Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
Published April 2011
2011 Vault Ranking: 13
Debevoise & Plimpton is a full service New York-based firm, with a relatively balanced array of practice groups. Well known for its strong M&A and corporate practice which makes up the bulk of the firm, Debevoise also has a solid litigation group that has multiple Supreme Court appearances under its belt. The firm has over seven hundred attorneys spread across eight offices in seven countries, but the vast majority of the firm’s attorneys, well over five hundred, work out of the New York headquarters.
The firm has a rich history, dating back to 1931. The firm was founded by Eli Whitney Debevoise, a direct descendant of the inventor of the cotton gin, and William E. Stevenson, an Olympic gold medalist and future United States Ambassador, as well as a relative of Adlai Stevenson. Starting with the opening of a Paris office in 1964, the firm began expanding overseas. However, ultimately these are satellite offices of a primarily New York firm.
The firm has received a number of accolades for its work beyond the halls of corporate America. In 2007, the firm received the Southern Center for Human Rights Frederick Douglass Human Rights Award and the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association Beacon of Justice Award. The firm has represented a number of notable pro bono clients covering a diverse range of interests. Debevoise attorneys represented black and Hispanic sheet metal workers subject to discriminatory practices by their labor union, Mexican nationals on death row in the United States, Guantanamo detainees, and a number of asylum-seekers from around the world. Debevoise is ranked by Vault as the #1 firm for pro bono.
The firm may also be familiar to those who have no connection to the legal world, but happen to be fans of political drama. In the acclaimed television show The West Wing, the father of Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman is a partner at Debevoise. Also an assistant attorney general in the show was a summer associate for the firm, while a prospective White House counsel candidate was coming from a position with Debevoise.
Debevoise has a diverse practice that has represented numerous large corporations and financial institutions in a variety of industries. Current and past clients have included major airlines, financial institutions such as JPMorgan Chase and Prudential Financial, media clients such as The New York Times Company and SONY, and more.
The largest practice group within the firm is the corporate department. Debevoise’s corporate department runs the gamut of everything you would expect from a full service New York firm. It includes strong showings in mergers and acquisitions, private equity, structured finance and more. The group has been involved in such mega deals as the $28 billion acquisition of Alltel by Verizon and the $26 billion merger between Phelps Dodge and McRoRan.
The litigation group at Debevoise is co-chaired by Mary Jo White, former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The department includes another former US Attorney and a Chief Judge of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, as well as ten former assistant US Attorneys and a former Associate Director of the Enforcement Division of the SEC. The group is more than capable of handling a broad range of complex matters. It recently was in the news when it represented a number of publishers and the Association of American Publishers in a lawsuit against Google challenging its practice of digitizing books from US libraries. The firm also represented Occidental Exploration and Production Company in a dispute with the country of Ecuador and its national oil company, Petroecuador.
Debevoise is ranked by Vault in the top five for White Collar Defense and top ten for Private Equity. It holds top twenty rankings for Securities, Securities Litigation, and General Commercial Litigation.
Nationally, Debevoise has Band 1 or 2 rankings by Chambers and Partners in Advertising Litigation, Corporate/M&A, Financial Services Regulation, Insurance, Intellectual Property (trademark, copyright, & trade secrets), International Arbitration, Private Equity, Securities Regulation, Sports Law, and Tax. The firm is ranked in Band 1 or 2 in New York in General Commercial Litigation, White Collar Crime, and Media & Entertainment.
Like many top firms, Debevoise is firm in foremost looking for top academic credentials. It comes as no surprise that most of their attorneys are from top schools. The firm targets people who have shown they can handle multiple tasks, usually evinced by journal experience, extracurricular activities, and leadership experiences. The firm favors intellectuals who won’t need hand holding and who are ambitious and focused.
If you make the cut, you can look forward to a fairly standard twelve-week summer program in either the New York or Washington, D.C. office. Summer associates may have the opportunity to spend several weeks in one of the firm’s international offices as well. Work is assigned by a coordinator, though associates are encouraged to work on projects in practice areas of most interest to them. While the work can be interesting and challenging, as with most summer programs, much of it is low importance or priority. Summers report they typically bill around five hours a day, and are out of the office by 6:30 PM. Summer associates can attend unlimited attorney lunches, and there are two outside social events each week.
Of interest, Debevoise increased the size of their summer class from 68 to 104 in 2009, though it is unclear how much of that was by accident due to far more people accepting offers than in previous years. Though the firm still made offers to 99% of the 2009 summer class, the 2010 summer class was reduced to only 51 associates.
Compensation and Benefits
Salary is based on the standard lockstep system in New York, beginning at $160,000. Bonuses are not tied to billable hours. The firm is a follower in terms of bonus amounts, but has consistently matched the market leaders, including the 2011 spring bonuses. Throughout the downturn, the firm has not frozen salaries.
The firm has no official billable hour requirement, but the general expectation is that associates will bill between 1,800 and 2,100 hours. More importantly to some, the firm puts strong emphasis on their pro bono work, and there is no limit to the number of pro bono hours associates are permitted to work. All such hours are fully credited towards billables and bonuses. Debevoise has no face time requirements as long as the work is getting done. Associates receive four weeks of vacation, which most associates use. Partners tend to respect associate vacation time, though admittedly the meaning of those words in the context of a big New York firm may be different than in other industries.
Other benefits include an in-house cafeteria, subsidized gym membership, client development allowance, emergency childcare, and a $2,000 technology stipend.
The partnership track averages seven to nine years to eligibility. Partnership is viewed by associates as very difficult to achieve simply due to the small number of associates promoted each year, but it is an achievable goal. Debevoise actively encourages women and minorities to strive for partnership, but some believe that some such associates self-select out of the partnership process.
Debevoise, either intentionally or not, has crafted a culture that favors polite intellectualism. Where at many firms the focus is just on getting the job done, many Debevoise attorneys pride themselves on intellectual curiosity and the grander pursuit of law. Associates are more likely to discuss a large deal or litigation matter in terms of how interesting it is, rather than merely the number of zeroes on the checks.
The firm is often described as gentle or polite. Though the work is just as demanding and stressful as any other large firm, people tend to deal with the stress themselves rather than inflict it on others. This attitude carries through in other areas as well. While the firm does have occasional cocktail hours and a softball team, people at Debevoise are likely to prefer to have their life outside of the firm, rather than constantly socialize with their coworkers.
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