Debevoise & Plimpton is a rare specimen: a powerful New York law firm with a strong commitment to pro bono work. The firm also has prestigious litigation and corporate departments which attract an impressive lot of clients.
Following in historical footsteps
Despite lending their names to what would become one of the nation's most prominent law firms, the founders of Debevoise & Plimpton each have family members far more famous than themselves. Eli Whitney Debevoise was a descendant of Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, and Francis T.P. Plimpton was the father of George Plimpton, the renowned aesthete and humorist. But along with William Stevenson, Debevoise and Plimpton made good on their names, building the firm's reputation through their government careers. Eli Debevoise became counsel to the High Commissioner for Germany in the early 1950s, while Francis Plimpton served as a delegate to the United Nations for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. The New York office opened in 1931, and the firm began to expand in 1964 with its first foreign branch in Paris. The 1980s witnessed tremendous growth, with offices in Washington, DC (1982), Moscow (1988, receiving official accreditation in 1998) and London (1989). Most recently, the firm established a Hong Kong branch in 1994 and is currently in the process of opening an office in Frankfurt, further cementing its reputation as an international force. In the past year, more than 50 percent of the firm's work has been for non-U.S. matters or non-U.S. clients.
Show me the clients
With 345 attorneys in New York (419 firm-wide), Debevoise & Plimpton is statistically one of the smaller power players in the city. But its client list more than makes up the difference. American Airlines, PricewaterhouseCoopers, MetLife, and J.P. Morgan all come to Debevoise, as do the Democratic National Committee, The New York Times, and Goldman Sachs. The firm has made also its niche in entertainment and sports, representing Oxygen Media, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League, as well as working on the $320 million private purchase of the Cleveland Indians by Ohio attorney Lawrence Dolan in November 1999. The firm also represented Hasbro, Inc. in the toy industry's largest licensing transaction (Hasbro won worldwide toy and game rights to the Star Wars prequels) and the company's acquisition of Wizards of the Coast, Inc. (makers of the Pokemon trading card game and Dungeons & Dragons).
The litigation department has also gained attention in recent years. D&P successfully defended PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP in a trial involving allegations of professional liability and potential damages of over $50 million and is representing The National Law Journal in a defamation claim brought by Larry Klaman, chairman of the organization Judicial Watch, a conservative advocacy organization. Other cases involve Lever Brothers' trademark suit challenging the unauthorized use of its "Snuggle Bear" character as part of a violent video game as well as the Democratic National Committee's connection with government investigations into fundraising activities. Add to the list the representation of sexy firms John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance and Metropolitan Life Insurance in their demutualizations and IPOs as well as ongoing representation of Waste Management, Inc. in more than 30 class actions.
Bringing compensation up to speed Despite such an impressive client roster, in the past there were muted complaints from associates' quarters about D&P's compensation packages. The firm has taken aggressive measures to silence such grievances in the past year or two. When Davis, Polk & Wardwell and Cravath, Swaine & Moore bumped up first-year salaries in February 2000, Debevoise quickly followed suit (offering first-years $125,000 a year in salary) in an ongoing effort to compete for the most sought-after law school grads. Lockstep bonuses are paid annually (not to be confused with boom year bonuses); generally the firm announces each class's bonus ahead of time, but this year "the firm has not been as forthcoming as to what the bonuses will be." Associates say they are "satisfied with the pay" since it is "generally competitive with other New York City firms." Still, at least one attorney suggests that the firm's "slowness in reacting to industry salary increases and reluctance to take a lead can cause associates to question the goodwill of the firm and at least temporarily hurts morale."
For the people
Another area in which Debevoise has marked its territory is public service work. The firm has received numerous accolades from various pro bono groups for its commitment to providing quality legal work to those in need. Most recently, Network for Women's Services honored the firm with its Commitment to Justice Award. The firm continues to handle more asylum cases for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights than any other law firm, serving as counsel in litigations under the Torture Victims Protection Act and Alien Tort Claims Act involving human rights abuses around the world. The American Lawyer ranked the firm sixth out of its top 100 firms for pro bono work over the past five years - during that period, Debevoise topped the public service list in New York, logging 36,400 hours, four times as much as other firms of the same size. Again and again, Debevoise attorneys praise the firm's "remarkable level of public spiritedness," to the point that "many of the litigation partners seem more committed to doing good than to doing well." One attorney who dedicated over 75 percent of his time to pro bono last year says his experience is "unusual but not unheard of" and insists that "this is one area where D&P cannot be faulted."
When it comes to hiring new associates, Debevoise sticks with a core group of law schools - "Yale, NYU, Harvard, or Columbia." Even with a degree from those schools, though, the firm is "pretty picky" - there's a "cutoff in terms of grades even for top-tier law schools" - and will only tap Ivy League kids or the "equivalent with top 25 percent grades." Stanford, Cornell, and the University of Chicago send a few graduates D&P's way each year as well.
But there's more to the selection process than just prestigious diplomas and standout GPAs. Getting in requires "more than just being a workhorse," says one insider. "We're interested in finding people who are interesting, who lead interesting lives. Someone who knows things about the outside world - not just books." A New York litigator suggests that "people who've held jobs before law school tend to do better" due to expectations to "conduct yourself as a professional in an office." Another attorney says that "once you are over the bar on grades, you are then chosen on personality and 'would I want to work with you' factors." The interview process is in-depth, requiring each interviewer to fill out a detailed evaluation form in an effort to find just the right fit between the firm and its candidates. And while being "full of yourself" is relative "in reference to the population as a whole," don't be surprised that "oversized ego is generally not appreciated."
Friendly but not forward
A number of Debevoise associates cite "never raise your voice" as the firm's golden rule, unwritten but understood. "No one will yell at you here," says one attorney, pleased that this is "not a place for shouters or obnoxious people - although some slip through the cracks." While this fosters a surprisingly "genteel" atmosphere and "reduces tension dramatically," some more outspoken attorneys worry that it also encourages "passive-aggressive" behavior. "D&P retains its WASPy roots in that people are reluctant to probe your personal life, don't really yell, and criticism is usually indirect," comments an insider from the corporate department. "While this reduces tension dramatically, it makes it hard to understand when you've done something wrong because everything is couched." A co-worker agrees, finding the office a "very nice and positive atmosphere" but one where "sometimes it's hard to get constructive criticism ... because everyone is so worried about being nice."
Hope springs eternal
Debevoise & Plimpton attorneys in New York perhaps should think about getting out together more often, since many of them seem pretty darn cranky about their office environs. Some are more critical than others: "The air-conditioning sucks - I'm sweating right now - and the office furniture is cheap and ugly," grouses one. Others exhibit a don't-hold-your-breath attitude: "Offices are not good. New offices are coming. We'll see." In light of the anticipated move in 2001, one corporate lawyer finds it understandable that "very little effort" has been made "in the way of decorating, or even maintaining our offices, which are small, poorly laid-out, unkempt, and crumbling." As a result, though, there is not "a single healthy plant on any of the 12 floors" the firm occupies.
But the glass-is-half-full contingent is holding out "hope, though, that the new offices will be presentable, if not quite 'posh.'" It may have good reason, according to a colleague: "I have been working on the planning committee for the new space and I can say with certainty that the new offices will be nothing short of swank."
Making a name for itself
"Traditionally, Debevoise was regarded as a corporate powerhouse, with reliable blue-chip clients like American Airlines and Chrysler," says an in-the-know attorney. "In recent years, the reputation of the litigation department has been increasing to the point where now law students seem to regard the firm as more of a destination for would-be litigators than for aspiring Barbarians at the Gate." Indeed, the firm has truly spread its wings in litigation in recent years (particularly relating to International Arbitration and class action suits) and is gaining attention for its IP/new media work. Although D&P's reputation remains "less flashy than [at] some other firms" and "not a firm that seeks headlines," its internal community considers it "a big name in its own quiet way."
You wish you could be us
It seems most would like to keep it that way and would send the sharks somewhere else. "If you want to work in a civil environment with decent, intelligent colleagues... think seriously about Debevoise & Plimpton. If you prefer a take-no-prisoners approach, consider Skadden or Paul Weiss," intones one happy camper. "Do not come here if you want a super-aggressive, high-drama environment," warns another.
Ethel F. Leichti
Manager of Associate Recruitment
Cravath, Swaine & Moore;Davis Polk & Wardwell;Shearman & Sterling;Sullivan & Cromwell
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