Clear Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP

Published April 2011

2011 Vault Ranking: 9


Among the top 10 Vault-ranked firms, Cleary Gottlieb stands out not because of its practice area or relative success, but because it is the only truly international firm among them. Where other firms are essentially New York firms with overseas offices, Cleary has a single integrated international partnership set up. Partners in foreign offices are treated equally to their domestic counterparts.

Cleary was founded in 1946 when six partners (including not-yet-judge Henry Friendly) left the firm that would later become Dewey & LeBoeuf. The firm’s international bent was established very early when it opened an office in Paris in 1949. The firm hired local attorneys and awarded them equal partnership. In anticipation of the formation of the European Community in 1967, the firm opened a Brussels office a few years earlier. Over time, the firm expanded to twelve offices in eight countries, with a total of over 1,000 attorneys.

Today Cleary is an elite corporate firm. Though not as full service as some of its peer firms, and somewhat limited in terms of litigation, it has been a pre-eminent player in the global legal market. Its clients have included multinational corporations and financial institutions and sovereign governments. While Cleary faces stiff competition in the states, it has been praised by domestic and international publications for its work in Latin America, Russia, Europe, and more.

Further, the firm managed to successfully capitalize on the financial crisis. While other industries were crashing down, Cleary continued to be successful as a middleman. The firm increased in revenue 8% in 2008, and profits per partner increased 12%, to $2.4 million. The firm advised the SEC during the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and is currently representing leading financial institutions in litigation arising out of Bernie Madoff’s actions.

Practice Areas

Cleary Gottlieb is a corporate firm through and through. While it does perform some limited litigation in areas related to its primary practice, that is by far the minority. The firm stacks up comparably to the rest of its peers in many of the traditional areas of Wall Street corporate work, including securities, capital markets, and various financial services regulation and enforcement.

What sets Cleary apart is its domination in markets in which American firms traditionally have been underrepresented. In the past three years alone, the firm has received numerous accolades, including “Belgian Law Firm of the Year,” “Global Capital Markets Law Firm of the Year,” “Latin American Law Firm of the Past 20 Years,” “Russian Law Firm of the Year” and more. It was even named “African M&A Adviser of the Year” in 2007 by Acquisitions Monthly. It should come as no surprise that Cleary has represented the world’s number one steel producer during work in Africa, as well as overseeing the largest IPO in Indian history.

Though Cleary’s litigation practice is comparatively limited, it still has a very strong presence in antitrust, securities litigation, and various regulatory areas. This should come as no surprise, given the heavy emphasis on M&A and financing on the corporate side. Though the litigation practice group does not stand on its own, it serves to compliment the strengths of the firm’s main practice area. Though no one will confuse them with Sullivan and Cromwell or Davis Polk, Cleary’s litigation team is still excellent at what they do.

Cleary is ranked by Vault in the top five for Antitrust, Tax, and International work, and the top ten for Securities, M&A, and general corporate practice. Nationally, Cleary has Band 1 or 2 rankings by Chambers and Partners in Antitrust, Capital Markets (various), Corporate/M&A, Employee Benefits, Energy (Mining & Metals), Financial Services Regulation (various), Securities Litigation, Securities Regulation, and Tax.

Summer Program

While every firm talks about personality and fit in hiring, Cleary actually practices what they preach. Though top credentials are still necessary to have a shot, the firm is much more lenient in terms of grades relative to its peer firms. Also, Cleary tends to be more willing to take top students from lower ranked schools than some of highly Vault-ranked firms.

Cleary offers a 12 week summer program in its New York and Washington D.C. offices, and allows summer associates to rotate into one of the ten overseas offices. In 2009, almost half of the 100-plus summer associates served overseas. Summer associates are expected to complete between eleven and fifteen assignments. Summers are thrown in with minimal oversight. While no one is keeping tabs on when associates come and go each day, the work tends to be more demanding that at many peer firms. Summer associates report working long hours and some weekends.

In return for a comparatively more taxing work experience over the summer, associates can attend unlimited attorney lunches at $55 per person (though few summers manage to find the time for more than two a week). Weekly social events include hikes, theater nights, and yacht trips.

The biggest selling points for Cleary: the firm did not defer any 2009 incoming associates. The 2009 summer class had a 99% offer rate, one of the highest in the country that year. Though in 2010 the firm reduced its summer class from 100 to 75, Cleary reportedly plans to restore it to the previous size in 2011.

Compensation and Benefits

Cleary is a classic follower in the New York market, with associate salaries and bonuses on the $160,000 lock step scale. In 2009 and 2010, the firm matched the lower “Cravath-level” bonuses, but in 2011 has matched Sullivan & Cromwell’s additional spring bonus. Notably, during the worst of the financial crisis, the firm did not engage in any salary freezes or cuts.

There is no official minimum billable-hour requirement to receive bonuses. Though the expectation is that associates will bill at least 2000 hours, like most top corporate firms, associates regularly bill far more than that. The firm has a fairly strict face time policy, to the point where Cleary has a formal system stating that first year associates may telecommute one day per month, increasing to two days per month in subsequent years. Weekend work is common, but does not count against the telecommuting total, and is generally done from home.

The firm has a standard four weeks of vacation time and eighteen month maternity leave. Paternity leave is ten paid weeks for a primary caregiver, and five weeks for a secondary caregiver. However a primary caregiver can request unlimited unpaid time off with a guarantee of being able to return to the job. The firm provides a subsidized cafeteria, free gym membership, and free dinners. Though the perks are not extravagant, Cleary has made no cuts to them during the downturn, unlike many peer firms.


Cleary has a single eight-year partnership track. After six years, associates begin to receive feedback about whether they are on track to make partner. Though it is still a very difficult feat to achieve, many more associates at Cleary believe partnership to be a realistic, particularly taxing goal. If an associate fails to achieve partner, there is no firm wide up or out policy. Each senior associate is dealt with on a case-by-case basis.


Cleary attorneys call themselves “quirky” and “unique.” Though still an elite firm, they seem to pride themselves on a self-described “nerdy culture,” distinguishing their firm from the fraternity bravado that seems to permeate some other top shops. Though the firm seems to have an abundance of intellectual academic types, as one would expect in a primarily corporate firm, socializing between attorneys is commonplace.

Overall, the work at Cleary, like at any firm, constitutes painfully long hours for very good pay. The firm distinguishes itself through a relatively unique international focus, as well as hiring policies that place emphasis fit and personality even more so that many of its peers. If your goals lie in cross border transactions, financing in emerging markets, or anything remotely similar, Cleary should be on your list. But make sure that you are more than just a well-written resume and set of credentials.