A top six Wall Street firm, Davis Polk & Wardwell is arguably under the most pressure in its peer group. Its growth over the past five years has lagged significantly behind that of its peers, most of which have bitten the bullet of international investment.
Davis Polk continues to set its face against English law capability in London, preferring to stick to working with the likes of Slaughters. Still, there’s no escaping the fact that for its largest group – corporate – 2007 was a stellar year. The firm’s longstanding courtship of ABN Amro paid off when it picked up the lead M&A mandate on the bank’s sale. A similar link with AstraZeneca saw it win instructions on the UK company’s £7.95bn acquisition of MedImmune – the largest ever acquisition of a US pharmaceutical company by a non-US acquirer.
The highly conservative Davis Polk likes to portray itself as team-focused rather than star-orientated. The reality is that several corporate partners, at least in the past year, leap out of the ranks.
They include Paris partner Meg Tahyar (responsible for the ABN Amro relationship), London partner Tom Reid (chair of the international committee), and New York M&A partners Bill Taylor and Paul Kingsley (who handled the La Salle and AstraZeneca deals respectively).
Into 2008 and capital markets head Rich Sandler and New York-based partner Joe Hall led the team advising the underwriters on Visa’s $19bn (£9.55bn) IPO.
Davis Polk has the required brand recognition to stay at the top of the international game, but remains dangerously conservative – both in terms of overseas investment and culture.
Managing partner John Ettinger has a battle on his hands if he is to drag the firm fully into modern legal age.
Davis Polk relies on its top-tier referral network for its international coverage. But there are signs that the firm is reviewing this.
Davis Polk opened a Beijing office in February 2007 and in April this year ramped up its China M&A capability with the hire of Howard Zhang, the former Beijing managing partner of O’Melveny & Myers.
Davis Polk’s tentative steps to expand its global coverage smack of a recognition that it is underresourced overseas.
As with Debevoise & Plimpton, UK magic circle merger rumours have long circulated concerning Davis Polk. A dilutive UK lockstep has stopped this happening so far, but the long term may be a different matter.