Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP - The Inside View

Prestigious Cleary is 70 years old in 2016 but still redefining what it means to be a junior associate.

CLEARY is clear on one thing: “It doesn't like its lawyers to be pigeon-holed.” Summer associates are encouraged to “try everything” – including offices overseas, if they want to and have the requisite language skills – and when they join as first-years they can continue to fly between practice areas. According to junior associates here, Cleary considers itself a “coalition of talents” rather than a “rigid top-down operation,” and the fact that outside interests are so valued in the recruitment process reflects the premium the firm places on high-flyers with a diverse skill set.

But it's not just the relative freedom to choose your work that leaves associates cooing appreciatively. Cleary's lawyers work on some of the biggest assignments around. Its M&A work, for example, has seen it ranked eighth globally by Thomson Reuters for 2015 with a total of 86 deals worth $575.8 billion. This includes the recent acquisition of medical manufacturer Actavis by Allergan – the largest acquisition financing ever, at the time – which included over $70 billion worth of cash and stock. It's no surprise then that Chambers USA ranks Cleary in the elite for corporate/M&A work; other top-ranked practices include capital markets, antitrust, financial services regulation, Latin American investment and white-collar crime.

The Work

Cleary encourages summer and junior associates to sample a variety of work flavors so they can find out what taste they like. During the summer, New York recruits (the vast majority) receive “a form with 20 areas” and are asked to “list their preferences,” which then forms the basis for their early assignments. In DC – owing to that office's smaller size – there are three main choices: "Corporate, litigation and antitrust," though structured finance and bank regulatory are also options. Fluidity is the name of the game and many we spoke to echoed the view that “the odds of you doing the same work in your third year as when you joined are far less than in other firms.” One source confirmed: “I'm starting my third year and have been in three different groups.” Those that take a lot of junior associates in New York include capital markets, M&A, litigation/arbitration, private equity/fund formation, and real estate.

“You should work on the deals you like.”

From their first day, Cleary's associates are spurred to “get up and go.” For transactional folks this means “you should work on the deals you like,” and that “if you aren't proactive it can be easy to get side-tracked into work you don't want to do.” A capital markets junior explained: "I have approached partners many times. I just drop by a partner's office (it's an open-door firm) and say 'hey, I am available'. I think you need some guidance at the beginning." For those who enter the corporate realm, “when you first show up they give you a corporate client, and you are encouraged to build up a relationship and do most of your work with them.” 

Litigators likewise found they had "iterative discussions" to get and help determine their assigned work: "I got put on my first case from a conversation I had when I started. I geared up for a trial and it was a huge team. Later I went and spoke with one of the litigation assigners and said I was interested in being on a smaller team." An M&A New Yorker disclosed that "after your first year they'll ask if you want to move on. I think most people prefer not to continue to stay on. I actually chose to stay on because the work is so different and variable. It is just what you make it." Most sources praised the role of assignment coordinators who "will contact you, see your hours and ask 'do you have the time for this'? If you communicate with them, they listen and give me a call if there’s something I might be interested in." 

This isn't a place for shrinking violets, and Cleary recruits those it believes will thrive in a more proactive environment. As one lawyer put it: “We are all type-A and don't like saying 'no'.” That said, the coordinators are responsible for distributing assignments and checking that associates are doing a spread of work they're interested in. Faith in the recruitment process is also evident in the amount of responsibility associates are given early on: “Traditionally, most new associates do document review but at Cleary we have staff attorneys who help do that kind of stuff.”

Training & Development

All new associates are eased in to this environment with a “two-week mini MBA program” in New York that deals with numerous things like “using Excel and understanding how financial structuring works.” This was widely hailed as “extremely useful,” though some admitted that “it's a little basic if you've been to law school.” Sources praised the social opportunities the training affords: “It kind of turned into talking to friends at the back of the class, which was great!” DC newbies are “put up in a nice hotel” where there is, unsurprisingly, “plenty of socializing.”

After this initial flurry of classroom activity, there are fairly regular CLEs, which are “helpful though pretty poorly attended.” These are complemented by two quirkily-named annual programs, 'Corporate College' and 'Litigation Academy'. The first takes place “twice a week and occurs over a period of about six months.” It's mandatory for corporate associates to attend and "consists of lectures and Powerpoint presentations on corporate work,” usually given by a partner or mid-level associate. Litigation Academy runs over a shorter space of time but is more intensive. “Everyone participates, from juniors to partners,” and activities include “courtroom scenarios and fictional depositions.”

“Feedback is not anonymous, so people soften their punches.”

The appraisal system veers off a bit from the more straightforward curriculum. In New York, for their first two years, associates' annual reviews are given by Mary Watson, a senior attorney and director of professional development. During junior appraisals her job is to “solicit feedback from everyone you've worked with and deliver it to you in an evaluative format.” Most of those we spoke to were quick to praise this process, some even describing her as a “motherly figure.” However, a few voiced concerns about the effectiveness of an appraisal delivered by someone who you've never worked closely with. While she “encourages you to go to the person who gave your initial feedback, many people are shy” and might be reluctant to follow-up on this. Moreover, “feedback is not anonymous, so people soften their punches.” Things are a little different in DC: there's “a six month review, which is truncated. And then a full review after about a year and a half” with a partner of your choosing.

Hours & Compensation

Interviewees resoundingly approved the firm's policy of having no formal billing target. “It takes away unnecessary competition” because “you never worry about what other people are doing.” Cleary's bonus system is “completely lockstep.” As one associate put it, “if there was a bonus for higher hours, I'd definitely have been in the higher tier,” adding: “But I don't think I'd have had as much fun doing it.”

“I've never had anyone pressure me not to take a vacation."

After working on a big deal or case – where “days are 18-hours long” – associates can at least look forward to taking some of their 20 days' vacation allowance, which increases with seniority. Many echoed one junior who reported: “I've never had anyone pressure me not to take a vacation, and mine have always fallen at inopportune times for the rest of my team.” Even so, if your iPhone does start beeping on the beach, “you get those days back.”


"We are more highly leveraged than firms we consider our peers," associates pointed out. "That means there are fewer partners, so responsibility flows down." High levels of responsibility can mean “associates in the final years of being an associate are treated like partners.” Partners themselves often appear conscious of this, interviewees said, and are therefore “extremely approachable” and “always want to spend time with associates – if we are traveling, we will all get dinner.” All of this contributes to a “collegial and collaborative” environment.

"One of the more unique events is Wranglers.” 

Notable social events include Cleary's famous 'Wranglers.' "We obviously have a lot during the summer when our summers are here. One of the more unique events is Wranglers, an event where the first-year class puts together skit movies usually poking fun at the firm. Last year we had an '80s cover band and the theme was '80s movies. We had a live vote to decide the winner." Alas, outside of the summer, get-togethers are rather more mundane: "CLEs with lunches" and such like. "Whenever you have a new group of lawyers coming to the firm, there are dinners. If you have the time, you go." One fun-loving DC attorney lamented: “There's wine and cheese once a month but it's not the most social office.” Lucky New Yorkers get these tasty spreads weekly.

Pro Bono

“If you are interested in it you can do as much as you want,” juniors told us. It is “almost completely self-driven” in terms of how much you do, and a pro bono director in New York manages the assignments. Cleary doesn't impose a cap on the amount you can do. Lawyers here have links to organizations including Bronx Defenders, Sanctuary for Families, IRAP [International Refugee Assistance Project] and many others. For those able to find the time, “there is an award and recognition if you bill 100 pro bono hours.”

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all offices: 63,065 
  • Average per US attorney: 92


A New York lawyer was fairly representative when she told us that “in terms of young associates – over 50% in my class are female.” Among other initiatives, Cleary has “hired multiple consultants to work on the promotion and retention of women.” Existing programs include Women Lawyers, a firmwide committee that holds “lunches once a month for Cleary's female lawyers” and whose raison d'être is to “work on the promotion and retention of women.”

"Over 50% in my class are female.”

In terms of helping ethnic minority representation, there are affinity groups – including ones for African-American and Latin American attorneys – that hold regular lunches and provide discussion forums for members. Generally speaking, as is often the case in BigLaw, “at the associate level the firm is pretty diverse but unfortunately that tails off quite considerably moving up to partner.”


Another area where there's room for improvement is attorneys' office space, some said. Due to high numbers, in One Liberty Plaza in New York “most people have an office mate for their first eight to 18 months.” During this time, their view of the outside world improves: “You start with no windows then, after six months to a year, you get one. Then, by the end of two years, you usually have two!” Associates spoke positively about the size and layout of the offices. However, one pointed out that “once you get the two-window, this is pretty much the office you'll have forever!” In DC "you have your own office from the first day."

Get Hired

Associates stressed that having diverse interests is smiled upon by recruiters at Cleary. One associate spoke of how “everybody in my Cleary OCI asked me the same question: what subject my BA thesis was on. Nobody at any other firm asked me that.” The point of all this is to find interesting people “who they'd want to be with in a conference room at 3am.” Hiring partner Lisa Schweitzer stresses that the firm's criteria for recruitment are the same as that for making partner: "Based on attorneys who are excellent, are collegial and who have the potential to be leaders in their field."

Strategy & Future

When pressed on what the future holds for the firm, HP Lisa Schweitzer replies that after opening offices in China, South Korea, São Paulo and Abu Dhabi in recent years, the firm is "very comfortable with its coverage." She stresses that the lockstep approach permeates all aspects of Cleary's strategy and "because we have that model as a crucial component, we don't just expand for expansion's sake."

Cleary's work for sovereign states

Cleary lists 34 countries it has advised in recent years, scattered across the globe from Western Europe to Latin America to Asia to Africa. The list includes some of the world's most controversial governments, including Russia and Argentina, as well as war-torn countries including Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Much of the firm's work for these states involves securing government finance. The firm has been involved in multibillion note offerings, including a recent $2.5 billion IPO for the Mexican state oil company Petróleos Mexicanos. The largest of these occurred back in 2012, when Cleary acted for Greece in a sovereign debt restructuring worth a record-breaking €206 billion, and designed to ease the nation's post-recessionary woes.

The firm has advised Iraq and Argentina on similar transactions, some of the largest-ever sovereign state debt restructurings. But although Cleary's role in these offerings is an advisory one, the firm has attracted criticism for some of the governments it works with. It has attracted press attention for its role in Argentina, after the country suffered a disastrous default on Cleary's advice. Commentators have called for Argentina to send the firm's lawyers home, or risk gaining status as a financial pariah.

In 2007, the firm represented the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a nation that's often cited as the archetypal 'failed state'. Sitting on untapped mineral deposits worth an estimated $242 trillion, 15 years of civil war, genocide and a century of political instability have made the DRC the poorest nation in the world. Cleary is said to have advised the DRC to default on its debt to the US, in a decision that attracted similar levels of press attention, as well as a federal rebuke.

Still, although Cleary's high-profile finance work might attract criticism, it's worth bearing in mind that its role is to set out the law to often-unpopular governments, who then act as they choose. Just as even the most fearsome felon deserves legal representation in court, these countries need lawyers to get them out of their stickiest jams: even if the lawyers might attract a few waspish comments in the process.

Interview with Lisa Schweizer, partner, Cleary Gottlieb


Chambers Associate: What highlights from the past year would you want to flag up to student readers interested in the firm?

The firm has had a busy year working on some of the most complex transactions across the globe. On the enforcement front, for example, we continue to be a leading firm in the LIBOR investigations, in which we are representing several major financial institutions. We are also representing Petrobas in significant SEC reporting, corporate governance, financing and litigation matters. Other notables include several large M&A and antitrust deals with clients such as Google Inc. and Allergan.

CA: Any plans to open new offices or expand in any specific regions?

In the past 4 years, we have successfully opened offices in Abu Dhabi and Seoul. This allows us to better support our clients in those regions, and also to expand the geographic reach of our work. A distinguishing aspect of Cleary is that we expand organically, with careful thought about our practice and clients. As such, we follow a one-firm model that is intertwined with the lockstep culture.

CA: How would you define the firm's culture, and what does the firm do to promote that culture?

Our lockstep compensation model reinforces a culture based on teamwork in the interests of our clients. It’s a system that ensures all our lawyers are compensated equally around the world. Under this structure, we are able to staff our firm’s matters without motivations of personal profit. Removing this competitive element allows us to support our lawyers and staff through building consensus, and to operate in a collaborative environment. We also have committees that make decisions on the firm’s direction and growth.

CA: Do you think the criteria for becoming a partner at Cleary has changed over the past few years?

The firm remains dedicated to strengthening our practice primarily through internal growth, and to promote lawyers who have demonstrated the qualities of character, leadership, intelligence and legal skills that will enable them to contribute significantly to the firm’s practice over the long term.

CA: Has the scope of your recruitment drive changed at all since last year? i.e., In terms of schools visited?..

Our recruitment strategy and goals have remained consistent. We look for students with academic excellence who are committed to their legal education and the practice of law. We also pride ourselves in creating an atmosphere of inclusiveness and support through a diverse workforce.

CA: What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?

Diversity and inclusion are essential to achieving the firm’s core business objective of providing quality service. Our firm actively maintains relationships with affinity groups, including African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, gay and lesbian, and other diverse law student associations at various law schools. For example, we host a series of on-campus fireside chats where students meet some of our lawyers to learn not just about Cleary, but also the tools that they’ll need to be a successful legal professional. These events provide a forum for candid discussions on issues facing, and opportunities available to, diverse lawyers in large law firms. Within the firm, we also provide programs in which lawyers are encouraged to speak freely about diversity in an open setting. This allows for a better understanding of how we can provide adequate resources that will help our lawyers advance in their careers.

CA: What can law students do now to increase their chances of impressing you in their applications or interviews?

Law students should focus on taking advantage of the education they receive in the classroom and finding areas of the law in which they have particular interest. Strong applicants take a keen interest in all aspects of the law.

CA: Can you briefly outline your summer program.. 

The program is designed to offer a realistic view of life at Cleary, which includes training and mentorship. With no formal departments or rotations, Cleary offers summer associates the opportunity to enjoy assignments in a variety of practice areas, or focus on a particular discipline, in a flexible and diverse environment. There is also the potential to work abroad in one of our 14 overseas offices. Summer associates also will get to attend a wide array of events, ranging from partner-hosted dinners to a cruise on the Hudson overlooking the New York skyline.

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP

One Liberty Plaza,
New York,
NY 10006

  • Head Office: New York, NY & Washington DC
  • Number of domestic offices: 2
  • Number of international offices: 14
  • Partners (US): 106
  • Associates (US): 442
  • Summer Salary 2016  
  • 1Ls: N/A
  • 2Ls: $3,077/week
  • Post 3Ls: N/A
  • 1Ls hired? Yes - Washington Diversity Summer Associate Program
  • Split summers offered? Yes
  • Can summers spend time in overseas office? Yes
  • Summers 2016: 123
  • Offers/acceptances 2015: 120 offers

Main areas of work
Antitrust and competition, banking and financial institutions, bankruptcy and restructuring, capital markets, corporate governance, derivatives, energy, environmental law, executive compensation and ERISA, intellectual property, international trade and investment, leveraged and acquisition finance, litigation and arbitration, mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures, private clients and charitable organizations, private equity, privatizations, pro bono, project finance and infrastructure, public international law, real estate, sovereign governments and international institutions, structured finance, tax, white-collar defense, securities enforcement and internal investigations.

Firm profile
Cleary Gottlieb embodies the principles of collegiality, collaboration, individuality and legal excellence while cultivating the finest legal talent in the world. Operating as a single, integrated worldwide firm with 16 offices in 12 different countries, Cleary Gottlieb has helped shape the globalization of the legal profession for more than 70 years.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 85
• Number of 2nd year associates: 89
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Boston College, Boston University, Brooklyn, Cardozo, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Emory, Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Howard, Lavender Law Career Fair, Michigan, Midwest California Interview Program, National Law School Consortium, NEBLSA Job Fair, New York Law, NYU, Northwestern, Ohio State, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Texas, Tulane, Washington University, Washington and Lee, William and Mary, UC Berkeley, UCLA, USC Gould, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Yale

Summer details
Summer associate profile:
We seek candidates who are confident in their abilities and creative in their thinking. We look for academically strong men and women of all races and nationalities who are enthusiastic about practicing law. We place a premium on openness, diversity, individuality and collegiality and look for candidates who do so as well.

Summer program components:
Cleary offers summer associates the flexibility to enjoy assignments in many practice areas or to focus on a particular discipline. The summer program consists of formal and informal training, partner and associate mentoring, optional overseas office rotations, pro bono work, comprehensive evaluations and social/networking events.