Sweet Sixteen: Davis Polk & Wardwell

Star practices/people

Rev £383m
PEP £1.2m
RPL £649,000

Global 744
London 30
New York 590

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.

Top deals
» ABN Amro on its £50.2bn sale to RBS

» ABN Amro on the £10.5bn sale of La Salle to Bank of America

» AstraZeneca on its £7.34bn ­acquisition of MedImmune

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.

The verdict
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.