Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP - The Inside View

"A big international presence,” freedom to shape your career, and pure lockstep compensation all drew juniors to Cleary.

CLEARY is one of America's legal titans. It made an early break to conquer the world stage: Cleary was a trendsetter in defining the global firm model. Associates had a variety of reasons for joining this firm (the culture, the practice areas...), but for many it was “first of all the international aspect of the work." One interviewee commented: “I noticed Cleary had a lot more interaction between the US and international offices than other firms.”

New York is by far the firm's largest office, but it only has one other US office, in DC. Its 14 other bases are spread across South America, Asia, the Middle East and particularly Europe (eight of the firm's offices are here). Across these locations Cleary wins a huge slew of rankings in Chambers Global in areas such as banking & finance, corporate, capital markets, and dispute resolution. In the US the firm is well known for its antitrust, capital markets and financial regulation practices which all snag top marks from Chambers USA. (These are all areas, you'll note, with a particular international flavor). The firm is also top-ranked for real estate, tax, employee benefits, and white-collar crime and is recognized as part of the 'elite' in New York for both corporate M&A and commercial litigation.

Cleary undoubtedly sets high standards, but every year its associates tell us that doesn't mean they experience that trope of Wall Street ruthlessness. The firm is notably collaborative, placing a premium of teamwork and lockstep remuneration.

Cleary came in the top ten for associate satisfaction in 2019>>

The Work

Cleary takes a pretty unstructured approach to how rookies join the practice: juniors aren't slotted into specific groups. Instead they are asked to indicate if they want to do work that leans toward corporate or litigation, after which assignment staffers match juniors with their interests. Taking on litigation and corporate matters at the same time isn't encouraged as “the skill sets and work schedules are different,” but associates do normally take on a broad range of work within either the corporate or litigation 'bucket.' It's also possible to switch completely from one bucket to the other. There are 13 practice areas operating in the New York office, includinglitigation/arbitration, M&A, capital markets, private funds, and real estate. Juniors in DC have four practice groups to choose from, including antitrust and litigation/arbitration.

All our interviewees appreciated the flexibility of the system and efforts by assignment staffers to ensure they weren't overburdened. Some however noted the system can be frustrating for those “who have very strong ideas about what kind of work they want to do, as it takes a little while for things to pop up and synch with your schedule.” The ebbs and flows of certain deals and matters can of course impact at what point juniors get to sample the work they'd really like to try.

“We frequently work with our European colleagues..."

In New York corporate associates can take on M&A work, alongside capital markets and finance matters. M&A lawyers work for private companies but also on public M&A for major corporations, while the capital market group's clients are drawn from underwriters (banks), issuers (companies) and private equity sponsors. One source noted that many clients turn to Cleary because “we are kind of a guide to the US for a lot of international clients who want to invest in the States,” whether that's a consortium of international lenders or say a sovereign wealth fund. Corporate juniors spend most days sifting through documents in due diligence, emailing clients, sitting in on conference calls and drafting ancillary documents. There's also plenty of post-deal work to be getting on with, with one capital markets source reporting: "I was compiling post-closing side letters into booklets, sending them to the investors, and then getting their feedback as there would be all kinds of issues.” Sources noted that capital markets matters provide “a lot of opportunity to do substantive legal work relative to work in M&A. There is due diligence in capital markets, but it takes up a much smaller proportion of your work. Even as a first-year or a second-year, capital markets offers a lot of opportunities to draft disclosure documents, sit in on calls with the other side, and draft and prepare legal opinions.”

Corporate clients: FIFA, American Express, General Mills, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup. Advised Credit Suisse on underwriting a public offering of 18 million shares in International Game Technology, and advised Argentina's Cablevisión Holding on its $11.5 billion merger with Telecom Argentina.

“I was reviewing hundreds of thousands of documents.”

I've done so many different things,” one litigation-focused junior told us – “government investigations, criminal cartel investigations, and merger reviews, particularly ones involving filings in multiple jurisdictions.” Cleary's litigation practice also covers securities cases, class actions, and antitrust work. Litigation work is available in both the New York and DC offices. A lot of the work has an international edge to it, for example “working with international companies on US legal matters. I guess you could say the work is 50/50 domestic/international, but it depends on how you divide it. Almost always matters relate to an underlying activity that has an international component to it.” An interviewee who'd worked on antitrust matters told us their experience had been very international too: “We frequently work with our European colleagues and a colleague in Beijing to coordinate when matters require multijurisdictional filings.” Another source noted: “We have a lot of international offices, so we can work with our counsel abroad on balancing the requirements of satisfying US laws and, for example, complying with European regulations. There are a lot of differences between jurisdictions that require navigation!”

Around a third of all BigLaw associates in the US go into commercial litigation. We've asked Cleary’s litigators to tell you about the benefits of playing devil's advocate; why mastering the art of storytelling is crucial; and how a high degree of empathy can make all the difference.>>

On the investigations side we heard associates had "been involved in an international investigation where we are looking into whether our client is subject to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act: a large financial institution had been accused of paying bribes to foreign politicians.” One junior told us of their responsibilities on a matter like this: “I was reviewing hundreds of thousands of documents. My job was to figure out how they fitted into the larger puzzle and if they were relevant to our investigation.” Some of our sources actually rather enjoyed this kind of doc review when it's “sexier” stuff like "looking at emails from CEOs.” Another source admitted: “Spending 12 hours a day on specific documents can be a slog.” There are other tasks to get involved in too. For instance on a bankruptcy case juniors might be "prepping for an oral argument, which involves thinking of the hardest questions that the judge might ask and drafting answers. That means going through the factual record to find helpful materials to use."

Litigation clients: Goldman Sachs, BNP Paribas, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, and Petrobras. Defended several US and European investment banks in cases related to the Madoff securities fraud, and represented Oberthur Technologies in a bribery investigation by the World Bank and the French ministry of justice related to a contract to provide ID cards in Bangladesh.

Career Development

Cleary opts for a structured approach to career progression. Associates begin their time at the firm by doing a mini-MBA program, essentially "introductory training on things like how to read a financial statement and how to use Excel, along with basic familiarization with business topics." Alongside CLEs, practice group training and associate mentors, the firm also has what it calls a 'core curriculum' which provides training on soft skills such as project management and communicating with clients. Juniors can also do secondments to offices abroad, allowing them to gain first-hand experience of the firm's different international locations.

Cleary promotes a tiny number of US associates to partner each year (nine in 2019), compared to the huge size of its first-year and summer classes (consisting of 100-plus new faces). We heard it's common for associates to leave around their fifth year, with partnership becoming realistic around years six to eight. When it comes to exiting the firm, interviewees felt confident of the boost Cleary's name would give to their CV, particularly in antitrust, where sources felt the firm's reputation “is gold star, one of the best in the world.”

Cleary came top in our 2019 career opportunities survey>>


As in previous years, we got very positive feedback from Cleary's juniors about firm culture. Interviewees used words like  “thoughtful” to describe their colleagues. One said: “I think there is a respect for people's personal lives. It's really important here that people continue to have some form of outside life and continue to be themselves.” They then gave this example: “I was at the gym one night and a partner emailed me with a request. I saw this email later and realized there was a follow-up too. I started panicking that I hadn't responded earlier. However after I looked closer I realized the follow just said, 'I realize you are at the gym. No need to get this to me tonight.' They had remembered that I'd told them I like going to the gym and taken the initiative to follow up.”

Several of our sources pointed to the firm's pure lockstep compensation system as an explanation for its pleasant work environment. “There's no focus on saying, 'Who's getting points for this?'” explained one interviewee. "That allows us to be more of a whole firm rather than little bits and pieces with everyone having their own kingdom.” Another junior commented: “The lockstep pay here definitely helps. Because people don't feel an extreme pressure to measure up to a certain hours requirement there's no tension in terms of staffing, and it never feels like anyone is being possessive.”

“The craziest deals I've been on we've worked all day until 4am or 5am.”

Hours & Compensation

Cleary doesn't have a billable hours target, and both bonuses and salaries are purely lockstep: each year all associates get exactly the same raise and bonus. Generally sources appreciated this. "I don't have to worry about whether I am going to get my bonus,” said one interviewee, “and I don't feel pressure to knock on people's doors the second I am slow." Some did note that associates who “worked 2,800 hours might wish there was recognition in terms of compensation.” We did wonder if there is an informal hours target associates try to aim for. We heard "most people would probably meet whatever the target is at a similar firm, so perhaps a 2,000 hours soft target. But you are not penalized if you don't hit it." When the Milbank scale was introduced in summer 2018 our sources were confident they would receive increased pay – “Cleary matches what its peer firms do, so it would have been scandalous if it didn't!”

Cleary is a Wall Street firm and it has the long hours to match. Interviewees said a typical day in the office lasts from 9am to 8pm, and a late night can easily stretch to 3am or 4am. One source reported: “The craziest deals I've been on we've worked all day until 4am or 5am. Then I've had maybe had half an hour of sleep and kept on reviewing documents.” Another commented on the hours: “It's definitely not easy. I don't think you every really get used to it, and it always feels a little difficult. But if the work is interesting – and the work here is always interesting – you are motivated to get through it. It's not easy on the rest of your social life, but it's rewarding in that you are learning a lot in a short period of time.”

Pro Bono 

Interviewees said pro bono comes “very close to being seen as equal” to billable work, though some noted the intensity of their own billable work meant they struggled to find time for pro bono. For this end of the legal profession, to have associates billing near 100 hours per year is impressive. Weekly emails are sent out listing available do-gooding opportunities. Litigation sees a lot of immigration and asylum cases, as well as actions against the police, veterans cases, and criminal appeals. On the corporate side there's the chance to help nonprofits get tax-exempt status. Pro bono helps juniors break out of the BigLaw bubble. “You can lose your sense of perspective working at a firm with highly sophisticated clients,” noted one insider. “It's easy to forget that our work is something not everybody can afford.”

Pro bono hours

  • For all US attorneys: 69,358
  • Average per US attorney: 93

Diversity & Inclusion

Cleary likes things to be structured and well thought-out, and that's certainly the case for its D&I initiatives. Interviewees felt Cleary is “a pretty diverse workplace for BigLaw.” The numbers at the junior end back this up: half of associates are women and a third are nonwhite. Juniors did notice things are less diverse at the top, with just a fifth of partners being female and only 10% nonwhite. Perhaps in response, Cleary has made efforts to improve diversity in promotions as well as hiring: an external consultant had been brought in to review the promotions process.

“A safe, confidential space to make sure they have somebody to talk to.”

There's a range of affinity groups for attorneys to join, and there is also “a lot of different formal and informal mentoring.” To give an example, we heard some senior associates from the black affinity group "have blocked off 9:30am to 10am on Friday mornings to just talk with any black associates who want to come along. It's a safe, confidential space to make sure they have somebody to talk to.”

Get Hired

"During the callback interview, we take a deeper dive into skills assessment. We ask questions that identify leadership ability, client service orientation, grit, effective communication, collegiality and intellectual ability." Find out more about about Cleary's recruitment by clicking on the 'Bonus features tab above.

Get Hired

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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): 105
  • Associates (US): 456
  • Contacts 
  • Main recruitment contacts: Donna Harris (NY) ( and Georgia Emery Gray (DC) (
  • Hiring partners: Elizabeth Lenas (NY) and Elaine Ewing (DC)
  • Diversity officers: Sandra Flow (NY), Nicholas Grabar (NY) and Katherine Mooney Carroll (DC), Alexis Collins (DC)
  • Recruitment details 
  • Entry-level associates starting in 2019: 94
  • Clerking policy: Yes
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2019: 1Ls 6 (DC), 2Ls 130, SEO 7
  • Summers joining/anticipated 2019 split by office: NY: 107, DC: 30
  • Summer salary 2019: 2Ls: $3,654/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, its 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, it operates 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 2019:
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:
The firm seeks candidates who are confident in their abilities and creative in their thinking. It looks for academically strong men and women of all races and nationalities who are enthusiastic about practicing law. The firm place a premium on openness, diversity, individuality and collegiality and look for candidates who do so as well.

Summer program components:
The summer program is designed to provide summer associates with real world preparation to jump-start a successful legal career. The firm 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.

Social media
Recruitment website:
Linkedin: cleary-gottlieb-steen-&-hamilton-llp
Twitter: @ClearyGottlieb
Facebook: Cleary-Gottlieb-Steen-Hamilton

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)