Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP - The Inside View

It's all change at the top of this elite New Yorker, but "consolidating our gains" is more likely than any radical overhaul.

CLEARY Gottlieb rang in New Year 2017 by handing over the reins to a brand new managing partner. Mark Leddy – who'd held the position for six years – made way for investment funds partner Michael Gerstenzang. Hiring partner Lisa Schweitzer reassures us that dramatic change under new managing partners doesn't happen at this firm:  “Cleary’s unique lockstep partnership creates a culture of collaboration and respect allowing our partnership to decide all important firm matters under the guidance of the managing partner.” She added: “We’re very excited to have Michael Gerstenzang as our new managing partner. He’s deeply devoted to our firm’s culture, the work we do for clients and the strategic growth of our business.”

One thing we're sure of is that Gerstenzang will be racking up plenty of air miles zigzagging across the firm's prestigious global network. As well as a huge New York and smaller DC office, Cleary has 14 international offices covering Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Its pedigree is highlighted by a host of Chambers Global rankings, including top global-wide recognition for its antitrust and capital markets prowess.

While Cleary's international expertise was “a given” among the associates we spoke to, back home the firm racks up first class Chambers USA rankings in New York for its employee benefits, Latin American investment, white collar crime, real estate, and tax work. Washington, DC's star group is the antitrust practice, while on a nationwide level the firm is noted for several stellar practices including antitrust (yet again), capital markets, banking, regulation, and tax.

Strategy & Future

Don't expect big changes to accompany the recent managerial transition: “We're focused on consolidating our gains at the moment,” associates understood. “We weathered the financial crisis and did well in the aftermath. We opened new offices in recent years” in China, South Korea, São Paulo and Abu Dhabi, “but at the moment we're focusing on integrating those in the lifeblood of the firm.” We heard that, closer to home, the antitrust practice is in line to increase its depth, particularly in DC where David Gelfand – former deputy assistant attorney general for DOJ's antitrust litigation division – recently rejoined the firm as partner.

The Work & Offices

Cleary encourages both summer and junior associates to dip their toes in a variety of practice areas. Departments that take a lot of junior associates in New York include capital markets, M&A, litigation/arbitration, private equity/fund formation, and real estate. In DC most associates operate within corporate, litigation and antitrust, though they can also sample structured finance and regulatory work.

“The flexibility is why I love working for them,” one source gushed, while another told us: “It keeps things really interesting and gives you the chance to learn a lot. I imagine at some point I will start specializing, but as a young attorney it's very good to have the opportunity to put my toes in the water and learn new skills doing different things.”

“There is no pre-defined set of tasks.”

Assignment coordinators are responsible for distributing assignments and checking that associates are doing a spread of work they're interested in. Most of our sources had gotten their first assignments through the coordinators but had since branched out to seeking work directly from partners.

Generalist litigators could latch onto anything from securities or bankruptcy disputes to white collar crime, employment and general commercial disputes. The vast majority of litigation work in DC is antitrust related. “We have a strong e-discovery group so associates aren't doing first level doc review, which is pretty great. Instead we take a second level review or review relevant flagged files,” one interviewee told us.That said “as the matters we're handling are often huge the teams can be large, so you may be on a number of less significant but still important tasks; that's everything from taking notes during calls to preparing summaries, reviewing drafts others have written or taking first drafts of documents.” There's still room for juniors to get stuck in on leaner staffed or exceptionally busy cases: “We were taking depositions as first-years. It was incredible but there were hundreds to be done so everyone had a chit.” Others had drafted motions or briefs and assisted with depositions.

TOP READ: Securuties litigation afficionados at Cleary Gottlieb give a behind-the-scenes look at their practice.

“Connectivity to the global arena.”

Capital markets, finance, restructuring, M&A and private equity can all be sampled by transactional folks. “This place is not good with definition,” one source told us as they mused how best to explain their daily docket: “There is no pre-defined set of tasks” correlating to seniority. “On a small team you handle everything from the start whereas on a big team you could be doing due diligence for a few months. I don't think anyone has said 'this person isn't senior enough for that' – often the question revolves around whether they should give it to you outright or pair you with a sixth or seventh-year in case you have any questions.” Interviewees had dug down into or coordinated diligence, drafted or revised disclosure materials or agreements and directly liaised with clients to answer queries.

Both litigators and deal-doers regularly get the chance to work with their colleagues around the globe: “Many deals tend to deal with cross-border issues or are international in nature. I like that connectivity to the global arena.” Summer associates may even get the chance to spend some of the summer in one of the firm's overseas offices.

Washington, DC and New York make up the firm's US offering. The latter houses most rookies. DC juniors get their own office from the get-go while Big Apple newbies begin firm life sharing with another junior. “It's a God-given when you start as someone is suffering with you,” but most sources were glad to transition into their own digs after a year.

Training & Development

All new associates are eased into the firm with a “two-week mini MBA program” in New York. After this initial flurry of classroom activity, there are fairly regular CLEs. Corporate College is open to first-years and above. The weekly classes “cover a different topic each week giving an in-depth rundown on things like corporate reporting requirements or valuations in an M&A deal. During the second-year we have a lot of soft skills trainings on things like how to make a client presentation.”

Litigation Academy runs over a shorter space of time but is more intensive. “We all fly to New York for a two-day training session,” one DC associate told us. “The first day was basically presentations on good deposition methods and some examples of tactics and then the next day we held a simulation. We all prepared to defend a witness and to depose a witness twice. Partners stand in as judges and gave feedback after the first set of sessions and then we had the opportunity to try and improve it in the second session.” Annual global practice area retreats also host hands-on practical training sessions for associates: antitrust folks, for example, were swept off to Salzburg, Austria where they analyzed a mock potential merger and pitched a presentation to partners who pretended to be clients.

“She's an oracle.”

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. “She's an oracle,” one associate found. “She helps you interpret the reviews and can say 'don't worry, this partner says this to everyone' or on the other hand note 'this is a weird comment for this partner, let's talk to him some more about it.'”

Hours & Compensation

Cleary doesn't specify an annual billable hours target but we pressed our sources to discover if there was an unofficial figure floating about. “If there is, I've never heard of it,” one source responded, while another told us: “I really don't think so. People work hard enough that they don't have to think about it.” Those we spoke to told us that ten to 12-hour stints in the office were fairly typical, with those leaving earlier putting in a couple of hours from home.

Exit times can fluctuate wildly: “I've been leaving at 5pm recently but when it's busy there are months where I get four to five hours sleep a night, and the rest of the time I'm in the office, weekends, holidays, whatever,” one deal-doer told us. “We're certainly compensated for working hard,” another source conceded.  The “hazard pay” falls in line with the BigLaw market ($180,000 for first-years). Lockstep bonuses also match the market rate. 


Juniors credited the lockstep bonus and lack of billable hours target for “driving the cooperative environment. The compensation and culture go hand in hand as everyone is on the same level regardless of hours and cases.” Others agreed: “It doesn't feel like we're competing with other associates for hours –  your team is supportive. But while on the one hand it is cooperative and collaborative, there are very high expectations. We get a lot of really great opportunities very early on but they can be stressful.”

“Busy and intense.”

Despite the pressure “those moments are smoothed by working with people you have ongoing positive relationships with. This role requires the type of personality that is open to and thrives on collaboration, which is important for building relationships when times are stressful.” Another told us “it's busy and intense – it's not all fun and games but we have a cheese and wine event every week. They do a good job of keeping morale up despite how much work we're doing all the time.”

Cheese and wine may keep attorneys going week to week, but the big event of the year is the skit-tastic 'Wranglers': “Everybody goes and it's a fun way for first-years to introduce themselves to the firm.” Newbies are split into groups and tasked with producing a themed video skit “making fun of firm life. It's shown to the rest of us before we have a huge party.” Past themes have ranged from 80s movies to sitcoms and tacky infomercials.


An all-white, mostly male partner and counsel promotion round in November 2016 left diversity “a touchy subject” when we spoke to our sources. Many felt that although “Cleary does a good job at being committed, they're not always successful in the result. I do think they haven't quite figured out how to get the diverse associates all the way through to partnership.”  Another agreed, noting: “I don't think anyone is talking about issues in recruiting.” Since the partnership promotions, “we've had a lot of discussions about the situation and the firm recognizes it's a huge priority.”

Pro Bono

No billable hours target means no limit to the amount of pro bono associates can do. “When things were quiet I had a month where half my work was pro bono,” one source told us.  Many interviewees had worked on immigration and trafficking rights cases, including working toward removing prostitution convictions for sex trafficking victims.  The firm also had a hand in overturning the conviction of Clifford Jones, who in 1981 was convicted of rape and murder based upon unreliable testimony. The firm also helped create a "social venture obligation" for the Osborne Association to help finance a furniture business which employs ex-offenders.  Cleary also put lawyers on the ground at JFK and Dulles airport following Trump's executive order to halt immigration from largely Muslim countries – over 100 Cleary attorneys were on hand to assist with immigration and asylum issues.

Pro bono hours

  • For all US attorneys:  56,647
  • Average per US attorney:  80


Hiring at Cleary – tips from associates

Did we detect a Cleary type when conducting our interviews? “Generally we're gregarious people who thrive on being around others. They encourage that through wine and cheese events or getting summer associates to have lunch with existing associates. All these types of things are geared toward people getting to know their colleagues,” one interviewee summed up, while a colleague added: “We have these mentoring circles that often break down into conversations about something else someone is interested in.” One source elaborated: “What's surprising is that many people have one very strong interest; they might be a theater buff, a foodie or a rock concert connoisseur.” Don't think the days are rammed with enforced fun though: “There's a lot of space to do things your own way; if you want to be best mates with your hall mates you can be, but if you don't want to there is room for that too.”

One source told us that Cleary associates “are comfortable getting out of their comfort zone. People are very independent – they're able to advocate for themselves and come up with ideas. We often work on international cases in multiple jurisdictions with confusing elements. You have to put yourself out there to take on the cases and be independent in your assignments. People want to be doing the cool things, you don't find many wallflowers.” On a related note, the regularity of international and cross-border matters means many Cleary attorneys “have an interest in all things international and have either spent time abroad or like to travel.”

When it comes to interviews, associates who'd participated in the hiring process told us their criteria extends to “people you'd like to hang out with at the end of a 16-hour day when you're feeling cross-eyed!” So “cockiness or over confidence is a huge turn off; we wouldn't want people boasting about everything or thinking they're amazing. It's not attractive.” Neither are the super-aggressive: “Because we're a lockstep firm, I don't think the kind of people who like intense competition and like to fight for a bonus would like Cleary.”

Diversity at Cleary

In November 2016 Cleary elected 16 new partners and counsel. Predominantly white and featuring only one women, the promotions prompted scrutiny and questions over the firm's diversity efforts and achievements. “Diversity leaves something to be desired in the upper ranks,” one junior told us. “They have working groups to see what is missing and how to change things” – more on those below – “and it's something that's widely discussed, especially given the partnership announcement. The people in that echelon deserved it but the question is how to get more people to climb there.”

Juniors generally felt that among the lower years, diversity was fairly good. “Our diversity in recruiting is strong,” many associates stressed. “The first through fifth years are extremely diverse but when you get to fifth and sixth year it starts to fall.” Interjected another: “We need to figure out how to keep diverse associates for longer. It's not like they're all making it to seventh and eighth year and then not being chosen for promotion.” Female associates found this fifth/sixth year drain particularly “frustrating as they seem to hire more women than men. Somewhere along the line the numbers reverse.”

The firm's Committee on Retention and Promotion of Women (CRPW) does what it says on the tin and looks into redressing issues and circumstances which reduce the advancement of female attorneys. The CRPW and the Committee on Diversity and Inclusion work with practice groups to ensure the successful implementation of mentoring programs such as One-2-One mentoring and mentoring circles. The firm also supports affinity groups for black, East Asian, Latino, LGBT and South East Asian, South Asian and Middle Eastern attorneys. Numbers and initiatives are all very well but when it comes to the atmosphere associates reckoned “the commitment to diversity and the atmosphere to diverse associates is warm and welcoming.”

We chat with hiring partner Lisa Schweitzer

Chambers Associate: Michael Gerstenzang became the firm's new managing partner in early 2017. What does that mean for Cleary? Will we see any big changes?

Lisa Schweitzer: We’re very excited to have Michael Gerstenzang as our new managing partner. He’s deeply devoted to our firm’s culture, the work we do for clients and the strategic growth of our business. We don’t anticipate big changes: Cleary remains focused on providing exceptional client service and attracting and nurturing the best legal talent. Under Michael’s leadership, we expect this to continue.

CA: Which practices been have hot over the past year?

LS: We’ve been busy helping clients with a host of transactional, litigation and regulatory matters over the past year, often involving complex, multijurisdictional issues. For example, we’ve represented Home Depot (Interline Brands), MBK Partners (Homeplus) and Samsonite (Tumi) in strategic acquisitions; advised Latin American bond issuers in nearly $50 billion in issuances in 2016 — which reflected a 58% market share — including Argentina’s return to global debt markets; and counseled Samsung BioLogics in its $2 billion IPO, which was the third-largest in Korean history.

The increased scrutiny of cross-border deals will mean clients will continue to rely on effective global antitrust counsel. Cleary has continued to be at the center of these high-profile transactions, advising on antitrust and competition issues for Abbott Laboratories (acquisition of St. Jude Medical), Dow Chemical (merger-of-equals with DuPont), GlaxoSmithKline (three-part transaction with Novartis) and Johnson Controls (merger with Tyco).

Disputes continue to affect our clients in all jurisdictions, and we intend to remain at the forefront of protecting and enforcing their interests. We have represented several major financial institutions in investigations by global regulators in the US, Europe and Asia concerning FX trading, and LIBOR, ISDAFIX and other benchmark rates; successfully counseled the Russian Federation and Hellenic Republic in landmark arbitration proceedings; and are advising Petrobras in connection with a $98 billion shareholder suit — one of the largest securities actions ever filed.

On the pro bono side we've been equally busy, handling a number of high-profile cases. The pro bono areas in which we practice in are too wide to name, whether they're children's rights, asylum rights, landlord tenant work or death penalty cases. Our lawyers collectively committed over 90,000 hours last year. We are very proud of our recent victory where we managed to overturn the conviction of Clifford Jones in New York state. We worked for eight years to get the state to reopen the case and examine new DNA evidence which exonerated him. We believe it to be the first time the Manhattan District Attorney's Office has gone back and exonerated an individual who was convicted of murder based on the emergence of new DNA evidence. It's a great example of the persistence of our lawyers.

We've also been involved in dealing with issues making headlines in 2017. Notably, our lawyers took immediate action in response to the current Administration’s original executive order limiting immigration into the United States by helping those affected by the January travel ban.

CA: Have any offices or regions been particularly busy?

LS: The firm as a whole is busy. Our US market is always strong. We're also a prominent firm in the Latin American market with an exceptional client base on the litigation and commercial sides. In Europe we continue to help clients navigate Brexit-related developments. We're trying to anticipate regulatory changes and have been focused on being out in front of the issues; new partner Bob Penn joined Cleary in our London office to provide clients with robust European and global regulatory experience. In Asia our M&A and private equity practices have been working hard.

CA: What's the firm's strategy going forward? Are there any growth areas you're focusing on?

LS:  Cleary has long been known for its steady and thoughtful expansion strategy. We believe a focus on organic growth has served us well in all markets and ensures that our clients’ needs are always at the forefront of everything we do. For instance, prior to opening offices in Abu Dhabi and Seoul, we already had significant clients in these regions and established practices from which to serve them.

CA: What kind of person thrives at Cleary?

LS: A steadfast commitment to legal excellence certainly unites us all at Cleary, but we believe people who value what’s great about our firm’s culture — collaboration, openness, diversity, individuality and collegiality — are those who will flourish here. I feel very fortunate to have experienced learning how to practice law at Cleary alongside such extraordinary people, and we firmly believe that our success is rooted in talented individuals working together cooperatively to serve our clients.


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): 109
  • Associates (US): 442
  • Summer Salary 2017  
  • 1Ls: N/A
  • 2Ls: $3,461/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 2017: 149
  • Offers/acceptances 2016: 123 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: 92
• Number of 2nd year associates: 75
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2017:
Boston College, Boston University, Brooklyn, Cardozo, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Howard, Lavender Law Career Fair, Michigan, Midwest - California - Georgia Consortium, National Law School Consortium, NEBLSA Job Fair, New York Law School, 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.