Debevoise & Plimpton LLP - The Inside View

Stellar mentoring lays firm foundations for associates at this established New York institution.

DEBEVOISE'S towering reputation on the NYC legal scene was a major attraction to the associates we spoke to. Its name is so synonymous with the legal elite that even TV's The West Wing knows to name drop Debevoise. This former or current white shoe firm (depending on your point of view) carved out its reputation initially in the 1930s in funds-related work. These days you're just as likely to hear it mentioned in relation to a whole host of other transactional and litigation-related areas as well. White-collar crime, media & entertainment, FCPA [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act], intellectual property, insurance, and international arbitration are all considered top of the pile by Chambers USA, which also gives a nod to several of the firm's other practices.

“We're the proper white shoe firm filled with pride over the quality of our work,” one source beamed. Juniors were just as eager to wax lyrical about the firm's reputation for politeness and collaborative teamwork: “I got a good vibe when I interviewed," said one. "I felt like these were my people. Given the strains and stress of BigLaw, we know we're all in it together.”

The Work

The New York office takes nearly all the firm's first-years, though several start out in Debevoise's Washington, DC base. Most associates tend to head into corporate or litigation with a handful slotting into tax (which includes employee benefits). Both the larger groups offer a dual-track work allocation system which combines assignment by a staffing coordinator with the option to seek out or accept work directly from partners.

Corporate rookies head straight into one subgroup, which they switch for another at the end of their first year. Crunch time arrives at the start of third year when they must choose their permanent area from the two they've experienced, or head into a third they haven't tried. On offer are: M&A, real estate, capital markets, finance, bankruptcy, investment management, and insurance. Sources appreciated the chance to “try working in different areas and get a feel for different people. If you find the first area is not for you then the rotation gives you a fresh start.”

“There are no artificial hurdles.” 

Diligence and disclosure are “typical for corporate juniors but you also have multiple drafting opportunities. There are no artificial hurdles regarding roles and responsibility.” Deals tend to be staffed by “relatively small teams so you get a lot of client contact. You're forced to learn and develop quickly.” One source had even been the sole associate on a deal, telling us: “I wrote my own purchase agreement and negotiated with opposing counsel – although I did also have to do all my own diligence and signature pages. Negotiations were hard and the opposing counsel were really mean but it was a terrific experience.”

Litigators start out as generalists for the first two years before specializing in one of the four following areas: general commercial, international dispute resolution, IP (including cybersecurity and data privacy), or white-collar crime. “We have to choose a major and a minor as our focus areas” – in DC the majority of litigators tend to go into white-collar – “but we're not limited to only practicing those.” Sources here tended to stick with more junior tasks, as “the bigger teams tend to be more hierarchical. If you can get on a smaller case you're able to do more,” like drafting briefs. So, “depending on the case, you can swing from doc review on one to interviewing a client's senior management members on the next.”

Training & Development

Newbies from offices around the world begin their time at the firm by flying into New York and attending a mini-MBA course to “jump-start us into a business background.” Sources praised the course for “helping you become more fluent in the terminology and in understanding where clients are coming from.” Come the second year, juniors attend thrice-monthly sessions within their practice area focusing on things like “what every corporate lawyer should know about environmental law, tax and benefits or M&A. It orients you to what others in the group are doing and gives you an idea of when you need to call in a specialist.”

“It can be hard to get forthright feedback.” 

Debevoise's reputation as a place full of polite lawyers has “pros and cons,” some sources told us, with one downside being “it can be hard to get forthright feedback. Sometimes comments can be almost passive-aggressive.” That said, we came across plenty of interviewees who hadn't run across this problem. “People are always willing to chat through things when I reach out.” Another interjected: “I've even had people email and tell me they're hearing good things about my work.” One interviewee surmised that as the reputation for being indirect has been around for a while, “maybe people are working to get around it.”


While some juniors admitted the firm's polite and genteel culture can sometimes result in a little “passive-aggressiveness,” the plus side is that people “don't snap or yell and no-one degrades you. We have room to say what we want and people respect each other.”

"Charming, endearing nerds.”

One source summed up Debevoise as “a place full of charming, endearing nerds.” That statement proved divisive when we put it to colleagues. While several disagreed with the word 'nerd,' others proudly embraced the label: “That's why I came here! We have different interests and we can be ourselves around each other; if someone looked down on me for being into Lego I'd say get off your high horse, you're into Dungeons and Dragons,” one source laughed. Regardless of whether they agreed with the generalization, juniors did concur that they felt comfortable around their colleagues. “This is a place where people are good to each other as they'd want others to be good to them. We want to work well together; there's not an aggressive atmosphere.”

For the most part, partners are “invested in your success and the advice and mentoring I've received has been so positive,” one source praised. “A high percentage of the partners have a strong EQ; they care about your development as a lawyer but they're also open to chatting about things outside of work – I can tell my mentor anything,” one source claimed. “Within the lines of what's appropriate to share!” they quickly added. This supportive nature spills over from mentoring into daily life, where we're told “supervisors give it their best shot to prevent pressure being passed down to associates. People here offer a human approach in a job where you're working less than human hours.”

Get Hired

“There are hardly any assholes here, which is awesome.” 

“There are hardly any assholes here, which is awesome,” one junior applauded. “The people who come here tend to value good working relationships,” another stressed. “They enjoy working in a collaborative rather than competitive environment. If you want to prove you're better than your colleagues, this isn't the place for you.”

Any juniors involved in recruiting are asked to evaluate potential candidates on several factors, but especially personality. “We see resumes but not grades so we take a holistic view. We're looking to see how well people can articulate and express their thoughts.” Another added: “I ask myself would they have problems communicating with clients, are they easy to chat to and conscientious?” Ideally “we want people who are able to create a positive atmosphere even if we're working crazy hours.”

Hours & Compensation

Interviewees admitted that “hours here can certainly be long” but, one junior countered, “I feel my seniors are working harder than me. If I'm here until midnight, counsel will be here until 2am rather than just pushing stuff onto juniors. We're a team and although I may get grumpy when I take on someone's workload while they're on vacation, I know they'll do the same for me.” They agreed that colleagues make an effort to respect vacation and “recognize we all have lives outside work.” One elaborated: “I'm gearing up for a busy few weeks but I'm still going away.” Don't get too confident your colleagues will always pick up the slack though, as one junior pointed out: “It's not all roses: we still have to cancel things.” While clocking off at 6pm is rare, “people won't burn the midnight oil from the office. This is an autonomous place. You can leave and work from home, so long as you're checking your phone.”

“I'm gearing up for a busy few weeks but I'm still going away.”

Debevoise operates a lockstep compensation scheme, which juniors have long cited as contributing to the firm's collaborative nature. Some interviewees also felt it relieved the pressure of billing. “Unless you well and truly deviate you won't miss your bonus. No-one likes a freeloader, but it's so busy you find very few of those.” The firm stipulates no official target but most sources aimed for around 2,000 hours.

Pro Bono

“The only limitation is being able to find the time.” 

Pro bono hours all count toward billable hours. “The only limitation is being able to find the time,” one source reflected. A New York-based pro bono coordinator emails out opportunities, but juniors can also find themselves approached by colleagues looking for additional help.

Among transactional associates, there's a “strong need for people to assist small entrepreneurs and nonprofit groups,” and helping people prepare bankruptcy petitions is also a common pro bono assignment. But deal-doers don't stick within transactional parameters, and we heard of plenty getting stuck in with their litigator counterparts on anything from climate change matters to immigration advice, asylum petitions and the Clemency Project. Debevoise also had a hand recently in overturning the West Virginia DMV's ban on transgender individuals using a photograph of themselves as they regularly appear on their driver's license.

Pro bono hours 

  • For all attorneys across all US offices: 58,628 
  • Average per US attorney: 118


Interviewees claimed there's “room for improvement at the partner level” where 89.7% are white and only 18.7% are women. “The diversity is noticeably stronger the more you go down the ranks.”

“Our diversity coordinator is a champ.” 

Sources reckoned diversity was more than just about the figures though. “Looking at the absolute numbers it's not very diverse, but as for the atmosphere, I'm diverse and I absolutely feel part of the firm. Our diversity coordinator is a champ and is always encouraging us to build up relationships” with partners and associates across the firm. Another added: “Debevoise doesn't always get it 100% right but I chose to come here because I believed they considered diversity a high priority, especially when it comes to assisting parents.”


At the time of our calls, DC was in the process of moving into new offices. “We're very excited; they gave associates a lot of input into the layout and what type of furniture we wanted.” Debevoise's New York office “is not grand or gilded and there's no wild architecture; Debevoise tries to go for a cooler angle,” one source told us. Each floor features “amazing artwork” like “blurry city pictures” or 1970s musicians. Juniors here usually share an office for the first two years, before bagging their own at some point in their third.

“Debevoise tries to go for a cooler angle.” 

While sources hadn't seen too much interaction between the firm's US offices, several had worked on projects  staffed with attorneys from Debevoise's seven international bases. There's even scope for a couple of summers to spend time in one of the firm's six overseas offices or to jet off on client secondments around the globe.

Strategy & Future

“An emphasis on 21st century issues like tech, privacy and cybersecurity.” 

“There's an emphasis on 21st century issues like tech, privacy and cybersecurity,” one associate told us. Several sources tipped Debevoise's cybersecurity practice as the focal point for growth; the team recently brought in Luke Dembosky, the highest-ranking official at the DOJ focused primarily on cyber investigations and prosecutions, and former acting head of the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice David O'Neil.

O'Neil also straddles the firm's white-collar practice, which has seen “a number of recent partner and counsel hires.” The white-collar team and Debevoise's financial institutions group were credited as two of the key drivers behind the firm's revenue rise. Growth in London, following a number of laterals hires in previous years, also contributed to the increase. "Our 2015 performance was driven by continued success in our core practices: private equity, M&A, insurance and financial institutions on the corporate side; and white collar, international arbitration, complex litigation, IP and cybersecurity/data privacy on the litigation side," the firm tells us.


We catch up with Debevoise's presiding partner Michael Blair

Chambers Associate: Associates thought the firm was currently seeking to grow its white-collar and cybersecurity and privacy practices. Is that the case?

Michael Blair: We have strategically grown our white collar and cybersecurity/privacy practices recently, in order to meet client needs in these areas. Within the last couple of years or so, we have bolstered our cybersecurity practice with the addition of Luke Dembosky, the highest-ranking official at the DOJ focused primarily on cyber investigations and prosecutions, as well as the hires of David O’Neil and Jim Pastore – who, during their tenure as federal prosecutors, were two pioneers in cybersecurity enforcement.

They, along with our pre-existing capabilities in this space, have helped position the firm to handle a variety of the increasingly high-stakes cybersecurity and data protection matters that have arisen, including advising Home Depot in connection with the cyber-attack that resulted in the theft of millions of credit card numbers. Mr. O’Neil has also helped bolster our white collar/regulatory defense group, having served as acting head of the criminal division at the DOJ.

Further augmenting that group, we recently hired Judge John Gleeson from the Eastern District of New York, a highly regarded federal judge whose considerable experience as a judge and prosecutor, coupled with his impeccable reputation for integrity, make him an ideal fit who will strengthen our government enforcement and litigation practices even further. In addition, we recently welcomed Julie Riewe, former co-chief of the Asset Management Unit of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, who fits squarely within our strategic goal of supporting and expanding our highly successful asset management enforcement and compliance practice, and is the second former co-chief of the Unit to join us in recent years.

White collar and investigations work has shown no signs of slowing down globally, and these recent arrivals have been welcome additions to our very busy group.

CA: We read that the firm may be looking to grow its offering in Asia. Is that the case? What are you doing to achieve these?

MB: Our steady growth in Asia is nothing new. We’ve expanded significantly in the region in recent years, through a number of strategic moves, including opening an office in Tokyo in March. These moves have solidified our position in Asia, where we have long been one of the premier firms in the region for private equity, M&A (especially in the financial services sector), and disputes advice.

The legal market in Asia continues to present significant opportunities for us. We are well positioned to take advantage of those, and will work to ensure we remain well positioned.

CA: Are there any other offices, either at home or abroad, the firm will be investing in over the next few years?

MB: We are always evaluating a small number of potential strategic opportunities domestically and internationally. Our core goal remains to continue to provide the highest caliber service to our clients across practice areas and firm offices. We will continue to focus on our key areas of strength, including insurance and financial institutions, private equity firms, M&A, intellectual property, internal investigations and white collar litigation, international disputes and commercial litigation, among others.

CA: What were the prime drivers behind the firm's revenue increase in 2015?

MB: Our 2015 performance was driven by continued success in our core practices: private equity, M&A, insurance and financial institutions on the corporate side; and white collar, international arbitration, complex litigation, IP and cybersecurity/data privacy on the litigation side.

CA: Junior associates praised the level of mentoring and advice they received from both senior associates and partners. What kind of programs do you have in place to encourage this?

MB: New lawyers joining the firm are immediately assigned a senior lawyer and an associate to advise them. In addition, we encourage our associates to develop multiple sources of informal mentoring over time. In addition to that, incoming associates participate in a full-time, three-week business and finance education program shortly after their arrival at the firm. This “Mini-MBA Program” comprises a curriculum with faculty directors from Columbia Business School and Training the Street, an organization used widely by Wall Street institutions for training their analysts. It is a highly interactive and demanding program that enables our junior associates to better see legal and business issues from our clients’ perspectives, and to bond with other members of their class in the process.

CA: What's your ideal associate look like?

MB: We look for ambitious, intelligent, engaging, intense and commercially savvy people committed to being excellent lawyers and decent individuals. We look for well-rounded individuals with diverse backgrounds and interests. We believe in hiring talented people and working with them to help them pursue their goals. We think happy lawyers make the best lawyers. We expect our associates to devote extraordinary effort to their own development and loyalty to the clients we serve.

CA: Do you have any advice or words of wisdom for students as they try to enter the legal profession?

MB: We encourage incoming summer associates to take several business-related courses during law school and to read the business press daily. This, coupled with the extensive training and guidance the firm provides, helps them to understand the issues our clients face on a daily basis. Regardless of whether they are interested in corporate or litigation work, we feel this will give them a solid foundation that will be beneficial to their own professional development and careers and help them grow into being trusted advisors to clients.

Debevoise's white-collar and cybersecurity practices 

Debevoise is bulking up its white collar team and cultivating its related cybersecurity practice. Recent hires to expand the Chambers USA top-tier ranked white collar department include Luke Dembosky, the highest-ranking official at the DOJ focused primarily on cyber investigations and prosecutions; prominent federal judge John Gleeson, who will augment the firm’s government enforcement and litigation practices; Julie Riewe, former Co-Chief of the Asset Management Unit of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement;former JPMorgan Chase general counsel Matthew Biben; former assistant US attorney Sarah Coyne; and federal prosecutor David O'Neil, who negotiated one of the largest corporate American plea deals while he was head of the US Justice Department.

Among the white-collar client roster are big-name brands like Rolls Royce, Toyota, Dutch Shell and a number of international banks. The firm advised Société Générale after the Department of Justice launched an investigation into allegations which claimed the French bank had bribed foreign officials in Libya. The team also represented four Swiss Banks in investigations by the Department of Justice into the use of foreign bank accounts to commit tax evasion.

The department also handles a number of inquiries into current or past sexual abuse cases at educational institutions. One such matter saw Debevoise involved in an investigation into historic sexual abuse claims at a school in Virginia. The firm conducted an independent review on behalf of the Board of Trustees to establish the truth of the matter and uncover whether other teachers and school administrators were ever aware of the alleged abuse.

Matters here also overlap with the cybersecurity and privacy practice, such as assisting Home Depot in investigating a data breach which resulted in the theft of millions of credit and debit card details belonging to customers. Alongside investigations into security breaches the firm advises clients on the parameters of using, transferring and mining customer data. While the tech sector makes up the bulk of client instructions, the cybersecurity team also has expertise in industries ranging from media and sports to consumer goods and consulting.

More on hiring

On top of the obligatory good grades, juniors told us the firm “puts credence in interesting backgrounds.” That's hobbies as well as careers; we heard one junior associate is among the top ten chess players in the States. Don't be put off if you're coming straight through from school though, as we're told there are plenty of people who've done just that.

Personality-wise, “I don't think we attract those who are cut-throat or gunning for partner; we focus on our work quality” rather than “any back-stabbing, aggressive behavior or an unwillingness to help others.” That's sometimes easier to spot than you'd think. One source recalled hearing of an interviewee being “ridiculously rude to a partner's secretary who naturally told the partner.” That's a bad idea for any interview, but – as our source pointed out with the firm's typical aversion to rudeness – “Why would you do it anyway?”

Generally interviewers are on the look out for more positive attributes: “I want to feel excited to work with that person. And I want them to be interested in Debevoise and have done their homework on our practices and the people they're meeting with.”

Junior associates also take interviewees out for lunch “to try and put them at ease and get a sense of what they're like. We want people to open up to us; it's frustrating when someone can't chill out and engage.”

Debevoise & Plimpton LLP

919 Third Avenue,
New York,
NY 10022

  • Head Office: New York, NY 
  • Number of domestic offices: 2
  • Number of international offices: 7
  • Worldwide revenue: $756.9 million
  • Partners (US): 106
  • Associates (US): 327
  • Summer Salary 2016 
  • 1Ls: N/A
  • 2Ls: $3,500/week
  • Post 3Ls: N/A
  • 1Ls hired? No
  • Split summers offered? Yes
  • Can summers spend time in overseas office? Yes
  • Summers 2016: 70 (excluding SEOs and returnees; 68 in NY, 2 in DC)
  • Offers/acceptances 2015: 78 offers, 63 acceptances (NY and DC), some offers remain open.

Main areas of work
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP has three main areas of practice: corporate (including mergers and acquisitions, private equity, investment funds, insurance, banking, leveraged finance, business restructuring and workouts, asset management, capital markets, corporate governance, structured and project finance, aviation finance, healthcare and life sciences, intellectual property, media and telecommunications, real estate, energy and environmental law), litigation (including white collar/regulatory, international dispute resolution, intellectual property, general commercial litigation, cybersecurity and data privacy, insurance, securities, antitrust, employment, bankruptcy and products liability) and tax and employee benefits.

Firm profile
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP is a premier law firm with market-leading practices, a global perspective and strong New York roots. Deep partner commitment, industry expertise and a strategic approach enable the firm to bring clear commercial judgment to every matter. The firm draws on the strength of its culture and structure to deliver the best of the firm to every client through true collaboration.

Recruitment details
• Number of 1st year associates: 77
• Number of 2nd year associates: 80
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes

Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2016:
Benjamin N Cardozo, Brooklyn, Columbia University, Cornell University, Duke University, Fordham University, Georgetown University, Harvard, Howard University, New York Law School, New York University School of Law, Northwestern, Rutgers University, St. John’s University, Stanford, Tulane University, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Texas Law School, University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, Washington University, Yale

Summer details 

Summer associate profile:
Debevoise searches for dynamic, analytically strong and professionally curious individuals with an interest in and enthusiasm for the challenging deals and matters on which the firm works. In addition, the firm is interested in individuals from an array of different backgrounds as it prefers that its lawyer population is as diverse as its clients.

Summer program components:
Debevoise’s summer program is structured to provide participants with the flexibility to explore as many practice areas as they wish. In order to accommodate the individual’s evolving interests, the firm has chosen not to impose an assignment system that “rotates” participants through different areas of the firm. There are opportunities throughout the summer for formal evaluations, while informal feedback is given on a continuous basis. Social events are held for summer associates, which provide them with the chance to connect with other lawyers, of all levels, at the firm.