The extraordinarily genteel men and women of Debevoise & Plimpton sit pretty at the top of New York’s legal scene.
IF you’re looking for a law firm that values sharp minds over sharp elbows, you’ve probably hit the jackpot with Debevoise & Plimpton. With a reputation for polite partners and prestigious practices, you’d be forgiven for thinking of Debevoise as ‘white-shoe’. They're putting their best foot forward when it comes to broadening their horizons, however, and the firm opened a new office in Tokyo in 2016. This established New York firm has a history dating back to the thrifty 30s, when it was founded by graduates from Harvard Law School and Oxford University. The firm now has some impressive alumni of its own including the 31st chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission Mary Jo White and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
Debevoise gets top marks from Chambers USA for the private equity practice on which it was built, and it also has top-ranking white-collar crime, intellectual property, insurance, arbitration and media & entertainment practices. While Debevoise has seven international offices and a small base in DC, New York is by far the largest office, home to two-thirds of the firm's lawyers.
Most first-years head to the firm’s New York office, although a handful go to DC each year. Most are in either corporate or litigation, with a few in tax & employee benefits. There are staffing coordinators who look at associates’ individual hours and assign work accordingly. “I really appreciate the staffing coordinators,” one associate told us. “It’s nice to know there’s someone watching out for you.”
"It was great to be able to take advantage of our offices in Frankfurt, London and Tokyo."
Corporate associates rotate between two different subgroups and then have to decide at the start of their third year whether they want to stick with one of the two they’ve tried or move into a new one. There are 20 practices to choose from, and options include M&A, real estate, capital markets, leveraged finance, private equity, investment funds and insurance. One corporate rookie told us: “As a junior a lot of what I do is due diligence. I’ve also assisted with plenty of main documents like purchase agreements as well as ancillary documents.” Another junior said: “I’ve been working on drafting a private placement memorandum as well as reviewing subscription materials for fund maintenance.” Others mentioned the international element of some of the work in corporate: “On one matter we were dealing with local counsel in over 20 jurisdictions.” The same source added: “When you’re dealing with different antitrust laws and national legislation it’s important to have good local counsel. It was great to be able to take advantage of our offices in Frankfurt, London and Tokyo.”
Most of the juniors we spoke to said that client contact gradually increases as time passes and usually takes the form of emails, which are initially proofread by someone more senior before they're sent. “They don’t give you more responsibility than you can handle,” asserted one interviewee. “I’ve run a few negotiations myself and I’ve been able to run pitch meetings for new work.Partners call you out if you don’t speak up on a call, so you’re always encouraged to get involved.”
In litigation the first few assignments come from a staffing coordinator, but “there’s also a free-market approach if you want to reach out and look for work yourself.” A rookie litigator told us: “I’ve done some of the dreaded document review but I've mostly done research and drafted motions, letters and court and filings, and attended depositions and witness interviews.” Juniors also prepare presentations, draft temporary restraining orders, compose motions for summary judgment and email clients.
Over in tax, newbies told us: “Even though we just do tax you get to work on a variety of matters. People basically come to us for anything involving numbers. We specialize in funds and private equity bodies, and I’ve worked on both the sponsor and the investor side.” Another said: “We really cover all areas, from disclosures and partnership agreements to side letters. I’ve also worked on a bunch of M&A deals, insurance matters and capital markets transactions, as well as general financing and credit agreements.” Basically, juniors said, “tax attorneys are in charge of making sure waterfall and economic provisions actually work.”
Training & Development
Associates’ first three weeks at Debevoise are spent in New York attending a mini-MBA course which features teaching by lecturers brought in from Columbia Business School. “It’s good to get that foundation and insight into the bigger picture," a junior reflected. "You also get to learn business accounting and administration skills.” While some juniors said that they found the initial training “a bit general,” most were pleased to tell us that the day-to-day feedback system had seen improvement. “Recently the system’s been formalized more," one junior reported, "although I’ve noticed during rotations that some groups are better than others.” Another source added: “Recently associates requested mid-level training in tax and they’re doing that now.”
“People definitely don’t shy away from giving feedback, but it’s always in true Debevoise fashion," smiled one junior. "The meanest thing anyone will say is that something could have been done better.” As a result, some said, “occasionally things can feel passive aggressive because people are so eager to avoid confrontation.” But sources agreed: “On balance I definitely appreciate that that’s the culture here, rather than the place being full of yellers.” Associates also get access to a partner and an associate mentor.
“The firm’s really committed to developing its junior associates into great attorneys,” associates agreed. "This is definitely somewhere that lets you build your own career."
When it comes to culture, associates sang Debevoise’s praises. “When I was researching the difference between high-ranking law firms it really came down to culture,” one Debevoise junior said. “I knew I wanted to be somewhere that had earned a great reputation without being cut-throat.”
"There’s a culture of saying ‘thank you’ for research."
In keeping with the firm’s reputation for impeccable manners, one junior said: “I’ve been here for two years and I still haven’t found a single mean person. Everyone’s nerdy – in a good way – and I’ve never been left without help. The partners are all really passionate about what they do.” Another added: “I like coming to work every day; people are always grateful for the work you put in and there’s a culture of saying ‘thank you’ for research, which goes a long way when you’re a junior.”
“I work with people beyond my practice group on a daily basis,” associates told us. “Our culture is based on collaboration, and clients are definitely paying for the firm as a whole when they choose us.” When it comes to getting the firm together outside of work juniors told us: “There are a lot of firm-wide events: diversity speaker series and guest judge talks which everyone’s invited to attend. You’re also kept in the loop with emails and messages from the presiding partner.” There’s also an annual summer party at Central Park Zoo, and lawyers are encouraged to bring their families and plus-ones along.
Aside from the more formal events, we heard about bi-monthly happy hours and monthly lunches for individual groups. “Most of the time they’re well attended but it’s really up to you," a junior said. "You’re able to pick and choose events without ever feeling pressured. You’re definitely allowed to maintain a life outside work.”
Hours & Compensation
“There’s a soft billing target of around 2,000 hours, but nobody’s going to be upset if you don’t meet that,” juniors said. They praised the staffing system for associates again when it came to cutting stress levels at work: “Ultimately it’s the firms’ job to bring in billable work, so if there are slow times it’s generally down to the state of the market. Nobody is under the impression that it’s their job to create work out of nowhere.”
"The time management you learn to do is kind of scary."
When asked about hours, juniors said: “When you work for a BigLaw firm you know what you’ve signed up for, and there have definitely been some busy times.” One source told us: "You have to work to maintain balance in the hours you do. You learn little tricks to maximize the time you have for yourself – the time management you learn to do is kind of scary." Associates did feel that because the bonus is lockstep there’s less pressure to rack up the hours. “The firm makes a solid effort to respect people’s personal schedules and vacations.”
Debevoise counts pro bono work as part of billable hours, and in 2016, 98% of US associates did pro bono. “The firm helped me to bring in some work I was passionate about,” one associate told us. “I thought there would be a lot more red tape involved in getting into my field of interest, so getting to work with the client I wanted was really fantastic.”
“The firm helped me to bring in some work I was passionate about."
The firm recommends attorneys do 50 hours of pro bono a year, but most associates we spoke to had totaled more. A junior noted: “It’s generally harder to get corporate than litigation pro bono but the firm makes a big effort to get me relevant work.” Associates can get involved in immigration cases, funds-related work for non-profits and civil rights matters, among other things.
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 51,788
- Average per US attorney: 102
In addition to the regular mentor program at Debevoise, members of under-represented groups like ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ individuals get a mentor on the diversity committee. “They check you’re getting the work you want as well as the training you need, and they make sure you’re getting challenged enough,” we heard.
There’s also a Women’s Resource Group. “It’s really fantastic," a junior said. "There are ‘Ask a partner anything’ lunches and events – we also go to SoulCycle together and hang out regularly.” Other sources told us: “For diversity more generally we have all sorts of initiatives across the firm. There are speakers at least once a month and other programs. It’s clear the firm takes a lot of pride in it.”
Juniors in New York told us that the midtown office is coming up to the end of its current lease, but said: “I honestly can’t see us moving. The thought of moving all that paperwork makes me anxious!” As a junior you get to choose between having your own internal office or sharing with a buddy in an office with a window. “The views are amazing and the offices are very spacious with closets for spare shoes and things,” juniors reported. They added: “The firm recently upgraded the office tech, plus you get a $1,500 allowance for things like phones and iPads every couple of years.” Interviewees said that the firm was undergoing a general push “to be at the cutting edge of technology.” There’s also “a ton” of secretarial and paralegal support available, and associates praised the proofreading service which is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Each corporate group has its own assistant and document production office, and litigators have help with technical filings.
“The firm recently upgraded the office tech."
None of our interviewees had been on client secondments or international placements, but we were told that spells in the firm’s London and Tokyo offices are possible, particularly in corporate, and we heard about some associates jetting off to Moscow. Juniors in tax told us: “We have weekly conference calls with tax departments around the world to keep everybody up to date.”
Strategy & Future
Associates told us: “Although we are constantly adapting and becoming more flexible, the core of who we are remains the same.” Others said: “We’re very well positioned in the market. Job security isn’t something to worry about here.” Juniors also mentioned the forays that the firm’s been taking into new technologies, for example its growing interest in blockchain and fintech. “We’re pushing to make sure we’re on top of the latest developments,” interviewees told us.
“I spent my interview talking about my ideas and things I’d written, rather than my classes and grades,” one junior recalled. “Debevoise is looking for smart, decent people who are genuinely interested in what they’re doing and who will think through problems creatively.” When it comes to picking between firms, “it’s important to look past the summer experience when you’re looking at firms," juniors said. "Everywhere is going to be fun, but you need to decide if a firm is going to be somewhere where you’ll be happy day to day as an associate.” Another source added: “There’s nothing worse than someone who hasn’t done their research on us. Speaking to people who work at a firm is a great way to learn more about its culture.” Finally, juniors advised applicants to “always be honest with yourself about what you want to do because you’re going to be working a lot, and you don’t want to be spending that time doing something you don’t enjoy.”
OCI applicants interviewed: 1,070
Interviewees outside OCI: 86
Applicants invited to 2nd stage interview: 474
Notable summer events: The summer experience is meant to be fun and engaging, in addition to providing a challenging learning experience. Organized social events introduce summer associates to New York, to each other and to lawyers within the firm. These include dinners hosted by partners in their homes, sporting and cultural events, and pro bono benefits and activities. For example, summer associates have attended associate receptions, our annual event at the Central Park Zoo, Shakespeare in the Park, bowling events, and cooking classes. They also had the opportunity to organize two events of their own choosing.
Interview with hiring partner Nicole Mesard and director of recruiting Sandra Herbst
CA: Have there been any changes to the scope of your recruitment drive?
Sandra Herbst: We’ve continued to go to the same schools we’ve historically gone to. Over the last two years we’ve added more 1L events, sponsorships and outreach activities. We’ve also held various receptions and panels at schools on what it’s like to be a Debevoise lawyer.
Nicole Mesard: We’ve increased our presence at schools over the last couple of years. There are a number of partners who are adjunct professors, including myself at Columbia.
CA: How would you describe the ideal Debevoise junior associate?
SH: We want people with leadership skills and people who are enthusiastic about the work that we do. It’s not an easy job and if you don’t love what you do it becomes much more difficult. We’re also looking for people who will work well within our culture, as our environment is incredibly important to us. The key attributes we look for include intellectual curiosity, hard work and the fact that everyone respects each other and works in a collaborative way at all times.
CA: What does Debevoise do to encourage diversity in recruiting?
SH: There are a number of initiatives here that we are incredibly proud of. Our most recent recruiting pool was 47% diverse and in 2016 53% of US associates were women. In addition, 39% of Debevoise lawyers promoted to partnership since 2008 have been women. There’s a real commitment in recruiting to get strong diverse candidates through events and different outreach programs. We ensure that all associates, including diverse associates, have the resources they need to be successful, and we’re very fortunate that we have attracted lawyers from a range of backgrounds.
Recruitment is only one part, however. The other part is retention. One of our programs is an accelerated mentoring program, whereby associates of color work with partners on the diversity committee to get them involved with as many opportunities as possible. There’s also an active sponsorship program that ensures associates get access to the right prospects of becoming a partner.
CA: What sets Debevoise apart from other law firms?
NM: We have an amazing mini-MBA program in associates’ first three weeks. It’s a great bonding experience for associates and the course is taught by experts from the Columbia Business School. In addition, every morning we have an event called 'Juice of the Journal,' at which a partner talks about an article from The Wall Street Journal and how it has helped them think about clients’ businesses and new ways to tackle problems.
CA: What advice would you give someone in preparation for an interview at Debevoise?
SH: Make sure you can talk about what’s on your resume. Expect the unexpected: you’ll be meeting some of the smartest people imaginable and they don’t have a set script or set of questions, so be prepared to talk about pretty much anything.
Notable pro bono opportunities: This year, with Volunteers of Legal Services [VOLS], we have staffed a monthly clinic for parents of the students at KIPP Academy, a charter school in a low income area in the Bronx. Every month, Debevoise lawyers from across the firm have been available to answer questions, file immigration applications, negotiate with a landlord or employer, and call government agencies on behalf of the parents. This year, we were joined by lawyers from our client Societe Generale, expanding the number of parents we can assist and the number of lawyers involved in the community.
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
919 Third Avenue,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 2
- Number of international offices: 7
- Worldwide revenue: $822 million
- Partners (US): 134
- Associates (US): 417
- Main recruitment contact: Sandra Herbst
- Hiring partner: Nicole Mesard
- Diversity officer: Rachel Simmonds- Watson (Diversity Manager)
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2018: 75
- Clerking policy: Yes
- Summers joining/anticipated 2018: 95 (excluding SEOs and returnees)
- Summers joining/anticipated 2018 split by office: NY: 93, DC: 2
- Summer salary 2018: 2Ls: $ 3,700/week
- Split summers offered? Yes
- Can summers spend time in an overseas office? Yes
Main areas of work
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, 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
Recruitment outside OCIs:
We conduct resume collections at many schools for which we are not able to attend their on campus interviews.
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.
This Firm's Rankings in
Chambers USA Guide 2017
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 5)
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 3)
- Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 2)
- Environment: Mainly Transactional (Band 3)
- Healthcare Recognised Practitioner
- Insurance: Dispute Resolution: Insurer (Band 4)
- Insurance: Transactional & Regulatory (Band 1)
- Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets (Band 1)
- Latin American Investment (Band 5)
- Litigation: General Commercial: The Elite (Band 2)
- Litigation: Securities (Band 3)
- Litigation: White-Collar Crime & Government Investigations (Band 1)
- Media & Entertainment: Corporate (Band 1)
- Real Estate: Mainly Corporate & Finance (Band 3)
- Real Estate: Mainly Dirt Recognised Practitioner
- Tax (Band 2)
USA - Nationwide
- Banking & Finance (Band 2)
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 5)
- Capital Markets: Debt & Equity (Band 3)
- Corporate Crime & Investigations (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 3)
- Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 4)
- FCPA (Band 2)
- Financial Services Regulation: Banking (Compliance) (Band 3)
- Financial Services Regulation: Banking (Enforcement & Investigations) (Band 3)
- Financial Services Regulation: Financial Institutions M&A (Band 2)
- Insurance: Transactional & Regulatory (Band 1)
- Intellectual Property: Trademark, Copyright & Trade Secrets (Band 1)
- International Arbitration (Band 1)
- Investment Funds: Private Equity: Fund Formation (Band 1)
- Private Equity: Buyouts (Band 3)
- Projects: PPP (Band 2)
- Real Estate (Band 4)
- Securities: Litigation (Band 4)
- Securities: Regulation (Band 1)
- Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 2)
- Transportation: Aviation: Finance (Band 3)