It doesn't get more global than Dentons, whose decentralised structure covers over 60 jurisdictions worldwide.
Gobble, gobble, gobble
All you millennials who grew up owning a Nokia 3310 will be familiar with the game Snake: it's a game that closely resembles Dentons' path to world dominance. After gobbling up law firm after law firm after law firm, what started out as a modest snakelet of a firm in the dim and distant days of 2010 is now a basilisk that slithers its way through 60-plus countries worldwide and has the biggest head count of any firm in the world. Just when (or if) this scaly beast will ever stop gobbling is unclear, but for now it continues to munch its way through law firms. Recently the firm combined with a further seven firms in Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia. In 2017 it also merged with leading Scottish firm Maclay Murray & Spens, which had bases in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and London.
“Our ambition was to be the biggest law firm in the world – now it's to be the best.”
Despite a few twinges of alarm at the rate of change – some noted that “the firm has changed a lot from when I applied” – our interviewees were confident in the firm's future: "Our ambition was to be the biggest law firm in the world – now it's to be the best.” They added cautiously that “the colonial attitude is something we wish to avoid, and equalising standards across all our offices will be no mean feat.” Favouring a Swiss Verein model, the firm is “more like the European Union than the United States,” in that it's “lots of small firms stuck together that have retained their cultures and systems.” Sources also said this model was the source of the firm's success in “gaining access to China, which is nearly impossible to get, short of merging.” The 'go big or go home' approach seems to be working, as the firm recorded growth in all but one of its European offices, with revenues up 20% in 2017.
Find out How to ace law firm competency interviews (feature sponsored by Dentons)
In the UK, sources flagged banking and real estate – two of the firm's biggest departments – as particular strengths, but Dentons pulls in over 20 UK-wide rankings from Chambers UK including for its energy, retail, data protection and aviation finance groups. Sources had a good handle on the firm's position in the market, reflecting: “We're not doing multibillion-pound M&A deals. Instead we do good mid-market work and typically work on deals up to £800 million.”
Brother from another mother
Dentons' City branch had 61 trainees at the time of our research, while Milton Keynes and Watford were sharing ten between them. The firm also recruits a significant number of trainees in Scotland each year. Rookies should bear in mind that for all intents and purposes the London and MK/Watford contracts are “separate entities: There is some fluidity based on department, but they are very different. With the exception of some social events, I haven't interacted with Watford or MK at all,” one London trainee told us. Still, seats like financial disputes in Watford “have a lot of crossover with London's banking team,” while one source pointed out that “in employment, we have a one-team approach, as the law is very similar across England and Scotland. We have meetings with all the offices once a week, and distribute work based on capacity across the UK.” Moreover, trainees can now choose to qualify into any of the firm's UK offices, regardless of the one they trained in.
London trainees naturally capture the majority of the firm's international work but that doesn't mean regional trainees are completely cut off. One MK source detailed: “I've dealt with disputes from across Europe and the Middle East and worked with a partner in Warsaw on a defamation claim against a Polish authority.”
Trainees in all locations are assigned their first seat and get to rank three preferences before each subsequent rotation. Banking is compulsory for all Londoners, while those in MK are required to do a stint in real estate and are encouraged to go down to Watford for a seat in financial disputes. Second-years in London said allocation hadn't been the smoothest of processes: “You can't make everyone happy, but everything was done very slowly and there was no communication between HR and the trainees – it very much felt like a random process. People going on secondment didn't even get their visas on time!” However, following the introduction of a new HR team, sources did acknowledge that “things have definitely improved and they are taking steps in the right direction.”
We heard of trainees jetting off for overseas seats in Singapore, Dubai and Oman, although considering the global size of the firm, most “wished that there were more available.” One trainee brought this back to the Swiss Verein model: “Going to Europe is more difficult as you have to have an English supervisor, but London along with the Middle East is grouped under a different banner.” Trainees can however opt to go on a more readily available client secondment to one of a number of banks or to Airbus in Toulouse.
As easy as ABC
Real estate is split into several subgroups, such as retail, planning, regeneration, development and finance. In London, the firm recently advised Taylor Wimpey on its acquisition of a 6.25 acre development site from Royal Mail, and advised real estate investor Aprirose on its acquisition of QHotels from Bain Capital and Canyon Partners for £525 million. One trainee reported working on the construction of a landmark new building: “I was dealing with all their planning issues, including two judicial reviews, and helping to draft agreements on planning obligations such as the building of a new road.”
Over in Milton Keynes you can find well-known national names such as Sainsbury's, Argos and National Rail on the firm's books. “I assisted on corporate acquisitions and development work,” one MK trainee reported. “On smaller to medium-sized transactions – typically £800,000 or less – I acted as the primary point of contact for the client. I also dealt with every aspect of the sale of a property worth £700,000, including leading the negotiations and drafting the primary documents.” On larger multimillion-pound transactions, the trainee role tends to be more administrative and include “conducting due diligence and drafting reports.”
“I dealt with every aspect of the sale of a property worth £700,000.”
Dentons' banking department is the firm's largest and is split into three subgroups. Group A does general banking and covers real estate finance, acquisitions, leveraged finance and inter-bank lending; group B handles asset, project and trade finance; and group C does derivatives, capital markets, regulatory and structured finance work. In group A, trainees explained that “the firm sits on the panel of a lot of big banks, which provides a constant stream of run-of-the-mill real estate finance transactions. They're normally worth anywhere between £50 and £250 million and involve securing funding for a variety of properties. As a trainee I was managing the conditions precedent checklists as well as drafting all the ancillary and security documents.” Dentons has also been instructed on the Carillion liquidation and we heard trainees have been busy “reviewing all their loans and finance documents from years gone by, while the partners were having frequent meetings with people in the government.”
Banking group B is the most popular of the three banking options. “I mainly did asset finance work for boats and planes,” one source reported, and sure enough, you'll find Qatar Airways, Emirates and Airbus are all on the books here. “If you want to buy a plane, there are about 90 documents involved which you have to keep track of as the trainee,” a weary interviewee reported. “We co-ordinate with banks, leasing agencies and airlines on all aspects of an airplane's lifespan including sale, delivery, leasing and sub-leasing. As a trainee you have a couple of hundred emails coming in every day and you’re constantly chasing people for comments and signatures.” Another trainee detailed their involvement on a “trade finance deal involving the sale of commodities in Africa and South America. I had to run through the entire conditions precedent checklist over the phone with all the local counsel and companies involved. It definitely was scary, but it was good to be pushed out of my comfort zone.”
“I got to see a QC in action.”
The disputes team handles energy, arbitration, IP, media, transport and financial services work. “I did everything from multimillion-pound construction disputes to company restructuring claims,” one source said, adding: “I've also had the chance to run small low-value debt disputes worth £50,000 or less.” Another trainee detailed their experience “overseeing debt recovery for Dentons itself: it's been a good experience for getting to understand the billing process better and provides a different perspective on how terms and conditions work.” On the arbitration side, trainees were kept busy “compiling documents to be filed at the tribunal and putting together exhibits and witness statements. You don't get much drafting experience, but you do get the chance to attend hearings. I got to see a QC in action and have been able to meet high-profile judges and experts.” We also heard about a trainee “attending a Supreme Court case related to Lehman Brothers.” This case saw Dentons represent the majority shareholders of Lehman in the so-called 'Waterfall' litigation over the distribution of the busted-up bank's £8 billion surplus assets.
Call on me
Across departments, sources noted that “each is very different in terms of the people and atmosphere,” agreeing that other than not being “snobbish or elite” there wasn't a discernible Dentons culture as a whole. Banking and corporate were unanimously flagged as the most “aggressive” groups, in contrast to “less intense” groups such as TMT and disputes. Many thought this boiled down to the hours. “I had a brutal six months in banking,” one source told us. “I was repeatedly leaving at 3am a few days during the week.” Another added: “I was leaving, at the earliest, at 10.30pm every day.” Some found this problematic “for a firm trying to distinguish itself as doing upper-tier quality work but without the intensity of the magic circle.” Interviewees linked this to something they observed at the NQ and junior associate level: “Many people stay for two to three years after qualification and use the firm as a stepping stone to move on to jobs where they will work the same hours but might be paid more.” That kind of turnover at the two to three years PQE point is not unusual in the City. And some trainees put a positive spin on the situation, taking it as evidence that “they train us up very well.” Sources said that despite the NQ jobs process being a “very formal process, the firm also makes a concerted effort to put out as many jobs as possible because we're dying for junior lawyers.” In the end 26 of 38 qualifiers were retained in 2018.
Moreover, one source did highlight the “tendency for people to exaggerate the hours,” noting that “outside of banking and corporate and maybe real estate finance, you have more control over what you do and if people tell you they are working until 2am every night, it's because they are choosing to do so.” For trainees with this attitude the average day ran from around 9am to 7.30pm or 8pm, with a midnight finish around once a week. They also felt that trainee salaries were “fine if you don't work in banking and corporate.” Those outside the capital felt their salaries were competitive, noting that “while London trainees have more money to spend, they have less free time to spend it.”
Dentons trainees are a social bunch who were keen to burnish their socialite credentials. “Because there are 25 or so trainees in an intake, we are very close and have our own WhatsApp group to organise ad hoc social stuff,” one London trainee revealed. The firm also brings all its flock under one roof for annual summer and charity parties.
Department-led training was praised by our interviewees: “You have weekly training for the first two months in the banking team. They go through everything that could possibly come at you.”
How to get a Dentons training contract
Vacation scheme deadline (2019): 4 January 2019 (spring and summer)
Open day deadline (spring 2019): 4 January 2019 (spring and summer)
Training contract deadline (2021): 31 July 2019
Applying to Dentons begins with an online form. As part of the initial screening process, the firm scores each applicant on three core factors: academics, work experience and personality.
Graduate recruitment manager Alex Mundy tells us: “We do have our target universities, but the main thing for us is that people meet the grades.” The minimum is a 2:1 degree, plus ABB at A level. When it comes to work experience, “we like to see that candidates explored what it would be like to work in a commercial law firm – and if it's a City one, then all the better,” Mundy says. Personality criteria, on the other hand, are drawn out through questions “tailored towards candidates' achievements and extracurricular activities.”
Around 15% of the firm's 1,700 applicants are invited to take a Watson-Glaser critical thinking test. The firm keeps the pass mark for this under wraps.
The interview itself “encourages conversation and gets you talking about yourself,” according to the firm's current trainees. “The questions are designed to get you to demonstrate your ability in certain areas – for example, planning, organising and coping under pressure.”
Straight to training contract hopefuls who impress enough in the first round get a crack at the second stage. Candidates face an assessment centre consisting of a role play exercise, a written exercise (which is assessed by senior associates), a case study and a final partner interview.
All in all, “we're looking for ambitious, driven and determined candidates because that's what we are as a firm,” Mundy says, reminding applicants that “you've got to want to work for an international firm, as trainees end up getting involved in a lot of cross-jurisdictional work here.”
Dentons hosts two-week schemes in both Easter and summer in London, and during the summer across Milton Keynes and Watford. In London, on top of getting a taster of the firm's work there are a few social events dotted throughout the scheme; one of these involves an afternoon treasure hunt, which Mundy says is “a great way to get to know the City.” Our sources' number-one tip for getting the most out of the scheme? “Speak to as many current trainees as possible – that'll contribute a lot to your understanding of what the firm's about.”
How to ace law firm competency interviews
Interview with training principal Nigel Webber
Chambers Student: How has the firm performed in 2017?
Nigel Webber: In our transactional space over the last 18 months, there have been lots of cross-border deals in the hotels practice and a lot work generated from KKR, including their acquisition of Unilever's spreads business. We’ve been working with the government and official liquidators on the Carillion administration. Our finance practice has been equally very strong; we’ve done 40 transactions in that space over the past year and we continue to serve on the panels for the major UK retail banks. Our dispute resolution team has appeared in court for FTSE 100 companies more than any other firm in the past two years and our real estate team is now the largest in the world. So overall, it's been a very positive year for the firm.
In terms of highlights, the merger in October in 2017 with leading Scottish firm Maclay Murray & Spens (MMS) is something we are very excited about and has further increased our offering across the UK. A number of significant laterals have also joined us recently including a real estate team from Irwin Mitchell; a patent prosecutor from Olswang; and laterals from Freshfields and Allen & Overy who have really bolstered our capital markets offering.
CS: When do you anticipate the firm will stop expanding? Does the firm have a target in terms of size and scope?
NW: I think the important thing to emphasise is that all our growth has been in response to client demand and a need to be where our clients want us to be. That is underpinned by the polycentric approach we have as a firm, which has given rise to lots of expansion. Now that we are the largest, we are looking to be the world's leading firm. The MMS tie-up in Scotland has expanded our geographic reach across the UK but we have also opened offices in Kenya, Uganda and elsewhere on the continents of Africa and South America.
CS: Is it difficult maintaining a unified culture and standard across all those offices?
NW: Again, I would bring this back to our polycentric approach – it's all about embracing cultures across the world and celebrating diversity. We are an elite provider of legal services but it’s important to consider the local markets in which we operate – it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.
However, we do have teams dedicated to making sure we have the very best practices across all our offices through sharing knowledge on business development. We also employ a number of systems that analyse global conflict and risk, which is key to maintaining those underlying standards.
CS: Do you see the poaching of junior associates by rival firms as a problem for the firm's stability? What is the firm doing to prevent this?
NW: Naturally there is a lot of competition in the market but we are always looking to make Dentons an attractive place to work. We feel we provide the opportunities for our associates to continue to work on high profile deals while offering the very best training and an attractive remuneration package. We have also recently been looking at increasing the number of secondments available to our junior associates. Finally, I would emphasise the importance of diversity at the firm. Our GLOW (LGBT+), Inspire (Women's), Fusion (Asian Professionals) and BPN (Black Professionals) networks are key to fostering an inclusive culture and embracing diversity.
One Fleet Place,
- Partners: 178
- Associates 318
- Total trainees 95
- UK offices 6
- Overseas offices 164
- Graduate recruiter: Alexandra Mundy, [email protected], 0207 320 3751
- Training partner: Nigel Webber, [email protected]
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 40
- Applications pa: 2,000
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or other
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: ABB
- Vacation scheme places pa: 26
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: September 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2021 start: 31 July 2019
- Vacation scheme applications open: September 2018
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £42,000 (London); £30,000 (Milton Keynes and Watford)
- Second-year salary: £46,000 (London); £32,500 (Milton Keynes and Watford)
- Post-qualification salary: £70,000 (London); £46,000 (Milton Keynes and Watford)
- Holiday entitlement: 24
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £6,000 in London, £5000 outside of London
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Milton Keynes and Watford
- Overseas seats: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Muscat, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney
- Client secondments: 5
Main areas of work
Our London training contract consists of six-month seats in four of our nine practice areas. Along with a seat in our banking and finance practice and a contentious seat (or an external litigation course), you may also have the opportunity to work in one of our global offices or to work directly with one of our clients within their team and office.
Milton Keynes and Watford
Our rotational Milton Keynes and Watford training contract will see you move between the two offices, with the opportunity to experience our City-level out-of-town legal service and the chance to work with our numerous household-name clients. Our legal departments include corporate, dispute resolution, financial litigation, real estate, property litigation, construction and employment, and you’ll spend sixmonth seats in four of them.
These placements consist of business games, department visits and social events, giving potential trainees an insight into commercial law and our way of life at Dentons.
University law careers fairs 2018
Please do come over and say hello; we’d love to meet you for a more informal chat about a career with us.
• Queen Mary, Kings College
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2018
- Banking & Finance: Lenders (Band 5)
- Banking Litigation (Band 4)
- Capital Markets: Debt (Band 4)
- Construction: Purchaser (Band 4)
- Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market (Band 2)
- Employment: Employer (Band 5)
- Environment (Band 1)
- Information Technology (Band 3)
- Intellectual Property (Band 5)
- Intellectual Property: Law Firms With Patent & Trade Mark Attorneys Spotlight Table
- Litigation (Band 6)
- Planning (Band 3)
- Real Estate Finance (Band 4)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 4)
- Real Estate: Big-Ticket (Band 5)
- Restructuring/Insolvency (Band 4)
- Social Housing (Band 3)
- Banking & Finance (Band 3)
- Competition Law (Band 1)
- Construction (Band 3)
- Corporate/M&A (Band 2)
- Education: Institutions (Band 3)
- Employment (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas Recognised Practitioner
- Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 4)
- Environment (Band 3)
- Information Technology (Band 3)
- Intellectual Property (Band 2)
- Litigation (Band 3)
- Planning (Band 3)
- Professional Negligence (Band 3)
- Real Estate (Band 2)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 2)
- Tax (Band 1)
- Transport: Rail (Band 1)
- Banking & Finance (Band 1)
- Construction (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: Mid-Market and Private Equity (Band 1)
- Employment (Band 3)
- Litigation (Band 1)
- Professional Negligence (Band 1)
- Real Estate (Band 1)
- Real Estate Litigation (Band 2)
- Banking Litigation (Band 2)
- Asset Finance: Aviation Finance (Band 3)
- Capital Markets: AIM (Band 4)
- Commercial Contracts (Band 3)
- Commodities: Trade Finance (Band 3)
- Data Protection & Information Law (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Oil & Gas (Band 2)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Power (Band 3)
- Energy & Natural Resources: Renewables & Alternative Energy (Band 3)
- Financial Services: Payments Law (Band 2)
- Franchising (Band 2)
- Hotels & Leisure (Band 2)
- Infrastructure: PFI/PPP (Band 2)
- International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration Recognised Practitioner
- Outsourcing (Band 2)
- Private Equity: Buyouts: Mid-Market (Band 4)
- Projects: PFI/PPP (Band 3)
- Public Procurement (Band 4)
- Retail (Band 2)
- Telecommunications (Band 3)
- Transport: Rail: Franchising (Band 1)
- Transport: Rail: Projects & Infrastructure (Band 2)
- Transport: Rail: Rolling Stock (Band 2)