It pays to be nice: Debevoise gives BigLaw a lesson in how to garner prestige and cultivate an affable culture at the same time.
NEW YORK-founded firms often get tarred with the whole Wolf of Wall Street treatment in the popular imagination, but if there’s one firm that certainly doesn’t fit that mold, then it’s Debevoise & Plimpton: routinely labeled as one of the ‘nicest’ firms in BigLaw, Debevoise is more of the well-mannered and intelligent canine of Wall Street-type than wolf. A labradoodle of Wall Street, if you will (and we mean that in the most flattering way, Debevoise). Graduates of Harvard and Oxford established its pedigree back in 1931, setting a precedent for bringing on board “very bright, academic and intellectual lawyers.” Today, Debevoise’s brainy attorneys maintain ten top rankings in Chambers USA, in areas like transactional and regulatory insurance, private equity fund formation, intellectual property, securities regulation, white-collar crime and corporate-focused media & entertainment work. The firm is also ranked in ‘The Elite’ category for its general commercial litigation and corporate/M&A expertise.
While our sources “liked the idea of going to a firm with strong practice areas,” it was ultimately Debevoise’s famously congenial culture that won them over most. One admitted: “I didn't focus on the firm's market position – it was more about the quality of the people and the work/life balance.” Upon starting, juniors recalled: “The first thing they told us at orientation was 'Don't be a jerk to anyone – the support staff, the cleaning staff. If you’re a terrible human being, we’ll do something about it. Be nice!’” Clearly being nice has paid off for Debevoise: in early 2018 it posted its highest financial results yet, and it currently maintains a network of nine offices spanning North America, Asia and Europe. Its US bases are found in New York and DC, and rumor has it that Debevoise may be moving into the fancy new Hudson Yards development in the Big Apple, joining the likes of Cooley, Milbank and Boies Schiller.
A small handful of first-years join the DC office each year, but the vast majority of Debevoise’s US associates can be found in its New York HQ. The firm’s corporate and litigation practices housed most of the juniors on our list, but a few had joined the tax group. Staffing coordinators assign work based on associates' estimated availability, which is outlined in their weekly reports. Corporate juniors told us that “they at least try to assign the work evenly, even if it doesn’t always work out because of the way deals play out,” while litigators were generally more enthusiastic: “The system works very well. You can indicate subject matter interests to the coordinator, plus the system ensures that one junior isn’t buried in work while another is left searching.”
Incoming corporate juniors enter a rotation system that requires them to join one subgroup for their first year, and another for their second (there are around 10 subgroup options, including M&A, insurance, restructuring, capital markets and leveraged finance). Many interviewees had done a stint in the insurance group where “the backbone of the work is M&A for insurance companies.” Juniors found that “insurance M&A is more nuanced than general M&A, as insurance law is regulated on a state-by-state basis – this means that a far greater level of knowledge is required in order to put together deals.” Regardless of the subgroup, due diligence and general project management make up a large portion of the work for junior associates. One reflected: “My favorite part is the early stage of a deal when we’re trying to get the bid. It's exciting to learn about new companies and to have contact with the partners and clients directly, plus it's much easier to enjoy the more granular work when you have an idea of the big picture.”
Corporate clients: Johnson & Johnson, Time Inc. and Verizon Communications. Recently advised AIG on the $5.6 billion acquisition of the Validus Group – reinsurance, primary insurance and asset management providers
Litigators start as generalists for the first two years, before choosing to specialize if they desire to do so. The four largest subgroups under the wide litigation umbrella (and the ones where our sources had gained the most experience) are commercial litigation, international dispute resolution, intellectual property, and white-collar. On the commercial side, sources reported working with many clients from the insurance and healthcare sectors, while on the international side investment treaty arbitrations and public international law cases had kept juniors busy: “Those types of matters involve corporations, but also governments and NGOs.” Juniors found they were exposed to “a lot of substantive work,” which often started with legal research and moved onto “writing briefs and letters to opposing counsel, preparing presentations for clients, and drafting deposition outlines.” Some had even “been able to second chair a bunch of depositions.” Another litigator described the experience as akin to “being thrown in at the deep end, but having a friend sat on the side of the pool with a noodle you can grab onto – it's easy to seek advice and guidance from midlevels and senior associates. They know what it's like.”
Litigation clients: GlaxoSmithKline, Avilon Automotive Group and Allergan. Recently defended EmblemHealth in a False Claims Act suit.
“We have a reputation for being a nerdy, academic firm, and I think that's true,” a source pondered, mirroring the thoughts of other interviewees. The reported ‘nerdiness’ begins with a three-week-long business education program taught by “professors from Columbia Business School and tutors from another organization, who give us training on basic accounting.” There are subsequent practice group-specific trainings, as well as more general formal sessions tailored especially for second and third years.
“Job security is excellent.”
Juniors can also meet with a career counselor, whom our sources had “talked one-on-one with about what I should be doing in terms of positioning myself at the firm, and about what skills I should be developing.” Both formal and informal advice is on hand, whether from other associates or from a designated partner adviser. One source recalled: “I had lunch with my partner adviser last week and we spoke for an hour and a half about the different rotations I should be considering.” Further down the line, “you start talking about how you’re doing relative to your peers around the fourth year; that will give you a strong signal as to your prospects of making partner.” Others added that they felt “job security is excellent” at Debevoise, and that the firm’s status would stand them in good stead: “This is a well-respected firm, with a reputation for hiring super smart attorneys. I get calls from recruiters…”
“It’s less about looking for someone who wants to be a standout star. We’re thinking ‘Will this person be a valuable team player?’ That’s a crucial part of our culture.” For more recruitment advice, click on the 'Bonus Features' tab above.
Our sources did find that Debevoise’s friendly reputation was grounded in reality, with this interviewee emphasizing that the culture is “very collaborative; people are all very respectful. They treat you as a colleague, but also as a human being – everyone is just really nice and supportive!” But how has the firm maintained this bubble of collegiality in the relentlessly competitive atmosphere of BigLaw? “I think part of it is that it's a lockstep firm; there's not that same level of competition for clients or work, which also means everyone is very willing to help when someone asks a question about a matter they're not otherwise involved in.” In addition, the firm’s legacy plays a part: “Historically there's been an emphasis placed on intellectuality and really digging into problem, which has created that nerdy culture.” With space and time to think without the pressures of hard billable goals and merit-based compensation, our sources were glad to find that Debevoise “isn’t hierarchical – the team aspect of every matter is really hammered home.”
“Historically there's been an emphasis placed on intellectuality.”
Another aspect hammered home was the ability to actually go home. Juniors felt the firm was pretty “family-friendly,” with one source explaining: “You see it in casual things, like occasions where both male and female partners will say they're going to be out of office because they have their kids' little league game. There's no pressure to skirt important family responsibilities here.” As a result, “the people here are very multidimensional – they have lives outside of work, and the firm expects us all to have lives outside of work.” This approach was felt to have boosted Debevoise’s gender diversity efforts, with this source explaining: “There are quite a few women partners and counsel who either work part-time, or have done so previously.”
Hours & Compensation
There's no hard billing target at Debevoise, though associates “generally understand that hitting around 2,000 hours is about right.” If associates don’t reach that soft target, sources noted that “the firm usually views it more as a staffing issue, like not giving you enough substantive work, as opposed to an issue at your end.” Most sources reported getting in between 9am and 10am, and finishing anywhere between 6pm and 8pm. At busier times, litigators highlighted that trials and filings can keep them working until “midnight or later,” while corporate sources had had their share of “midnights, 2ams, 5ams… that’s the nature of the beast.” However, juniors emphasized that “when the hours do get tough, you're not the only person here. The whole team is usually pulling the same hours – we're all in it together. We order dinner and can get cars home.”
“The whole team is usually pulling the same hours.”
“We were one of the first firms to match the recent salary increase,” sources highlighted. “It's nice to feel like the firm values you and feels comfortable increasing your pay.” As mentioned, the firm has a lockstep compensation structure, and regardless of billable hours every associate in the same year will receive the same Cravath-scale bonus (as long as they are in overall 'good standing' with the firm). “It incentivizes people not to hoard work for boosting their billables. The focus is on getting the work done well rather than it being a competition.” Another interviewee was pleased to announce that Debevoise “isn’t like some firms where if you don’t hit the target then you don’t get a bonus.”
One source felt that Debevoise's approach to pro bono “really signals how much they value it here.” Another interviewee was full of praise: “I've been able to take on pro bono matters that were exactly tailored to what I wanted. Within weeks of starting we meet one-on-one with one of the firm's counsel [who devotes time to pro bono] to sit and talk about our interests.” Another added: “One of my colleagues is gay and has taken on litigation work for gay asylum seekers, while another colleague has a background in art and does a lot of work for arty nonprofits.” Juniors had been involved in everything from clemency projects with the NACDL [the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers] to domestic violence matters and student debt relief issues.
Pro bono hours
- For all US attorneys: 58,675
- Average per US attorney: 108.7
Diversity & Inclusion
Debevoise has been a strong performer in D&I lately. “Our efforts with women have been more successful,” interviewees reflected, adding: “Our Women's Resource Group is pretty excellent.” The group runs regular events (usually monthly) where lawyers can talk about issues that affect female attorneys, which female sources praised as “really helpful – they make you feel supported.” There's also a Women's Review website that gives female attorneys encouragement and space “to write articles on topics of interest.”
“It knows it can’t talk the talk without walking the walk.”
Some sources mentioned attending “trainings on implicit bias and how to fight it,” though overall they felt that “diversity and inclusion training could still use some work.” Despite identifying room for improvement, many credited Debevoise for its willingness to make the situation better and for its awareness of “the need to reflect what our clients look like and what New York looks like. It knows it can’t talk the talk without walking the walk.”
Strategy & Future
"As a firm we have been growing faster than the market for the past couple of years," says presiding partner Michael Blair. "Our newer priority industry groups in healthcare, TMT and banking have all been strong drivers of growth during this period, as have private equity and insurance." With the future in mind, Blair adds that the firm will "continue to reinforce and grow our market-leading practices and industry groups, in alignment with our clients’ evolving and most pressing needs. Wherever possible we will leverage our culture of collaboration to bring multiple areas of strength to bear on complex projects, to differentiate our offering and serve our clients well." For more from Blair, click the 'Bonus Features' tab above.
The first stage: recruitment on and off campus
OCI applicants interviewed: Undisclosed
Interviewees outside OCI: Undisclosed
Debevoise & Plimpton conducts OCIs at over 25 law schools, and resume collections at others. The firm is also open to write-in applications. OCIs are usually conducted by partners and alumni of the particular school, although there are exceptions. There are also hospitality suites at most schools, hosted by more junior attorneys.
At this point, the firm is looking for “students who understand this business and have a strong work ethic.” In particular, director of legal recruiting Sandra Herbst says the firm looks for “people who are great problem solvers – our clients come to us with their toughest matters. In order to excel here you have to want to tackle those tough matters and get your hands dirty.”
Top tips for this stage:
“Students should do their homework on us – things like knowing how to say the name of the firm, knowing the practice areas the firm has, the offices, and knowing details on the firm.” – hiring partner Nicole Levin Mesard.
Applicants invited to second stage interview: Undisclosed
Callbacks are usually either a morning or afternoon session. The candidate will do three interviews, typically with partners or counsel. At this stage, the questions will be “more in-depth.” Herbst explains “we want to see if they can demonstrate the ability to be a team player, if they’ll be able to work on the toughest matters, and whether they have the stamina to get through it. Some candidates come in and dazzle, but then towards the end of the interview process they’re tired and it shows. Being a lawyer at a big law firm is a marathon, not a sprint.” The morning sessions are followed by lunch, while the afternoon sessions are followed by coffee – these are with more junior members of the firm to give candidates “different perspectives on the firm.”
During Debevoise’s summer program, summers get the chance to work on real matters with associates, counsel and partners. “We want them to meet our different lawyers, get to know them, and let the lawyers get to know the summers.” There are no formal rotations, and summers can work in one or as many areas as they like. Plus, summers also have the opportunity to work on at least one pro bono assignment. Summers also get feedback at mid-summer and end-of-summer reviews.
Top tips for this stage:
“Take it seriously. We want to see that they are committed to being here and are going to work hard. We want summer associates to really understand what it means to be a Debevoise lawyer.” – hiring partner Nicole Levin Mesard.
Interview with presiding partner Michael Blair
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
919 Third Avenue,
- Head Office: New York, NY
- Number of domestic offices: 2
- Number of international offices: 7
- Worldwide revenue: $929,300,974
- Partners (US): 101
- Associates (US): 364
- Main recruitment contact: Sandra Herbst
- Hiring partner: Nicole Mesard
- Diversity officer: Rachel Simmonds-Watson (Diversity Manager)
- Recruitment details
- Entry-level associates starting in 2019: 85
- Clerking policy: Yes
- Summers joining/anticipated 2019: 84 (excluding SEOs and returnees)
- Summers joining/anticipated 2019 split by office: NY: 82, DC: 2
- Summer salary 2019: 2Ls: $3,700/week
- Split summers offered? Yes
- Can summers spend time in an overseas office? Yes
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.
Law Schools attending for OCIs in 2019:
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, 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.
Recruitment website: www.debevoise.com
This Firm's Rankings in
USA Guide, 2019
- Antitrust Recognised Practitioner
- Bankruptcy/Restructuring (Band 4)
- 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)
- 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)
- Capital Markets: Equity: Issuer Representation (Band 3)
- Corporate Crime & Investigations (Band 1)
- Corporate/M&A: The Elite (Band 3)
- Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation (Band 3)
- 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 3)
- 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)
- Privacy & Data Security (Band 3)
- Private Equity: Buyouts (Band 3)
- Projects: PPP (Band 3)
- Real Estate (Band 4)
- Securities: Litigation (Band 4)
- Securities: Regulation (Band 1)
- Tax: Corporate & Finance (Band 2)
- Transportation: Aviation: Finance (Band 3)