Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP

Published February 2011

2011 Vault Ranking: 5


Davis Polk is among the most prestigious and oldest law firms in the country. The firm can trace its roots back to the firm of Gunthrie, Bangs & Van Sinderen, founded in 1849. Though the name of the firm changed many times in its history, it has always been among the first choices by major clients when it comes to financial matters. This expertise dates back as early as 1887, when the firm assisted J. Pierpont Morgan in restructuring the Pennsylvania Railroad and combining several electrical companies into General Electric.

Over the course of its life, the firm continued to build relationships with financial institutions across the world, and broadened its practice. By the early twentieth century, the firm sported a top-notch litigation department, led by former U.S. Solicitor General John W. Davis, whose name the firm now bears. Davis alone argued before the Supreme Court hundreds of times, most infamously representing the state of South Carolina in Brown v. Board of Education.

Today, the firm employs over 800 attorneys in nine offices, divided equally between the United States (New York, Menlo Park, Washington D.C.), Europe (London, Paris, Madrid), and Asia (Hong Kong, Tokyo, Beijing). Though known for its finance work, Davis Polk is an elite full service firm, once dubbed the “Tiffany of law firms” for its genteel, white shoe culture.

Practice Areas

Davis Polk has a history of involvement in the financial sector and corporate world. Though the firm is full service, its elite corporate department has been the core of its practice. The corporate department handles a broad range of practice areas, including capital markets, mergers and acquisitions, intellectual property, investment management, and more. Davis Polk has had a number of well-publicized corporate clients, brought to national attention in the most recent recession. Since 2008, the firm has been advising Citigroup in its dealings with the U.S. Treasury, Federal Reserve, and FDIC. In recognition of the firms work, the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury then retained Davis Polk to advise the government on the restructuring of AIG. Other clients in recent years have included Freddie Mac, Morgan Stanley, and the British government on its plan to support the U.K. banking system.

Davis Polk’s litigation department should not be underestimated. Though it is not the focus of the firm, it is still a very experienced department, representing the firm’s clients in high stakes litigation. It encompasses securities litigation, antitrust, white-collar crime, mass torts, banking litigation, acquisition-related litigation, and more.

Chambers and Partners ranks the firm in Band 1 or 2 in the following practices nationally: Antitrust, Banking & Finance, Bankruptcy, Capital Markets: Dept & Equity, Capital Markets: Derivatives, Mergers and Acquisitions, Employee Benefits, Financial Services Regulation: Banking and Financial Institutions, Securities Litigation, and Tax. The main New York office also has Band 1 rankings in General Commercial Litigation and White Collar Crime.

Summer Program

Davis Polk operates a twelve-week summer program in both its New York and Menlo Park offices. As befitting its Vault ranking, the firm only accepts the top-notch candidates. If a law student is not on track to earn Latin honors at graduation, it would be a waste of time to apply. During the summer, associates are not required to rotate through departments, and can work on matters in any practice area of interest. Though work assignments are made by coordinators, workflow can be disproportionate between summer associates, and feedback from attorneys is at times lacking. However, the firm does offer multiple formal training and development opportunities each week for summer associates, as well as pro bono opportunities.

Summer associates are issued BlackBerrys and expected to be in the office during working hours. Most usually leave the office by 6:30 PM. Summer associates can attend two attorney lunches each week with $75 budgets, in addition to several catered lunches in the office. Social events are common, and have included in the past trapeze school, casino nights, and Shakespeare in the Park.

Most importantly, in 2009 and 2010, the firm made 100% offers at the end of the summer, with its classes starting on time in the fall.

Compensation and Benefits

All salaries at Davis Polk are lock step, based on the New York $160,000 market. Though the salary is matched, as a minor curiosity, the firm pays associates once a month rather than every two weeks. The firm is a follower in bonuses, consistently matching the ‘market’ rate set by Cravath, even in years like 2010 when a number of other top firms have awarded larger bonuses. This can sometimes be a source of disappointment for associates, but the flip side is that the firm has not had any salary freezes or significant layoffs, so job security is high.

There is no official billable hour requirement, but associates are expected to bill around 2,000 hours annually, in line with the market for other top firms. In past years there were no immediate consequences for not meeting this unofficial target, but in the current economic climate, associates who come in under 2,000 hours risk not receiving a bonus.

Though associates are given four weeks of vacation a year (five weeks for fifth year and later), the firm has a strong face time policy, more so than other top firms. Associates are generally expected to be in the office and available until 7:00 or 8:00 PM on a regular basis.

New associate benefits are below those at comparable firms, with only a $7,000 or $8,000 salary advance, not a bar stipend. Though the firm offers assistance in relocation services, it does not provide for relocation expenses as many other firms will. Other benefits include standard subsidized cafeteria, subsidized gym membership, and car service after 8:30 PM.


Davis Polk has one partnership track, with no set timeframe for consideration of associates. However the average length of time seems to be seven or eight years. Typically associates who don’t make partner on the first try are reconsidered the following year. However, should they not succeed, the firm has a strong up or out policy, with those associates failing to make partner being pushed out within three months. Though the chances of making partner are not completely impossible, it is a long shot. The process generally involves a significant amount of hard work, relationship building with other partners, and business development skills. Regardless though, favoritism and blind luck are large parts of the equation.


When summed up in a single word, the firm’s culture is often defined as “professional” or “formal.” This can be seen even in the decoration of the office spaces. One new hire in the New York office described it as feeling like “walking into a museum, or a fancy house that’s been decorated by someone’s rich aunt.” The firm is among the whitest of the white shoe firms, and has been described as being “waspy.” Socialization is described as at best “available, but completely optional.”

The firm is not a family, it is a place of business. The work is hard, but complex and generally satisfying. Personal lives and personal plans regularly play second fiddle to the work, as is common in big law, and the associates are well compensated for it. If you are looking for a place to work that can be described in more colorful terms than merely “formal” or “professional,” Davis Polk is not the place for you.