Polite people praised distinguished Debevoise's considerate culture.
IN a profession where firms live and die by their standing, “Debevoise has the reputation of being the gentleman of BigLaw firms,” associates here reminded us. “It's all about a culture of lawyers treating each other with respect and politeness.” Combine that image with top tier work, and it's easy to see why the firm sits at the top table of the New York legal scene. Founded at the height of the art deco period in the 1930s, this sleek outfit is perhaps still thought of as 'white shoe', although that label has fallen out of fashion in recent years. In 2016, the modern Debevoise opened a Tokyo office, cementing Japanese client relationships going back decades. London is the firm's second largest office after New York, and there are six other overseas bases within this prestigious network.
A legacy initially built on private equity funds work led associates to reassure us that “we're still a PE shop,” but that's far from the full story. While Debevoise certainly excels in private equity fund formation (achieving a top ranking from Chambers USA), other highly regarded practices include litigation, M&A, white collar crime, insurance, media & entertainment, IP, real estate, and sports law. The deal-clincher for associates deciding which firm to join, however, was Debevoise's “culture of cooperation and openness, where everyone is helping each other. It resonated with me during recruitment and it has proved true.”
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). There's also a cybersecurity group which utilizes both litigators and corporate juniors when needed. Both the larger groups offer two ways of acquiring work: either staffing partners will assign you work or you can solicit 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 the third year when they must choose their permanent area from the two they've experienced, or head into a third they haven't tried. (They spend longer in their first rotation to allow for a period of acclimatization.) On offer are: M&A, real estate, capital markets, finance, bankruptcy, investment management, and insurance. Sources appreciated the “chance to try out a different group and compare, as well as just getting to know the wider team which I'm a part of.”
Juniors cut their teeth on plenty of first drafts in corporate. In investment management “tasks for a junior like me will include doing the first draft of a letter or of a subscription agreement, perhaps even a small section of the partnership agreement.” Other associates reported reviewing purchase agreements, but drafting was kept to ancillary documents: closing certificates, resolutions and the like. Associates found due diligence is particularly heavy in M&A – “something most juniors will have to do” – but it cropped up in most groups. Others described administrative work, putting together opinions, certificates and closing checklists.
“If you write a summary it doesn't just disappear into the ether.”
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, or white collar crime. Associates described white collar as being “mostly doc review” – a standard junior task. They complimented the department's efforts “to make sure that your knowledge built up through the doc review has an impact. If you write a summary it doesn't just disappear into the ether; partners will ask you about it and make changes to documents accordingly.” The size of the department means it is “hierarchical – but they do a great job of keeping you included.”
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: “A business education. It's great, they sit you down to learn about financial institutions and the global economy.” This is“not only incredibly useful for learning certain concepts, but also for getting a sense of who your co-associates are, and building a sense of community.” From then on there's plenty of formal training, and despite it “feeling very organized,” some felt “you will sit down every week or two for some training but it's not as effective as a classroom environment.” Litigators appreciated the chance to “sign up for a mock trial program.”
Like last year, the occasional associate linked the firm's “nice or genteel” culture to a “passive aggressive” atmosphere surrounding feedback, which one described as “cold air in the room.” But once again this was not the majority view. “You read between the lines,” one explained. “It's not hard to understand if you need to do something over – you will know exactly why.” Another believed that “rather than avoiding the truth in any way, I've found we are very honest,” so “when something is wrong they are quick to tell you and help you correct it.”
“It's an amazing reason to join.”
Overall, associates felt the firm tries “to make you a great lawyer: They don't just use you up and toss you aside, they want to develop you.” To that end, associates recalled “coffee meetings with your partner adviser to talk over your career.” Not everyone can be a partner though, and we heard that “the typical path is to stay for a few years and then go in house.” Hiring committee chair Nicole Mesard acknowledges “they maybe don't want to spend their entire career with us” and feels time spent at the firm sees “doors open in a different way for them. It's an amazing reason to join.”
“Respect” was the watchword when it came to culture. “They have your back, nobody's getting screamed at,” said one, while another claimed: “I'm still to find a mean person in the building! Everyone's voice matters. You can speak up and participate by providing your thoughts – it's collaborative.” Interviewees “didn't feel judged for taking vacation,” nor were “partners breathing down your neck.” Ultimately, “saying that you can't handle the amount of work you have isn't frowned upon, it isn't a sign of defeat. People will step in to help and maybe you'll cover them next time in return.”
“Our goal is not to speak first, but to get things right.”
What motivates lawyers here? “It's very driven and people are intellectually curious. As opposed to being poked and prodded, people want to do their work.” Some might call them “nerdy” – “I personally see it as a badge of honor! We really enjoy our work and we'll dive into difficult, intellectual problems. Our goal is not to speak first, but to get things right.” In summary “people here aren't just in it for the money or for prestige, they are genuinely interested in the legal issues at play.”
This culture's no product of indoctrination, in fact “there's very little coaching on it.” Instead “the ethos we have emanates from the leadership. They lead from example: You will see partners working at 1am.” Politeness too “trickles down” from the top. “I have never hesitated to talk to a partner, despite being awestruck about how much they know sometimes! They aren't mythical creatures locked away somewhere; I have plenty of interactions and every partner has been friendly and down to earth. They share war stories and talk about their personal lives, and we see them with their families at the summer event at Central Park Zoo – they're always willing to talk.” Zoo trips aside, the firm isn't rife with party animals. “You can find the social stuff if you're looking for it, but it's not a crucial element of getting to know people and being a part of the culture. You don't have to party.”
Hours & Compensation
“When you come into BigLaw you expect to work hard, and I've done the late nights and worked at weekends,” confessed one associate. “There are days when I finish at midnight or later and depending on closings, a few all nighters too, where you just go home to shower.” Hours tend to fluctuate: “Some circumstances are out of your control, like last minute requests – there's only so much you can do to protect your nights and weekends.”
“There aren't people breathing down your neck to do X amount of hours.”
An associate pointed out that “I have dialed down my hours when necessary – there aren't people breathing down your neck to do X amount of hours.” Debevoise doesn't apply pressure with any billable hours requirements, and operates a lockstep compensation scheme. “If you are looking for something to give you direction the unofficial target they set is 2,000 hours, but in the first year nobody is counting hours.” Besides, “most partners are aware of how much work is going around – as long as you are finding work, how could they be upset?”
Pro bono is treated the same as billable hours, ensuring the firm bills more pro bono than almost any other US firm. “Around a quarter of my hours have been pro bono,” one junior reported. “A commitment to pro bono was something I looked for, and Debevoise certainly walks the walk.” Indeed, associates felt no pressure to shirk pro bono as “the firm knows I will get a lot of experience drafting briefs through pro bono.”
“Debevoise certainly walks the walk.”
A New York-based pro bono coordinator emails out opportunities, but juniors can “express an interest in something you've found, and they'll be very receptive.” Matters include asylum cases, death penalty appeals, various things through Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, securing the lease of a community garden in NY, student debt renegotiations and helping startups to form LLPs.
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 66,268
- Average per US attorney: 133
Debevoise was shortlisted in the Chambers Diversity awards for the 'most pioneering firm for female lawyers'. Associates struck an upbeat note when discussing diversity, though our 2017 survey shows fairly average figures for their market: 10.4% of partners are of an ethnic minority and 20.8% are women. “At the junior and mid levels you can see that there's a lot of progress, but any higher and I think it's unbalanced,” one junior assessed.
Associates' positivity focused on it being “tremendously open on diversity.” At a yearly firm dinner “everyone gets together and the firm talks about where it currently stands on diversity and where our emphasis is going to be placed in the future.” Other initiatives include “a monthly lunch with the Asian affinity group, which is great for meeting people from other departments. Our lunch for Chinese New Year was one of the best attended events I've seen!” Affinity groups for other minorities also meet on a monthly basis.
Associates in New York told us “the office feels clean and crisp,” and were fans of the “fantastic cafeteria.” They set the scene: “It's in Midtown East and has a view of Central Park. Typically, as a first or second-year, you either get a window room which is shared with another associate or you have an interior room to yourself.” Window or no window, “it's good to be able to ask dumb questions to your office-mate, or just shoot the breeze.” Also, “every day from 4pm to 5pm we have a coffee break where they set out coffee and cookies in the cafeteria. Quite often they'll have sports on the TV or there's a foosball table which people take advantage of.”
With international offices only a phone call or email away, associates felt “the firm could be better about offering more international opportunities, to go abroad on secondment, or for international conferences.” While it isn't out of the question to go on a working sojourn, “it wouldn't just be a case of expressing my interest, I would have to jump through hoops. If I wanted to leave NY it could take several years,” one junior reckoned.
Strategy & Future
Associates were relieved to announce the firm is addressing “everyone's old complaint” by “joining the rest of the world!” They're “changing all the technology, swapping out desktops and monitors for new computers.” Despite this, and the expansion into Tokyo, associates perceived Debevoise as a firm holding its course. “It has a commitment to do what it does excellently, and then looks for opportunities to spread that excellency to new areas.”
“We know it's a solid and consistent firm.”
Some grumbles over transparency were evident, but even though associates “aren't privy to strategic conversations, we know it's a solid and consistent firm which values long term, steady growth.” And so “associates are seen as an investment and as an important asset.”
Interview with Michael Blair – Presiding Partner of Debevoise & Plimpton
What do you think is responsible for your 6.5% growth last year? Is it down to certain practice areas?
Our revenue growth in 2015 was driven by our core practices: private equity, M&A, insurance and financial institutions on the corporate side; and white collar, international arbitration, complex civil litigation, IP and cybersecurity/data privacy on the litigation side.
Are there any practices that have surprised you, or which seem to be growing?
Our recent performance has not been driven by a few major transactions or cases in certain practices, but rather, has been the result of exceptionally strong and consistent capabilities across a diversified set of core practices.
What does the firm's strategy look like for the next five years? Is the emphasis going to be abroad, or at home?
We expect that the global market for the highest-end legal work will continue to evolve rapidly. Some firms will open layers of offices and practices in primary, secondary and tertiary markets. Others will pursue a boutique strategy focused on one or two core strengths in a limited number of locations. We think that either of those strategies can work for the right firm, but they are not for us. As we assess the market and our core strengths, it seems clear to us that the rapidly rationalizing market will reward a firm that can offer exceptionally strong and consistent capabilities across a diversified (but not universal) set of select practices to which globally leading clients attribute the highest value.
We are fortunate to have a diversified group of leading practices and we plan to reinforce them relentlessly, while at all times fostering the development of a limited number of earlier stage practices with market leadership potential; a recent example includes our cyber security and data privacy practice.
Our strategy offers real advantages for associates, in particular. We do not need to take on the high volume of routine or lower-value work that firms with a vast network need. Yet our diversified set of top-flight practices provides the opportunity for broad training and an attractive menu of career choices.
How does the label 'white shoe firm' sit with Debevoise?
Although we recognize that the term is generally intended as a compliment, we find it antiquated and do not believe it captures the diverse, dynamic and global firm that we are today.
Do you find the firm's culture of 'politeness,' which associates described to us this year, to be an asset, or is it ever a hindrance?
Fostering a supportive and collegial culture has always been a core tenet of our firm vision. While our associates’ jobs can be as demanding as those at any prominent firm, our uniquely collaborative and team-oriented culture is one attribute that sets us apart from the competition. We believe that all issues, and especially the occasional difficult issue, can be more effectively addressed when we consistently treat one another with decency and mutual respect.
Does the firm encourage associates to travel abroad to other Debevoise offices?
The majority of our projects – on both the transactional and litigation side – has an international component, and many require international travel.
How valuable do you think pro bono work is to a junior associate's career and development?
A strong commitment to pro bono work is a longstanding tradition at Debevoise and is deeply rooted in our firm culture. Our associates are encouraged to do pro bono work – not just because we all have a responsibility to provide legal service to those who cannot afford it, but also because the invaluable experience gained by handling pro bono matters makes our associates better lawyers.
Interview with director of legal recruiting Sandra Herbst and Nicole Mesard, chair of the firm's hiring committee.
What’s the scope of your recruiting drive?
SH: We look at a wide range of schools - thee top-ranked schools but also other schools where we've seen great talent. It's a diverse range of schools both in ranking and geography.
NM: We visit more than 25 schools. They range from Harvard, Columbia, NYU and Yale to more local law schools.
We really strive to keep our presence up at each school to which we are committed and strive to have representation in every one of our summer classes from each of these schools. We want to attract the best talent.
How many (or what percent) of applicants get called in for a second interview?
SH: It's entirely dependent on who we meet, what their interests are, whether they are the right fit culturally and whether they're commercially oriented.
We try to only call back people who we think will succeed and get offers. Those we call back, we are highly confident about. If we make you an offer at Debevoise, it's because we think you will succeed here.
What does the firm do to encourage diversity in recruiting?
SH: First, we recruit at a number of diversity-focused job fairs and prior to that, during 1L year, we do panels and events with diverse student organizations at every school we go to. We're well-known for being dedicated to diversity.
NM: Personally I think that we are ahead of most of our recruiting peers in diversity numbers, whether it's African American, mixed race, LGBT – any criteria really, including the number of women, which has really been pretty impressive. We care about associates, and we care about inclusion.
Are there firms you find yourself regularly competing with for associates? And how do you set yourself apart?
NM: What do I think makes us different? There are three areas we focus on.
The work: They want a firm where they get to work on interesting and challenging matters which they might read about in the Wall Street Journal. It helps them to develop as great lawyers and there will be lots of opportunities to do that. Our training is also incredible. We spend a lot of time and money training associates. We have a Mini MBA program in which first-years participate for their first few weeks here. It's basically like going to school for three weeks. We have made a strategic decision to get lawyers trained and have them living in the world clients live in. All of that is before they've even billed one hour.
Next are opportunities. Not all associates want to spend their entire careers with us. There are many opportunities to work at hedge funds or private equity funds or banks, for example. Doors open in many different ways for associates, and it's another compelling reason to join us.
And last but not least is the culture: we value respect and integrity. We treat lawyers like human beings who should be fulfilled in working here. Between work, training, opportunities and culture we think we have something great to offer.
How would you recommend someone can get a step up in their preparation for the interview?
SH: People should always come in being prepared to talk about what's on their resume. If you can't talk about something on there, it isn’t worth putting it down.
NM: We want to know that they are bright and have an interest in business and how companies operate. We look for a mix of people who have previous careers and those who don't necessarily have work experience.
One associate told us they'd been encouraged to meet up with fellow law students at their school who have a place at the firm. Is that something you still do?
SH: Yes, once we hire a class, we actively encourage people at different schools to reach out and get to know each other. We want them to feel a part of the community when they get here.
What type of person do you think fits into that community?
SH: Again, we are not looking for a cookie cutter candidate. We’re looking for people who are intellectually curious, smart, motivated, diverse and team players.
What advice would you give to those on your summer program?
SH: I would say come and try to take advantage of every opportunity, do good work and get as much experience as you can. Take advantage of partners and counsel who will spend time with you and train you. Partner doors are open and you should feel free to talk to them. The best thing is to talk and see what practices are like.
NM: I would say their legal career starts at the beginning of summer. Summer associates work on real matters, so they'll be on the phone with clients, in office meetings, in depositions, becoming a part of the fabric of the firm, trying to learn as much about us as they can. It makes the transition far easier. The minute they walk in as a first-year associate, they will be so much more confident if they have taken advantage of their opportunities from the summer and will hit the ground running. We care about all of them and want them to be as well-prepared as possible.
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
919 Third Avenue,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 2
- Number of international offices: 7
- Worldwide revenue: $735,000,000
- Partners (US): 106
- Associates (US): 319
- Summer Salary 2017
- 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: 72 (excluding SEOs and returnees; 70 in NY, 2 in DC)
- Offers/acceptances 2016: 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.
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP is a premier law firm with market-leading practices, a global perspective and strong New York roots. The firm’s clients look to it to bring a distinctively high degree of quality, intensity and creativity to resolve legal challenges selectively and cost efficiently. 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.
• Number of 1st year associates: 71
• Number of 2nd year associates: 75
• Associate salaries: 1st year: $180,000
• 2nd year: $190,000
• Clerking policy: Yes
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 207:
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, Washington University, Yale
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.