“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 the £1.2 billion buyout of petrol station operator MRH and the similarly sized sale of insurance firm Esure. For light relief, the New York outfit weighed in on the Supreme Court’s landmark decision about Northern Ireland’s abortion laws earlier this year.
Human rights appeals don’t represent a typical day at the office, needless to say. Core business in the London office of this American-headquarter outfit are the likes of private equity, insurance, M&A, finance and tax. Seven of the firm’s 24 UK partners focus on dispute resolution, skippered by former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith — small 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 bribery and corruption, representing Russian oil giant Tatneft at the Court of Appeal and now taking on property tycoon Robert Tchenguiz from 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 — 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, 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. Profit per equity partner was $2.8 million (£2.14 million) last year, with UK revenue up 5% following a dip the year before.
As with all megabucks American 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 than that miss out on all my social commitments”.
Debevoise “places a big emphasis on hiring trainees who get along”, one new arrival says, and with just eight recruits a year the intakes are tight-knit. New starters say they learn a lot, but all say that they’re “expected to learn by doing”, with “traditionally very little formal, structured training”. The changes of getting some pearls of wisdom from partners “varies wildly”, though.
The firm advises that it “recruits predominately from vacation scheme students”, so trainees are encouraged to apply for that rather than pitching for a training contract directly. It doesn’t seem to publish retention rates, saying only that they’re “consistently high” (and sudden departures aren’t unknown).
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”. The canteen, meanwhile, is decent for the size of the office (around 100 lawyers). Our insiders spent a month in New York, and trainees “may also have the opportunity to spend some time in the Moscow and Hong Kong offices”, according to the firm.