CheekyLittleCareers caught up with trainee solicitors Federica Camilleri de Marco and Daniel Lindars 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?

Daniel Lindars, trainee solicitor

Dan: I’m Dan, a current trainee in the Davis Polk London office. The small trainee intake and promise of early responsibility initially sparked my interest in Davis Polk, but it wasn’t until I did a vacation scheme that I knew the firm was right for me – this in-person exposure to the office and its culture was vital in my decision to accept the training contract offer. I would definitely recommend taking advantage of any opportunities to experience the firms you are interested in before applying.

 

 

Frederica Camilleri de Marco, trainee solicitor

Federica: Hi, I am Federica. I am Maltese and moved to the UK to study law at Cambridge University. Having particularly enjoyed studying company law, I became interested in pursuing a career in corporate law in London. Davis Polk instantly stood out amongst other City firms for four main reasons. Firstly, for its small intake, which is conducive to providing both a very hands-on training experience and to encouraging the formation of strong working relationships within small deal teams. Secondly, for its renowned corporate finance practice. Thirdly, for the international culture at the firm itself and the cross-border nature of the transactions since plenty of work in the London office is referred by, and requires collaboration with, the New York office. Fourthly, for the six-month secondment opportunity to New York. In essence, Davis Polk offers the best of both worlds in that I’ve been able to benefit from the small size of the London office by being given responsibility tasks early on in my training, whilst still benefitting from the benefits that come with being part of a firm with offices spanning four different continents.

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?

Dan: The biggest surprise is how approachable and available senior members of the team are. At a larger firm your primary point of contact is typically an associate, however, the relatively smaller size of Davis Polk’s London offices means I have a lot more contact with partners and counsel. As a trainee, this has given me invaluable access to a wealth of experience and knowledge at an early stage in my career. From my experience firms are very up front about what to expect so, with the right questions, nothing will ever be hidden.

Federica: Having taken part in the firm’s vacation scheme, I was able to experience both the nature of the work and the culture of the firm prior to accepting the training contract offer. This meant there was nothing unexpected that I was faced with during my training. What’s more, my colleagues have always been transparent about the cyclical nature of the work in that one can go from having a quiet period to a busy and all-hands on deck approach within a matter of hours. This is especially the case when working alongside international offices or clients since this often means that, due to the different time zones, work picks up during the later hours of the day in London.

US law firms in London appear to come in all shapes and sizes and it can be confusing to tell them apart. Any tips on how to differentiate firms to determine if they’re right for me?

Dan: In my view, the primary consideration is a firm’s principal practice areas. Whilst the answer varies across firms, it is of particular importance when applying to US outfits since there tends to be fewer options. For example, Davis Polk in London focuses primarily on corporate and finance work – if litigation is where your heart is set, this will automatically rule some firms out of the running. From this starting point you can refine your shortlist depending on the value you attribute to features like the size of the firm (and trainee intake), the opportunity to go on secondment and the firm’s client base (e.g. is it private equity heavy and is this something you are interested in?). As mentioned in my earlier response, visiting the office and getting to know a firm’s lawyers is one of the best ways to get that instinctive feeling that this is where you belong.

Federica: I think the first step would be to start with the basics – and that would be just by conducting general online searches about each firm and their practice areas. Whilst it’s true that there is a significant US law firm presence in London, their practice areas vary. Davis Polk’s core practice areas in London are corporate (consisting of public M&A, private M&A, private equity and capital markets) and finance. However, there are US firms in London that focus heavily on other areas, such as litigation. US firms in London also differ in size so this is also definitely something to factor in when trying to differentiate between them. Of course, the best way to tell them apart would be to try and experience the firm culture first-hand and there are often plenty of opportunities to do so beyond participating in vacation schemes, including attending first year insight schemes, open days, workshops organised by the firms and indeed by watching video interviews with partners on CheekyLittleCareers.

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?

Dan: The client base is probably the biggest point of difference. Naturally, for a firm with its head office in New York many clients that we deal with are based in the US and this international element brings with it additional complexity and cross-border legal issues. That said, Davis Polk is also involved in many transactions with a purely UK nexus and this is increasingly the case as US firms become more established in London. The size of the team on each transaction also tends to be smaller, which means as a trainee you will never be on the periphery of a transaction – your contribution will be important and your efforts recognised.

Federica: The main and obvious difference, which did in fact steer me towards US firms over magic circle firms is the US workflow. I always liked the idea of working on cross-border matters, particularly US-based matters. Being part of a foreign-based firm also lends itself more towards building professional relationships beyond one’s local office. This also ties into the secondment prospects at US firms, which often entails carrying out a seat rotation in the firm’s US headquarters. Another common difference between Davis Polk and magic circle firms is also size. Magic circle firms consist of thousands of lawyers whereas there are currently only around fifty in the Davis Polk London office. There may be a correlation between the size of the firm and its breadth of practice areas (e.g. magic circle firms are full-service, while Davis Polk is corporate-finance oriented, the smaller the team the more responsibility each individual is given – the latter point being a key feature of the Davis Polk training contract that sets it apart from other training contracts).

It is true that US firms are sweat shops?

Dan: Most City lawyers do not work a typical 9 to 5, but it is definitely not the case that US firms are sweatshops. The nature of corporate and transactional work means hours can be unpredictable. Sometimes there are peaks where everyone is working to a deadline, but equally there are lulls where you’ll be encouraged to enjoy the downtime. In addition, it is during these times of increased intensity where you’ll develop most as a lawyer since you deal with more information at a faster pace. In any case, there is no real distinction to be made between US and UK firms – we often work opposite UK firms and they’ll be working to the same timeline.

Federica: This is not the case. Based on my experience at Davis Polk so far, it hasn’t felt like I have been worked any harder than friends of mine at non-US firms. The hours lawyers work is down to the nature of the work/specific transaction as opposed to whether the firm is US or not. Indeed, I’ve worked on transactions alongside UK-based firms and have noticed that I worked the same hours as my counterpart at a UK-based firm.

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?

Dan: At Davis Polk, there is a guaranteed (*pandemic allowing) secondment to New York for all trainees. It is also not uncommon for at least some trainees at other US law firms to have this opportunity. When thinking about secondments you should bear in mind that many firms also provide opportunities to visit international offices outside of the US, or to go on a client secondment, so you should definitely explore on a firm-by-firm basis what is on offer.

Federica: A key feature of the Davis Polk training contract is that it offers a guaranteed six-month secondment to the New York office. Of course, this was impacted by COVID, however, the plan is to resume this as soon as possible.

What are the most common myths you hear about US firm in London?

Dan: That the London office is a satellite for the US headquarters – this is certainly not the case. Whilst it is true that a higher percentage of deals will originate from the US, many of the transactions handled by a US firm’s London office do not have any direct connection with America.

Federica: That they are sweatshops/ work significantly longer hours than UK firms. As I mentioned, the only real difference is the time (as opposed to the volume) at which work can often come in at US firms in London since work originating from New York or work which involves international clients may often kick off in London in the later hours of the day due to the different time zones.

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