“It’s pretty cool”, one Debevoise & Plimpton trainee reflects, “seeing deals in the news and knowing that it’s something I’ve been working on”. Recent Debevoise-flavoured transactions in the business pages include multi-billion dollar mergers tying up Discovery and WarnerMedia, and also Liberty Broadband and CGI Liberty. Just your normal day for Debevoise lawyers, with the average deal size in 2020/21 sitting at around $2.4 billion (£1.4 billion). For light relief, the New York outfit has also been known to act in UK Supreme Court cases such as the landmark decision about Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.
Human rights appeals don’t represent a typical day at the office, needless to say. Core business in the London office of this American-headquartered firm are the likes of private equity, insurance, M&A, finance and tax. Ten of the firm’s 25 UK partners focus on dispute resolution, skippered by former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith QC — little wonder that they boast of an “advocacy-led approach” to arbitration and litigation.
High-profile London litigation includes advising Rolls-Royce on a £500 million agreement with the Serious Fraud Office in lieu of prosecution for alleged bribery and corruption, representing Russian oil giant Tatneft at the Court of Appeal and taking on property tycoon Robert Tchenguiz as a client from City law firm Stephenson Harwood. This is “big money commercial litigation work”, as one Debevoise insider puts it.
Debevoise was founded in the Big Apple in 1931 and still boasts of its “strong New York roots”, while insisting that the London office “has its own voice and culture”. The firm’s name, incidentally, isn’t Frenchified as some might think — it rhymes with “noise”, like Theydon Bois on the Central Line. Grads who make it at Debevoise won’t need to consider living that far out ever again: with trainee salaries starting at £50,000 and NQ wages rising to £143,700, this is one of the highest-earning gigs in legal London. Pay packets are increased in “lockstep” with other lawyers in the same qualifying year, and at the giddy heights of partnership the money positively cascades in. Firmwide, Debevoise is in good financial shape. City revenue rose 12% to $170 million (£143 million) over the last financial year while global revenue rocketed 16.7% to $1.22 billion (£1.03 billion).
As with all megabucks US outfits, you lose in downtime what you gain in filthy lucre. The hours as part of the fabled litigation team “can be absolutely brutal” (and that seat is mandatory). “It’s never going to be a 9-6 (or even 7) job”, warns one insider, but you might at least get some flexibility: “the general attitude in my team is super laidback — come in when you want, if you want to do something in the evenings, that’s fine — so long as the work gets done. It does sometimes mean getting to a dinner and working afterwards until quite late, but I’d rather that than miss out on all my social commitments”.
The rise in home-working has only “blurred work/ life boundaries”. As one trainee remarked: “the culture of the firm requires you to be extremely responsive, and so there are fewer safe evenings and weekends compared to when we were in the office”. However, the shift to remote working is said to have been “on the whole very good”, though there were some complaints that Debevoise’s legal tech needed updating.
Unsurprisingly, training at Debevoise adheres to the norms of a US firm. “While there is no formal training, supervisors and other lawyers are almost always available to take the time to explain things thoroughly,” explains one rookie. “Realistically, the lack of formal training is a blessing.” Moreover, insiders report that senior colleagues are always available for support: “Debevoise has an open door policy, meaning everyone should feel comfortable walking into other people’s rooms (at an appropriate time) and asking for support. This principle is practiced well – I have never felt awkward or uncomfortable approaching my superiors, even the most senior partners.”
The right to more interesting work, however, has to be earnt, with one newbie explaining: “You get a lot of responsibility early on once you’re trusted”. But trainees who make the grade have enjoyed “client work for major British and American private equity sponsors”. That said, the lack of paralegals in some departments means “you can get stuck doing long administrative jobs”. On balance though, rookies consider it a good deal, with one summarising, “while there is some routine work to do as a trainee, it’s worth it for the work you get to do on a fast-moving transaction”.
Debevoise “places a big emphasis on hiring trainees who get along”, one new arrival says, and small intakes mean the trainees are tight-knit. The firm advises that it “recruits all of its trainees from vacation scheme students”, so trainees are encouraged to apply for that as the firm doesn’t accept direct training contract applications. It doesn’t appear to publish retention rates, saying only that they’re “consistently high”.
Perks include a “tech allowance to buy a laptop or tablet”. That comes in handy, as the kit in the office — not open plan, in case you were wondering — is nothing to brag about: “Monitors are great, but desk phones and software are ancient”. Good Deliveroo allowances and virtual social events have, however, raised morale amongst the trainee ranks during the pandemic. Back in 65 Gresham Street, the canteen is said to be decent for the size of the office (around 130 lawyers).
International secondments are typically a strong point, with not far off half of trainees doing one in normal times. Over the past few years, trainees spent time in New York, as well the firm’s Moscow and Hong Kong offices. It’s also worth noting that all trainees usually travel to Debevoise HQ in New York for three weeks at the beginning of their second year.