Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP - The Inside View

Despite Cleary's natural superiority on the global stage, new associates happily reported that "there's no air of superiority.”

THIS may sound silly,” said one slightly bashful interviewee, "but what mattered to me when choosing this firm was that it was less formal – not just in dress code but in the way people interacted with each other; it's more laid back and there's no air of superiority.” The majority of our sources also cited Cleary's culture as one of its key selling points (and we'll explore it in more detail shortly), but while its dress code may well be more relaxed, there's nothing casual about Cleary's work: Chambers USA rates it as top dog in the States for a range of practices, including antitrust, capital markets, financial services regulation, securities, and tax. Its New York HQ is especially known for its white-collar, real estate and Latin America investment capabilities, while its remaining domestic office in DC rules the roost when it comes to antitrust work.

“It was Cleary's international presence that stood out.”

But Cleary's prowess extends far beyond the borders of the US; its practice is heavily weighted overseas, with a total of 14 international offices supporting its two domestic bases. These can be found across Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, forming an expansive international reach that proved equally attractive to incoming junior associates. “I wanted to do work with an international focus, and while I was doing interviews it was Cleary's international presence that stood out,” one junior relayed, echoing the motivation of many others. “The thing that associates have in common is international experiences and/or backgrounds,” another source pointed out. “Alongside good law schools and grades, we have very similar backgrounds in that respect.”


Most interviewees had worked with the firm’s international offices, and opportunities to do so had started early: “The fact that summers can potentially work in a foreign office was really attractive,” recalled juniors. “In addition there’s a formal program where you can spend several years at a foreign office; a lot of partners have done that.” Associates also get the chance to earn some air miles: “If matters are really busy associates have been able to go to Brussels or London for a few months – I also know people who are going to Frankfurt and Buenos Aires.” In the Latin American practice there are plenty of opportunities to work in Brazil or Argentina: “As a third year you’re encouraged to consider going for a season.”

The majority of Cleary’s juniors were based in its New York office, which is located downtown in the financial district: “It's not as crazy as Times Square, and the opening of the new World Trade Center complex has given the area a breath of fresh air – it's up-and-coming.” The office itself “may be from the 60s, but it still feels airy and associates (for the most part) have big windows in their offices. I have an unobstructed view of the Statue of Liberty.” Juniors share an office for their first year, “which is generally awesome – it's nice to have company on those late nights!” A more congenial atmosphere is also fostered by a mixed seating plan: “People aren't separated by practice area. In my corner there's a litigator, a tax attorney and a private equity specialist. It's nice to interact with people outside of your group.”

The Work

In New York Cleary's litigation/arbitration, M&A, capital markets, private funds and real estate groups housed the most associates. Those in DC were mostly able to take on a mix of antitrust, litigation and corporate work. “You’re not bucketed into a specific area, so I’ve done everything from advisory work to litigation and enforcement matters,” revealed one source in the capital (take note that most juniors tend to stick with either transactional or litigious work, but some do both). In general, “Cleary likes its associates to rotate through a variety of different things,” so even in New York sources had picked up a decent mix of work within their respective departments.

Juniors pick up this varied workload within “a regulated free-market system: it's free-market in that you voice your preferences, but regulated in that we have an assignment coordination function that helps to allocate us the matters we want.” Some sources had bypassed the coordinators completely (“I just shoot an email to the people I want to work with saying that I'm interested”), while others very much encouraged their use: “People can and should feel comfortable letting the staffers know if there’s something they’re interested in trying out. The staffers remember stuff like that and keep your goals in mind.”

“... best described as a renaissance lawyer.”

In litigation, New Yorkers had sampled a range of fraud, IP, securities, bankruptcy and white-collar crime cases. On a “massively complex international cross-border bankruptcy dispute” juniors had been able to “attend a Second Circuit argument in the very first week – we've been very involved in litigation before the court of appeals and bankruptcy court.” Elsewhere, responsibility came in droves, as sources recounted “second-chairing depositions in the first year” and “working on an amicus brief that got filed before the Supreme Court – they let me have my name on it!”

Commercial litigation is the beating heart of BigLaw: we turned to Cleary's seasoned litigators to help understand their profession and give some pointers on how to succeed>>

Those in DC had picked up plenty of antitrust work – the office's star practice. “On that side all of the clients we’ve worked with have been international, and you get to work with the Brussels office a lot.” Sources had spent their first year focused on merger notifications and government investigations, before progressing onto more contentious work, “which is great for your development.” They were “incredibly impressed” by the work on offer: “I've worked on presentations to the Department of Justice, attended two depositions, overseen filings in other countries, responded to government questions and turned data analysis into exhibits.”

On the transactional side, M&A juniors had worked with “a mix of financial institutions, private companies and strategic buyers,” and noted a clear line of progression “from a lot of due diligence in the first year to much more drafting in the second year – I'll take a first crack at the ancillaries and organizational documents.” The strength of Cleary's Latin America practice was highlighted by capital markets juniors, who told us that “in general Lat Am-focused lawyers are expected to be more generalist. I think of myself as a finance lawyer that does capital markets work.” Those who'd veered toward Latin American work had also taken on “some complicated project finance deals with bank and public debt components, as well as M&A deals and sovereign entities work.” As a result they felt their role was “best described as a renaissance lawyer:every day there’s a different problem and the clients really look to you for everything.

Strategy & Future

On the capital markets side, sources felt that Cleary was doing a good job of “staying ahead of the game” when it came to “the big political changes that have taken place in Latin America, in countries like Brazil and Argentina.” Hiring partner Liza Lenas tells us: “We’re continuing to focus on client service and we believe that our antitrust, M&A and litigation/arbitration practices will continue to grow.” As for new offices, Lenas says there are no plans in the offing, but: “Of course, we’re Cleary, so we’re always looking for opportunities to expand into new geographies, but consistency and the cohesion of our lawyers is our first priority, so we approach expansion fairly conservatively.”

Training & Development

Training at Cleary kicks off with a two-week mini MBA program that gathers all new associates in its New York HQ: “You get an introduction to the firm, its practice areas, its core values, its financial statements… we even got training on our personal finances!” juniors enthused. “The best bit was actually the Excel training from someone whose job it is to read spreadsheets. They somehow made something really boring seem really exciting!

“They somehow made something really boring seem really exciting!”

Following this, transactional juniors attend 'Corporate College,' which “usually consists of training sessions in the morning, but we sometimes host pizza nights where we discuss topics – a week ago we had one on registration rights agreements and what to consider when drafting them, for example.” Cleary's 'Litigation Academy,' meanwhile, scoops up all contentious-focused newbies in New York for “an intensive weekend of deposition training.” On top of these formal programs are “a ton of CLEs geared toward different practice areas – some are mandatory and some are just really helpful to attend!”

Culture & Compensation

Associates sang Cleary’s praises when it came to the culture of the firm, and many cited the lockstep compensation system and absence of billable requirements as the reason for such glowing reviews. “Everyone gets compensated the same according to their year, and the same goes for partners, which is why you see partners from different groups seeking help from one another – no one's worried about dividing the pie.” The positive effects of sharing out the pie are clear, as “there are certainly fewer sharp elbows here than at other New York firms. People tend to not take themselves too seriously, and that's what’s cool about our culture. Everyone’s doing really challenging work but they maintain a down-to-earth, human approach and are willing to teach you along the way.”

“ one's worried about dividing the pie.”

Sources also detected another common attribute among Cleary's attorneys: “When I was considering firms as a student I got the impression that people at Cleary were generally more intellectually curious, and I've definitely found that to be true now that I'm here.” Without the pressure of reaching a billable requirement, juniors felt they had time to pursue more stimulating work and focus on what's important: “When I speak to my friends at other firms it seems like their hours are more of a concern. I prefer getting everything done to the standard the firm expects rather than just counting hours.”

Hours & Social Life

How this overarching approach translates into actual working hours depends on the practice. Litigators and antitrust associates reported steady 9am to 6pm days with some additional evening work from home (“it's generally pretty manageable”), while transactional sources told us that “it's so unpredictable.” A capital markets junior said that “if it's crazy then you can expect to have a few 2am finishes,” while those in M&A revealed that “you can have two months where you're slow and then two where you're really busy and working every day except Sunday." However, associates were grateful for the opportunity to work remotely (first years can do so one day a month, but after a year the allowance is bumped up to two days per month), and told us that Cleary takes a humane view when it comes to working hours: “They care about us not burning out and want to retain talent. During my first year the staffing people reached out and encouraged me to take a vacation; they said they thought it was important and would explain to my team that that's part of the deal. They want people to be happy.”

“Nobody judges you if you see this as just a job, but at the same time there is a social life.” In DC there's a monthly happy hour, as well as “regular cross-practice lunch meetings and holiday and Halloween parties.” Over in New York weekly wine and cheese evenings keep things social, but the juniors in general “get together throughout the year – there's a good amount of people being friends with each other!”

Pro Bono

With no billable requirement comes no limit on how much pro bono work associates can take on. “All teams take into account that people are going to be pulled in different directions,” insiders told us, “so it’s okay to take on pro bono and partners don’t view it as lesser work. They accommodate it as though it were billable, although of course if there are deadlines you sometimes have to prioritize.” Interviewees we spoke to had worked on a wide variety of cases including federal clemency projects, asylum issues, prisoner re-sentencing matters and state election challenges. “I'm on the pro bono reserve list so I see all the opportunities and there's a lot going on,” said one junior. “The pro bono coordinators send regular emails asking for assistance.”

“They accommodate it as though it were billable.”

Pro bono hours

  • For all US attorneys: 84,269
  • Average per US attorney: 115


Quite a few sources highlighted Cleary's track record in this respect: “A couple of years ago there was a lot of push-back when only one female partner was made up, and a lot of people were concerned about a lack of equality at the firm.” However, most interviewees agreed that “the firm has been responsive and is committed to trying to improve. There have been a few town hall meetings and executive committee discussions; they keep us looped in about how to increase the number of diverse candidates accepting our offers, and they compare our success rates year after year. Looking at the more recent rounds of promotions I think you can see results.” Small changes had made a big impact: “On the MBA all of the partners automatically referred to judges and clients using female pronouns. It really impressed me. People are very mindful here of hierarchy and inclusive language.”


Get Hired

When I was being interviewed what stood out was that there were a lot more questions about the world and it seemed like they were seeing whether there was an intellectual curiosity there. I think it’s important to show that you have interests outside of our offices in Liberty Plaza,” one source suggested. Those involved in interviewing candidates told us: “I look for someone who’s genuinely friendly. I always say to myself, 'after speaking with the candidate, do I feel that they are the kind person I'd want to have a pizza with at 3am when we're working on a deal?'”

In addition, juniors told us that “candidates are always attracted to the firm's international aspects,” so being able to communicate how background experience and future ambitions fit in with the firm's overseas goals should stand interviewees in good stead. Ultimately, “the firm wants bright folks who are willing to work hard and do so with the same ethos that permeates the firm. If we can tell that you're smart, but also someone who's easy to talk to and relaxed, you should do well.”

Interview with hiring partner Liza Lenas and director of legal recruiting Donna Harris

Chambers Associate:Have there been any recent developments at the firm that our readers should know about?

Liza Lenas: We’ve promoted 13 lawyers and hired two additional partners in our Cologne and London offices to expand our antitrust and disputes practices. We continue to be involved in high-profile matters in litigation – for example, we represented Petrobras in the landmark securities fraud litigation, and we are currently representing Bosch in enforcement and civil litigation matters relating to the Volkswagen emissions scandal. In M&A, we ranked second in global deals and first in several other jurisdictions for year-end 2017. We’ve worked with clients including Google in its $1.1 billion agreement with HTC relating to the smartphone design business, Essilor in its €46 billion combination with Luxottica, and as antitrust counsel for Dow Chemical in its $130 billion merger of equals with DuPont. Our global private equity practice has also had an excellent year. One award I’m particularly proud of recognized Cleary for the 'Best Gender Diversity Initiative by an International Firm' at the Euromoney Women in Business Law Awards. 

CA:We heard some really positive feedback about efforts to improve diversity at the firm – could you tell us a bit more about the initiatives the firm has introduced in recent years?

LL: It goes without saying that diversity and inclusion are a priority of the firm and essential to achieve our business objectives. We can’t do that if we only recruit one kind of person. We’re very proud that our summer class this year is 47% diverse, and 57% women. Our current overall associate population is 37% diverse, and 50% of our associates are women.

Donna Harris: We have a number of affinity groups and are dedicated to supporting them. Our managing partner meets with each affinity group to ensure that their concerns and ideas are incorporated in the firm's initiatives as well as to connect and develop ways for the firm to lend support. We continue to host fireside chats at law schools across the country, where our lawyers meet with diverse students and talk to them about what it is like to practice as a lawyer and help develop early mentoring relationships. We have been hosting fireside chats for over 20 years and it is an important part of our diversity pipeline initiatives. We also have a diversity and inclusion team that works very closely with our Associates Committee to ensure that our lawyers are mentored and developed and have full and fair access to practice on our most sophisticated matters.

There’s a sense of collaboration at the firm, which is a theme in everything we do and say. Because of this, we’ve been able to provide an environment where lawyers feel supported and empowered to speak freely. We are focused on pipeline programs in an effort to make opportunities available to diverse students as early in their careers as high school. One of these is called 'Sponsors for Educational Opportunity' which provides students of color with legal internships and training opportunities prior to their first year of law school.

CA:What does Cleary offer associates that sets it apart from the competition?

LL: We are truly a global firm and provide many opportunities for our lawyers to experience this first hand. For example, we offer associates the opportunity to go overseas to a foreign office if they choose. This starts as early as our summer program where we send approximately 50% of our summers to a foreign office for four weeks. This allows summer associates to experience the work we do in our offices around the world and demonstrates how we operate as one firm. We do cross-border training as well, which sets us apart from our competitors. For example, in the private funds practice, associates may participate in an exchange program, where a New York associate can go to London or Hong Kong for a year, and a London or Hong Kong associate comes to New York. 

We have Monday lunches for all lawyers that provide opportunities to interact in an informal setting and to discuss issues that impact their life at the firm. For example, topics have included our feedback process, alumni network, what it takes to make partner, and firm finances. By creating this space, the firm is able to continue its focus on transparency.

At Cleary, we have a unique training program. When an associate first begins, they do a two-week mini MBA, an intense training that covers the basics of Wall Street, for both corporate and litigation. It’s taught by a combination of lawyers and professors. It’s hugely successful and gives associates the tools they need to understand our clients’ businesses and needs. We also have robust training on soft skills like giving feedback, delegation and so on. Lastly, we give free language classes to anyone who wants to take them.

CA:How would you describe the ideal Cleary lawyer?

LL:  Smart, creative and collaborative. There are a lot of different personalities here at our firm, but we all get along. We often hear of folks outside of the firm saying how strong the Cleary culture is, and it’s because everyone has these attributes. We put a real premium on people enjoying working together, as it supports our common goal of providing the best services to our clients.

CA:Where do you see the firm heading over the next five years?

LL: We’re continuing to focus on client service and we believe that our antitrust, M&A and litigation/arbitration practices will continue to grow. Of course, we’re Cleary, so we’re always looking for opportunities to expand into new geographies, but consistency and the cohesion of our lawyers is our first priority, so we approach expansion fairly conservatively. Our model allows us to focus on delivering exceptional client service and remaining strong and stable through market volatility, changes in the global political climate, or changes in any particular sector or geography. 

Pro Bono

Notable pro bono opportunities (schemes, client affiliations etc.)

Cleary Gottlieb does not focus exclusively in one area of pro bono which allows us to be flexible in matching the needs of the communities we serve with our lawyers’ skills and interests.  Notable practice areas include representing labor and sex trafficking victims in a diverse range of legal needs, representing veterans, international human rights work, civil rights work (including prisoners’ rights, LGBT rights, voting rights and racial justice), criminal defense (including state and federal criminal appeals, resentencing cases, and post-conviction relief), not-for-profit law, representing  artists, small businesses, and social enterprises, and immigration cases (including affirmative and defensive asylum cases, habeas, T-Visas, U-Visas, SIJS, refugee resettlement, cancellation of removal cases, and naturalization and green card adjustments).


Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP

One Liberty Plaza,
New York,
NY 10006

  • Head Offices: New York, NY and Washington, DC
  • Number of domestic offices: 2
  • Number of international offices: 14
  • Partners (US): 108
  • Associates (US): 481
  • Contacts 
  • Main recruitment contacts: Donna Harris (NY) ( and Georgia Emery Gray (DC) (
  • Hiring partners: Elizabeth Lenas (NY) and Michael Mazzuchi (DC)
  • Diversity officers: Sandra Flow (NY), Lewis Liman (NY) and Katherine Mooney Carroll (DC), Alexis Collins (DC)
  • Recruitment details 
  • Entry-level associates starting in 2018: 120
  • Clerking policy: Yes
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2018: 1Ls 4 (DC), 2Ls 108, SEO 7
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2018 split by office: NY 90, DC 18
  • Summer salary 2018: 2Ls: $3,461/week
  • Split summers offered? Yes
  • Can summers spend time in an overseas office? Yes

Main areas of work

  Antitrust, banking and financial Institutions, bankruptcy and restructuring, capital markets, corporate governance, cybersecurity and privacy, derivatives, economic sanctions and foreign investments, energy, environmental, executive compensation and ERISA, financial technology, global crisis management, intellectual property, investment funds, international arbitration, international trade and investment, leveraged and acquisition finance, litigation and arbitration, mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures, private clients, private equity, private funds, pro bono, project finance and infrastructure, public international law, real estate, securities and m&a litigation, sovereign governments and international institutions, structured finance, tax, white-collar defense and internal investigations

Firm profile

 Cleary Gottlieb is a pioneer in globalizing the legal profession. Since 1946, the firm’s lawyers and staff have worked across practices, industries, jurisdictions and continents to provide clients with simple, actionable approaches to their most complex legal and business challenges. The firm has 16 offices in major financial centers around the world. However, we operate as a single, integrated global partnership, not a US firm with a network of overseas locations. The firm is fluent in the many languages of local and global business, and Cleary’s consistent success in multiple jurisdictions earned Cleary Chambers and Partners’ inaugural International Law Firm of the Year award. The firm employs approximately 1,200 lawyers from more than 50 countries and diverse backgrounds who are admitted to practice in numerous jurisdictions. Cleary was among the first international law firms to hire and promote non-US lawyers as equal partners around the world.


 Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2018:
Boston College, Boston University, Brooklyn, Cardozo, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Howard, Lavender Law Career Fair, McGill, Michigan, Midwest - California - Georgia Consortium, National Law School Consortium, NEBLSA Job Fair, New York Law School, NYU, Northwestern, Notre Dame, 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 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:
Our summer program is designed to provide summer associates with real world preparation to jump-start a successful legal career. We offer 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.

Social media


This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2019

Ranked Departments

    • Antitrust (Band 1)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 2)
    • Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 2)
    • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 1)
    • Litigation: General Commercial: The Elite (Band 3)
    • Litigation: Securities (Band 2)
    • Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 1)
    • Real Estate: Mainly Corporate & Finance (Band 1)
    • Tax (Band 1)
    • Antitrust (Band 1)
    • Antitrust: Cartel (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 3)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Derivatives (Band 1)
    • Capital Markets: Equity: Issuer Representation (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Issuer Representation (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Manager Representation (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Securitisation (Band 3)
    • Corporate Crime & Investigations (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 2)
    • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 1)
    • Energy: Mining & Metals (Transactional) Spotlight Table
    • Financial Services Regulation: Banking (Compliance) (Band 2)
    • Financial Services Regulation: Banking (Enforcement & Investigations) (Band 3)
    • Financial Services Regulation: Broker Dealer (Compliance & Enforcement) (Band 4)
    • Financial Services Regulation: Financial Institutions M&A (Band 3)
    • International Arbitration (Band 3)
    • Investment Funds: Private Equity: Fund Formation (Band 2)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts (Band 4)
    • Real Estate (Band 3)
    • Securities: Litigation (Band 3)
    • Securities: Regulation (Band 2)
    • Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 1)