Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP - The Inside View

With lockstep compensation and no billing requirement, one thing’s clear(y): this corporate globe-trotter “is an egalitarian place to work.”

Suffice to say that if it’s cross-border prowess you’re looking for, you’ve come to the right place. Associates searching for international work were drawn to Cleary's network of 16 overseas locations. These offices by no means work in silo: the firm’s US-based groups have earned themselves recognition in our sister guide Chambers Global for their Europe-wide, Africa-wide and global-wide work.

In particular, our interviewees wanted to highlight the firm's practice in Latin America, which gets top-tier recognition from Chambers Global for everything from capital markets to project finance. The firm has just one office in São Paulo, but associates were delighted to discover a “very broad LatAm practice that does all kinds of corporate work.” In fact, this was something that drew in just under 40% of the associates we interviewed. What’s more, associates noted that the firm itself feels diverse: “We have people from Latin America working on Latin American matters. The people who work here are not foreign to our clients’ issues.” That, of course, does not mean lawyers must have Latin American heritage to work on these matters.

“We haven’t historically had a West Coast presence but it’s growing."

Here in the US, nearly all junior associates are recruited into the New York office, with DC housing just a handful of newbies each year. So, what sort of character works at Cleary? “Intellectually curious and bookish,” an associate told us. Proving that it’s in tune with its associates’ personalities, the firm dished out a New Yorker subscription and Strand book vouchers to its entire incoming class of juniors.

Strategy & Future  

“We haven’t historically had a West Coast presence but it’s growing,” an associate noted, citing the firm’s new office opening in the Bay Area. According to firm leadership, "Cleary’s Bay Area offices are benefiting from strong demand just one year after launch. Clients are coming to us for regulatory, antitrust, and white-collar expertise. A flexible talent acquisition strategy focused in the Bay Area has helped us grow to an exceptional team of 20 lawyers in just a year."  The growth came with the relocation of a few partners and associates from the East Coast offices and the addition of new ones. With 55% of our associate survey respondents highlighting that the firm is strategically conservative and risk-averse (i.e. a reassuring approach in the current economic climate), the decision to open more offices was “under discussion for a long time.” 

The Work

At the time of research, the corporate and litigation practices absorbed the largest number of associates. Other areas included tax, real estate and IP. “I’m comfortable telling staffers how I feel with no fear of partner retaliation,” divulged one interviewee when considering the centralized work allocation system: “The staffers used to be attorneys, so they understand.” In the corporate practice, associates “do everything from M&A and capital markets to debt financing restructuring. We have people who are experts in one area, but we try to be knowledgeable about everything.”

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The work is “heavily international” in nature, meaning associates are kept busy with sovereign work, in addition to counseling large corporate entities. Juniors typically act as the “go-to person” for different matters, drafting disclosure documents, coordinating with opposing counsel and liaising with clients. Associates across the country often tell us that doc review is one of the worst parts of the job, but luckily “juniors don’t do it unless it’s at a high level, because Cleary has a well built-up discovery team that is devoted to handling data and analysis.”

Corporate Clients: GSK, Google, Sony. Represented American Express in Global Business Travel’s combination with Apollo Strategic Growth Capital.

Over in litigation, associates “have less exposure to international work compared to the corporate department, but everything has cross-border aspects.” These folks represent large companies in appeals and enforcement matters and engage in civil litigation, bankruptcy, ACC investigations and appellate matters. Juniors are expected to conduct research, draft, and do a fair amount of logistical and administrative tasks like emailing. Some insiders told us they had participated in a number of depositions and the related prep. With constant communication with staffers, associates can make specific requests: “I told the staffers that I like appellate work so they have continued to send it my way.”

Litigation clients: Bank of America, BNP Paribas, Times Square JV. Defending Citigroup against allegations the company, in collusion with J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, boycotted the use of a structure for airline bonds.

Career development

In the firm's Attorney Development Groups, “we have small groups of eight to ten associates, led by two partner mentors from the practice group. We go through the matters we are working on, talk about different topics such as dealing with difficult clients and how we are feeling. It’s like a support group,” an associate described.The live and online training also helps more senior associates with CLE requirements, while first-years are required to take a “mini-MBA when they start out for business knowledge.” The course also covers areas like allyship, inclusion in the workplace, personal finance, and tips from senior associates. In terms of career progression, one of our sources noted:“The partners are interested in helping us get the experience that allows us to move up. They will ask us to present on different topics or sit in on depositions.”

When the time for partnership conversations comes, the firm's partner promotion chair leads the process and interviews all partner candidates, working together with the executive committee and practice groups to make the final decision. While more formal discussions around partnership usually take place around the 7th and 8th years, the firms tells us it monitors individuals earlier on in their careers, and provides them with tailored career support via mentoring and feedback. 


“We’re really proud of our culture and want to protect it,” declared one insider. Cleary’s culture stems from collaboration: “People recognize that their working life is dependent on the people they’re working with.” For example, “If you’re under water one week, people will reach out and help out because they know it could be them under water next week.” Our sources also indicated that this culture of cooperation grows because their bonuses and salaries are not attached to their billable hour requirements.

“They could have just sent me the spreadsheet, but that’s not how it works here.”

“I don’t feel like I am in a competitive environment... when partners talk about a matter, they say the names of the juniors who worked on it.” This comradery is also reflected in the training. “I was working on a project with a new subject matter and a senior associate pulled us on a 45-minute zoom call and went line by line on a spreadsheet to teach us. They could have just sent me the spreadsheet, but that’s not how it works here,” an associate recalled.

Cleary is a Top 10 firm for quality of life in our 2023 survey.

Hours and compensation

Billable hours: no requirement

Whilst the firm doesn’t impose a billing requirement, it does offer hours guidance, encouraging associates to hit a 1,950 to 2,150 target: “They don’t attach our bonus to the target, it’s just there to keep us on track.” It should be noted that the target includes nonbillable hours such as business development and pro bono. Sources were keen to highlight that “partners really care about our workloads. I had a trial last year that messed with my hours, so partners called to check on me and were conscious of not overworking me once it concluded.” On the corporate side, associates have embraced the “peaks and valleys. We have 12-hour days when it’s busy and two-hour days when it’s not.” According to our survey data, 81% of our respondents felt that the benefits package makes the workload worthwhile.

Pro Bono

“We have a great pro bono practice led by Katherine Hughes, the director of pro bono. She has been involved in all the pro bono matters I have worked on.” The pro bono team staffs matters across all practice groups. Even though pro bono counts as billable, it’s “common to do more than 100 hours a year.” The whole firm “gets blasts every day highlighting what pro bono matters people have been doing and what’s new.” Some of our sources had taken part in matters closely related to their practices, while others found pro bono to be a chance to branch out. For example, one corporate associate “helped an international court organize and code their past cases.”

“Pro bono provides the humanizing aspect that you don’t get when working with big businesses.”

Others had engaged with work in immigration, human rights, reproductive rights, corporate formation, and housing. One of our sources was “working on resentencing a client who was sentenced to life without parole.” For an associate who helped a small business owner get a lease, “pro bono provided the humanizing aspect that you don’t get when working with big businesses. Answering questions about documents in convoluted legalese can be impactful and rewarding.”

Pro bono hours 

  • Total across all US offices: 52,001
  • Average per US attorney: 83

Diversity and Inclusion

“How do we fix a system that traditionally did not let people of color make partner over 50 years ago?” This was one of the tough questions that associates grappled with when thinking about the legal profession in general. At Cleary, the firm has continued to boost its diversity by centering on recruitment, mentorship and retention. The firm has a global DE&I sponsorship program, which is open to 3rd and 4th year women, LGBTQ+ associates, and associates of color. As well as pairing up with a sponsor partner, “they pair us up with career coaches outside the firm to help in developing our careers." In addition, Cleary has a scholars program called the 1L Practice Group Scholars. “It’s a summer program for under-represented people, before other students start coming in the 2L summer. This is especially helpful for first-generation lawyers.”

When it comes to the representation of women, “I feel well represented. I have been on a number of teams that have been entirely female.” Another associate told us that their group just made up two women partners, “but racial diversity is more lacking in the senior ranks.”With the associates being encouraged by the work in recruitment and retention, one source declared, “I am hopeful that there will be more representation at higher levels and I think the future might reflect the efforts.”

Get Hired

The first stage: recruitment on and off campus 

OCI applicants interviewed:  976

“We interview at a wide range of schools across the country in search of academically strong and intellectually curious candidates who are enthusiastic about practicing law,” hiring partner Abena Mainoo tells us. There are several avenues for candidates to apply to the firm’s summer program. In addition to continued partnerships with school-hosted on-campus and resume collection programs, the firm has launched the Cleary Interview Program (CIP), an early interview program that provides candidates an opportunity to participate in an accelerated interview process and expands Cleary’s reach to law schools across the country. 

Mainoo explains that the “the number of students we interview on campus varies from year to year and is generally related to the size of the law school class and our summer program size.” On-campus interviews are typically held by senior lawyers from the firm, but Cleary also “sometimes hosts hospitality suites that are staffed with a variety of associates and summer associates who are alums of the law schools we visit as well as new associates who will be joining the firm,” Mainoo notes.  

Interviews follow a standard format: “Candidates can expect to be asked about their interests as well as academic and work experiences.” Mainoo adds, “knowing information about firm practices and/or clients is key.” 


Applicants invited to second stage interview:  495

Successful candidates can expect to meet up to four or five attorneys during their callback interview, though Mainoo points out that “each candidate’s schedule is tailored to their interests, so candidates can select whom they would like to meet with, whether it be people from a particular practice area, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.” Mainoo outlines five skills the firm is looking to identify in candidates, including “leadership ability, client service orientation, grit, effective communication, and intellectual ability.” 

Top tips for this stage: 

"Enjoy the process! This is an awesome chance to meet with a large number of lawyers to expand your network.” - hiring partner Abena Mainoo 

Summer Program 

Offers:  304

Summer associates are free to sample work from multiple practice areas, including Cleary’s pool of pro bono projects. “Since there are no formal rotations, summer associates may explore different practices without being required to move between prescribed groups.” Mainoo expands, “We have a strong focus on intensive training programs throughout the summer. In addition to twice-weekly summer lunches hosted by the different practice groups, summer associates will attend a corporate training seminar that provides an understanding of transactional practice areas, and a litigation trainingthat provides a foundation in key advocacy skills, discovery skills, and substantive areas of law that are central to the practice.”  

And Finally… 

Summer associates have the opportunity to spend four weeks at one of Cleary’s overseas offices, “a unique opportunity to experience first-hand the worldwide Cleary culture and global reach of our firm.”  

Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP

One Liberty Plaza,
New York,
NY 10006

Main areas of work
Antitrust, banking and financial institutions, bankruptcy and restructuring, capital markets, corporate governance, cybersecurity and privacy, executive compensation and employee benefits, financial technology, intellectual property, investment funds, leveraged and acquisition finance, litigation and arbitration, mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures, 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 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, whether domestic or international. We support every client relationship with intellectual agility, commercial acumen, and a human touch.

We have a proven track record for serving with innovation. We are fluent in the many languages of local and global business. And we have achieved consistent success in multiple jurisdictions.

Global corporations, financial institutions, sovereign governments, local businesses, and individuals come to us for consistently practical and forward-looking advice.

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2023:
Boston College, Boston University, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, Fordham, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Howard, Michigan, NYU, Northwestern, Penn, 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 candidates of all races and nationalities who are enthusiastic about practicing law. The firm places a premium on openness, diversity, individuality and collegiality and looks for candidates who do so as well.

Summer program components:
Cleary Gottlieb’s summer program offers an introduction to life at the firm through exposure to high-caliber legal work as well as training, mentoring, and networking opportunities and events. Our work assignment system is unique and tailored to your professional experience and interests. Summer associates can explore our many different practice groups or choose to focus on a particular discipline. They can also work on a variety of the firm’s ongoing pro bono matters. The summer program offers many opportunities for formal and informal training and development, including litigation and corporate practice seminars as well as skills development courses. In addition, summer associates are invited to attend practice group lunch presentations to learn about the practices throughout the firm and to meet the lawyers practicing in each area. The firm provides many layers of mentoring, including support from partners, senior lawyers, and associates; a comprehensive feedback process; and optional overseas office rotations.

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

This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2023

Ranked Departments

    • Antitrust (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 4)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring: The Elite (Band 3)
    • Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 3)
    • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 1)
    • Litigation: General Commercial: The Elite (Band 2)
    • Litigation: Securities (Band 3)
    • Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations: The Elite (Band 1)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts (Band 3)
    • Real Estate: Mainly Corporate & Finance (Band 1)
    • Tax (Band 1)
    • Antitrust (Band 1)
    • Antitrust: Cartel (Band 1)
    • Banking & Finance (Band 4)
    • Bankruptcy/Restructuring: The Elite (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Equity: Issuer Counsel (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: High-Yield Debt (Band 3)
    • Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Issuer Counsel (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Investment Grade Debt: Manager Counsel (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Securitization: CLOs (Band 2)
    • Capital Markets: Structured Products (Band 2)
    • Corporate Crime & Investigations: The Elite (Band 2)
    • Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 3)
    • Derivatives (Band 1)
    • Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 2)
    • 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: The Elite (Band 3)
    • International Trade: CFIUS Experts (Band 4)
    • International Trade: Export Controls & Economic Sanctions: Highly Regarded (Band 1)
    • Mining & Metals (Band 1)
    • Private Equity: Buyouts: High-end Capability (Band 4)
    • Private Equity: Fund Formation (Band 2)
    • Real Estate (Band 3)
    • Securities: Litigation (Band 4)
    • Securities: Regulation: Advisory (Band 1)
    • Securities: Regulation: Enforcement (Band 3)
    • Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 1)