the areas of work on which the firm focuses – the strengths and core practice areas of US firms in London can vary significantly. For example, Davis Polk focuses broadly on corporate finance work (public/private M&A, capital markets and banking), representing a mixture of corporates and financial institutions. By contrast, certain other US firms will focus predominantly on private equity work, with private equity houses comprising their client-base. Reading up on the firm’s legal rankings and the deals/cases in which they’re involved is a good way of discerning its core strengths. Culture is another key differentiating feature between firms – the best way of distinguishing this is by doing vacation schemes and experiencing the work environment first-hand.
And what about the magic circle? Other than magic circle firms taking on more trainees than most US outfits, how does a firm like Davis Polk differ from the likes of Linklaters or Slaughter and May?
EZ: If you think about it, taking on more trainees is actually a really important point because it’s indicative of the Magic Circle’s overall business strategy (i.e. to operate a more base-heavy model) and the intake size also feeds into other aspects of the TC experience (e.g. qualification choice, secondment choice, level of responsibility given, social life). Other differences are that the US firms will have a more substantial US presence/workflow (seems obvious but if you’re into US projects this might be important), and many often do not have litigation departments (so you want to be pretty sure from the outset that you’d enjoy transactional work).
VT: Working at a magic circle firm which employs over a thousand lawyers in London would be very different to working in an office of approx. sixty fee-earners. At a large firm, structure invariably plays a more important role for the firm to function (for example in terms of reporting lines, seat rotations and work allocation), whereas a smaller office such as Davis Polk generally offers greater flexibility. For example, a corporate seat with us could entail a mixture of M&A and capital markets work – depending on deal flow and the trainee’s personal interests. Magic circle firms are full-service, whereas Davis Polk focuses on corporate finance (without a UK litigation practice) – this makes us more suited to someone with a fairly strong idea of what practice areas they want to pursue, while those keen to experience contentious work or a variety of specialist seats might be better off applying to a magic circle firm. Deciding between training at a magic circle or US firm is a deeply personal choice, which depends on your own interests and where you feel most comfortable.
It is true that US firms are sweat shops?
EZ: Definitely not – everyone I’ve worked with has been really reasonable about hours/availability and when you’re asked to work late, it is because there is a genuine business need. Aside from that, people have been very respectful of personal time and plans, which I’m thankful for.
VT: Absolutely not. City lawyers work hard, and learning by experience (and gaining as much experience as possible) is a key aspect of any legal career. I’ve worked on many busy deals alongside lawyers at UK firms, who work just as hard – they certainly don’t log-off any earlier by virtue of the fact they are at a UK firm. Corporate work will generally entail peaks and troughs in terms of workflow – so although there will inevitably be periods of excitement/intensity (often at key points in a deal, such as signings, filings or announcements), there will also be quieter periods with more regular hours. In my experience, the busiest parts of a deal can make for great team spirit – everyone staffed on the deal will be in it together, working towards the same objective; once the milestone is reached, there’s a real collective sense of achievement.
If I join the London office of a New York headquartered firm like yours – will I be able to go on secondment to the US?
EZ: Davis Polk offers a guaranteed NYC secondment (although not so guaranteed anymore given COVID), but this is not the case for every NYC-headquartered firm, so it’s definitely worth checking in with the firm you’re interested in if this is important to you. That being said, if the firm is NYC-headquartered chances are there will be plenty of NYC-based interactions/training anyway, so even if you don’t go there on secondment you’ll still get to enjoy a slice of the NYC culture!
VT: Davis Polk guarantees a six-month secondment to our New York office, should you wish to do so (global pandemics and travel restrictions permitting). This is not offered by all US firms. From my own experience, living and working in Manhattan was a fantastic opportunity – you have the chance to build valuable professional connections with New York colleagues and gain an understanding of how US deals are structured and run (not to mention the benefits of living a stone’s throw from Central Park, walking to work through Midtown every day, sampling NYC’s restaurants in the evening, spending weekends exploring Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, or the Met… the list goes on!).
What are the most common myths you hear about US firm in London?
EZ: That they’re sweat shops or operate attrition-based business models. As mentioned, everyone I’ve worked with has been really reasonable about hours and Davis Polk is actually very focused on organic promotion/retention so it’s definitely not exploitative or callous about attrition in any sense.
VT: It’s a common misconception that lawyers at US firms work significantly longer hours than lawyers at top-tier UK firms. As mentioned above, this isn’t true – not least because we compete against and work alongside UK firms on the same English law deals. It is true that due to our lean and flexible practice, trainees and junior lawyers have the opportunity to take on more responsibility than their counterparts at UK firms – but this is always with the support and supervision of senior members of the team. Another common myth is that US firms typically have a more aggressive work culture. A firm’s working environment and feel varies from office to office – the Davis Polk team prides itself on its collaborative, professional and friendly culture (safeguarded by a strong preference for organic team growth as opposed to reliance on lateral hiring). As we’re a small team, it’s important that everyone gets along on a personal level.
VT: If you’re at all interested in a career in corporate law, or in Davis Polk in particular, please do engage with us through our graduate recruitment events which we run every autumn (and do the same with a mixture of law firms, to get as much insight and exposure as possible). Career choices are extremely important – you have to enjoy the work, and be happy in the place you’re working – so position yourself to make well-informed, thought-through decisions, and follow your instinct as to where’s right for you.