“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 advising Constellation Insurance on its $10 billion block reinsurance transaction with Prudential and working with Deutsche Bank as financial adviser to Signify Health in its $8 billion sale to CVS Health. 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. Debevoise is also one of a number of firms to lend its lawyers to the Domestic Abuse Response Alliance (DARA), a free legal advice service to help survivors of domestic abuse secure protective injunctions.
Human rights and restraining orders 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. Co-headed by former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith KC and tax heavyweight Richard Ward, the 29-partner strong office is the firm’s second largest. A good chunk of the London partners are dual-qualified in both the US and UK, presenting an exciting training opportunity for rookies.
High-profile litigation includes securing one of the first trademark infringement injunctions against a crypto token, assisting GoDaddy on the acquisition of important domain extensions, and representing Victor Pisante in a successful deceit claim in the High Court. Other notable cases in recent years are advising Rolls-Royce on a £500 million agreement with the Serious Fraud Office concerning alleged bribery and corruption and a leniency agreement concerning the same claims negotiated with Brazil’s Office of the Comptroller General. This is “big money commercial litigation work”, as one Debevoise insider puts it.
Globally, Debevoise hosts nine offices across the US, Europe and Asia. Two further offices — in Tokyo and Moscow — were shut in 2021 and 2022, the former following an evaluation of client needs and the latter in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These closures have been countered by the launch of an office in San Francisco, from which the firm services an increasing number of tech company clients based in the region.
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 £55,000 and NQ wages rising to a recently improved £160,500, 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.
The firm’s latest financial results, taken in isolation, may paint a negative picture. But don’t be fooled – the numbers remain impressive. While profit per equity partner (PEP) dipped 12% to $4.4 million (£3.5 million), this seven-figure sum remains double that of some Magic Circle partners and follows a solid 10% uptick in 2021. Overall, the net income was down nearly 8% to $660 million (£520 million), while City revenues also dropped from $172 million (£135 million) to $163 million (£128 million) – a blip on the office’s recent success which saw London income climb a staggering 60% in just five years.
As with all megabucks US outfits, you lose in downtime what you gain in filthy lucre. While the workload is “seasonal and depends on the team”, the hours of the fabled litigation team “can be absolutely brutal” — and this 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.” Another rookie provides this advice for Debevoise-hopefuls: “Make sure you stick around supportive friends and family who can help you when you’re working hard.”
The rise in agile 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.” Generally, the firm’s WFH set-up is said to be “pretty good” and we’re told it recently “rolled out free monitors, keyboards, docking stations etc”.
Unsurprisingly, training at Debevoise adheres to the norms of a US firm: “You learn by doing.” “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 practised well — I have never felt awkward or uncomfortable approaching my superiors, even the most senior partners.” Knowing when to approach superiors for help is a sentiment mirrored in other trainees’ responses, with another summarising that partners are “often very approachable, but you need to catch them when they aren’t busy”. Second year trainees also complete a three-week, mini-MBA at Columbia Business School in New York, which makes a pretty cool addition to any junior lawyer’s CV.
The work at Debevoise is described as “generally stimulating” but can vary between departments. And the right to more interesting work does have 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 once they have bonded — “You need to learn to pursue a good relationship with your peers, but they are very supportive once that is established”, one insider tells Legal Cheek. 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.
Perks include the usual Deliveroo allowances, free iPads and taxis after 9pm as well the aforementioned mini-MBA in New York. Back in 65 Gresham Street, the canteen is said to be decent for the size of the office (around 130 lawyers).