Make some noise for Debevoise, the prestigious New Yorker with a London office doing transactional and litigious work.
Debevoised and ready
Say Debevoise in a French accent. That’s not how you pronounce it, it just sounds fun and gives it a certain je ne sais quoi. Please don’t say it like that in your interview. (It's actually pronounced Debber-voys, to rhyme with 'poise'). The firm’s informal open day interview may make such a faux pas feel acceptable, but better not be so risqué. Applicants attend a welcome breakfast, tour, lunch and interview: “You just had to go around and talk to various lawyers.” Following these tête-à-têtes, the interview doesn’t get much more intense – “like, my interview was a coffee.” And voilà! If it all goes well, applicants are offered a spot on the vac scheme. Such a seemingly laissez-faire approach doesn’t quite fit what you might expect from a big US firm, and you’d be right. With a petite intake that's risen to just nine trainees each year, competition for places is fierce, so be assured that the discerning Debevoisers critique candidates to find the crème de la crème. Quelle surprise, we hear you say. Okay, enough of the French stuff.
This prestigious New Yorker attracts trainees because of its “international presence and big-ticket work.” Rankings from Chambers Global place it among the best worldwide for international arbitration, disputes, corporate investigations and public international law. In London, Chambers UK particularly rates its financial crime, public law, and commercial litigation practices.
Unlike many of its American peers in London, Debevoise is much more focused on disputes. As a result, we heard that “the firm really wants to make sure trainees do at least one disputes seat.” Debevoise’s disputes offering covers commercial litigation, international arbitration and white-collar crime. Trainees may do a seat in any of these three areas. Before each rotation, trainees submit two seat preferences. “Most people get their top choice,” said trainees, “but obviously not everyone can.” Interviewees were also keen on overseas seats in Moscow and Hong Kong.
Multiple trainees sit in commercial litigation. “The buzzwords are ‘complex cross-jurisdictional work’,” said trainees, adding: “We often have clients outside the EU who’re being sued in England or another European country.” Commercial litigation clients include oil giant Shell, which the firm recently acted for when the Nigerian government sought $1.2 billion in damages related to an investment Shell made in 2011. Lawyers also represented British American Tobacco as it sought to recover $880 million from paper and packaging company Sequana. Some trainee tasks in this seat have a bit of an academic feel to them: “I was looking into previous proceedings and working out what representations had been made by the opposing side concerning their rights in certain jurisdictions. I then made a summary note of why exactly the barristers made a certain decision.” Trainees also attend court and one had “prepared a court application about six weeks into my first seat.”
International arbitration also takes multiple trainees. It acts for both sovereign state and commercial clients in commercial, investor-state and construction arbitrations. The firm is used to handling claims into the billions, but unsurprisingly it stays hush-hush about most of these. In one on-the-record example, the firm acted for investment company Nova in a €350 million claim against the Romanian government over appropriated assets. Trainees “help out drafting parts of witness statements or little bits of pleadings and opening arguments.”
“We have monthly meetings with Frankfurt via video link.”
Debevoise’s white-collar team takes one trainee at a time. It gives regulatory and compliance advice to companies, as well as advising on enormous white-collar investigations. Follow-up work on the high-profile Rolls-Royce bribery and corruption investigation meant “making sure it’s complying with the deferred prosecution agreement” with the SFO. “That takes huge amount of work – site visits, panel meetings and investigative reports.” The firm also represented Société Générale in the US Department of Justice’s investigation into its dealings with the Libyan Investment Authority – the case settled for $585 million. One trainee reported working on an investigation into a multinational company: “My job was to go through the documents that’d been disclosed to try to build a narrative for a money laundering case.” International work is the norm with parties “everywhere in the world. We do a lot with the New York office and we have monthly meetings with Frankfurt via video link.”
Transactional work is another layer of life at Debevoise (literally – the transactional teams all sit on the floor above disputes). While the disputes seats are characterised by more research tasks, the transactional seats have more client contact, often by phone. “I was allowed to start contacting investors straight away,” a trainee who’d sat in funds told us. The team advises on fund formation, alternative capital raising, and investments in private funds. Debevoise recently advised Glendower Capital on raising $2.5 billion for a secondary opportunities fund and helped US real estate firm Tishman Speyer raise €750 million for a European real estate fund. “I don’t think you can glamorise it: a lot of a trainee's role is project management,” said interviewees. “It took me a while to warm to it.” Trainees also “do a lot of collating signing pages and proofreading,” but if capable “you can be put in charge of non-disclosure agreements and regulatory filings.”
Trainees may also sit in corporate. This team also works with private equity clients, as well as asset management and insurance companies, advising on M&A, management equity, tax, finance and capital markets matters. Trainees said: “We have big US clients who do quite a lot of European projects.” For example, the team recently advised private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice on its acquisition of English contract catering company Westbury Street Holdings. It also advised another US-headquartered private equity company, HarbourVest Partners, on its role in the £1.2 billion takeover of UK insurer Esure. Lawyers also advised the Marandi business family on its acquisition of luxury handbag designer Anya Hindmarch.
Trainees “get in at 9.30am across the board” but home times vary. Arbitration can have “brutal hours in the run-up to filings, with trainees finishing anytime between 10pm and 1am.” An average day in funds ends at 8pm, but busy trainees might go home closer to 11pm “for weeks and weeks.” One trainee didn’t leave the office until 6.30am one night, “but it was a Saturday so it wasn’t so bad.” A £50,000 first-year salary provides a much needed comfort blanket.
“Everyone here is ridiculously clever.”
The hours mean “people prioritise family if they have free time.” There are socials here and there, and quiz nights are popular, although “the trainee team isn’t doing so well.” It’s not their fault though – apparently “everyone here is ridiculously clever” to the point that “it can be a bit intimidating, but when you speak to people you realise everyone takes time to answer questions. People want to teach you.” There isn’t much formal training, which didn’t really bother our interviewees – “I prefer to learn as I go.” Second-years are flown out to New York for a few weeks to complete a ‘mini MBA’ at Columbia Business School. “The course is quite tough, but the experience is brilliant,” one source reported. “We get to meet our fellow associates in New York and they put us up in a really nice apartment.”
Another “amazing” way to get training is through pro bono. A common type of work is “helping clients who’ve been denied welfare benefits to complete a statement and attending the tribunal with them.” Working on one such case was “probably the best thing I’ve done here,” said one interviewee. “The client was crying when she got her award – it was really touching.” The firm “has certificates for people who devote 25 and 100 hours a year.”
Trainees noted a culture difference between corporate and disputes: “People in corporate are a bit more formal and don’t open up as much. People in litigation and arbitration are much more relaxed and talkative.” Some departments were even described as “quite cliquey, but a trainee will be welcomed in with open arms.” Debevoise had strong retention in 2018, but overall the qualification process was a bit “mysterious” to trainees. “I made it clear where I wanted to apply, and one of the partners said there’d be space for me without a formal interview,” an NQ divulged. The firm told us there is a formal process, where trainees submit two to three preferred choices. In 2019 Debevoise retained six of eight qualifiers.
Debevoise’s ‘Women’s Review’ website was a big draw for female trainees: “There were loads of women on the page and that made the firm quite attractive to me.”
How to get a Debevoise training contract
Vac scheme application deadlines (2020): 5 January 2020 (opens 3 October 2019)
Training contract application deadlines (2022): 12 July 2020 (opens 1 June 2020)
Open day deadline (2020): 5 January 2020
The process kicks off with a standard online application form. This includes a few questions that are tailored to Debevoise in order to see how the candidates think, and to assess their interests and motivations. While the firm says that there is no right answer, it does pay attention to the structure of the argument and how logical the responses are. It may sound obvious, but make sure you spell the firm's name correctly. The firm adds that while there is nothing wrong with expressing interest in one area of law, the firm are looking for well-rounded people.
For those that are successful in their initial application, the firm runs three ‘open days’ (assessment days really), usually in February, to which more than 60 people are invited. The day involves an introduction from the training principal, followed by a tour of the office (usually with a junior lawyer). There's also a networking lunch, followed by a short assessment and interview. Participants are given an article to read, then it’s discussed during the interview. The aim of the exercise, according to the firm, is to assess how you assimilate information and how you present and analyse it.
Around 30 successful candidates (give or take a couple) make it onto the vacation schemes. Debevoise runs three schemes: one in the spring and two in the summer, each lasting two weeks. Vac schemers are assigned a mentor for their time at the firm, but they are also encouraged to explore other parts of the firm – “if their mentor is in corporate but they want to do white collar, they are encouraged to get to know people in white collar,” recruitment manager Romina Tsvetkova says. “All our vacation scheme students sit together, so they get the opportunity to work together as a team and socialise with each other.”
Candidates also have a number of assessments in their two weeks. There's usually a group white-collar crime exercise, as well as a pro bono project. “The most serious assessments are probably the interviews during the last week,” Tsvetkova reveals. These are interviews similar to the ones during the open days, plus add in a few more general questions too.
The firm notes that it has a small trainee group so it's important that everyone is able to work together.
Interview with training principal Patrick Taylor
Chambers Student: Which practice areas are doing particularly well at the moment?Are there any particular highlights or significant developments from the last year that you’d like our student readers to know about?
Patrick Taylor: The London Office has worked on a wide range of headline-grabbing deals and high-stakes disputes over the last 12 months, including the representations of: Qatar at the International Court of Justice relating to the Middle East Blockade; Shell in its Court of Appeal case addressing environmental claims relating to its operations in Nigeria; Mobile Telesystems in a US Department of Justice investigation into one of its Uzbek subsidiaries; Leapfrog in the formation of a $700 million emerging markets-focussed impact fund (the largest ever PE fund by a dedicated impact fund manager); HarbourVest in its proposed £1.2 billion take-private acquisition of UK insurer esure; AmTrust in the merger of its Lloyd’s business with Canopius; and Discovery Inc. in its EU merger control dealings with the Commission arising out of its $14.6 billion acquisition of Scripps Network Interactive.
CS: What should students know about the firm’s strategy and what it wants to achieve in the next three to four years?
Patrick: We are recognised market leaders in a number of practice areas including funds, funds formation, insurance, white collar and arbitration, with a rapidly growing commercial litigation practice. I think that our strategy for the next few years is to continue to grow in those areas, to consolidate our position at the very top of the market, and to achieve that whilst maintaining our commitment to the culture and values of the firm.
CS: Has Brexit and the uncertainty around it had any impact on the volume or type of work the firm is doing?
Patrick: It’s obviously an extremely complicated issue. From the litigation side of things, if anything, we anticipate a pick-up in work as a result of Brexit with a variety of complicated reasons. In the longer term – your five, ten, or fifteen-year horizon – it will depend in part on how well London maintains its position as a leading financial centre of the world. If London were to lose its status altogether, it would not be surprising if there was some downtick in the amount of work being done in London, but it’s impossible to say whether or not that will happen. As a result of the delay in Brexit, there has been a slow down in deal flow whilst the situation is clarified, but by the time we get to the 31st October, I imagine deal-flow will pick up again.
CS: The trainee intake is currently eight a year – are there any plans to grow it?
Patrick: Yes – we are going to be moving up to nine from September 2019. There will be one new seat focussed on funds regulatory work.
CS: What sort of person thrives at the firm?
Patrick: We have a range of different characters and we enjoy having different personalities in the office, but there are common traits that we look for. At our Firm you get credit for giving credit to others. It’s all about the team rather than the individual, so we want team players. We also place a premium on decency. We therefore look for people who are respectful and thoughtful towards everyone: their peers, support staff, everyone they would come into contact with professionally. It should go without saying that we expect excellence and serious intellectual ability in our trainees, but at the same time we also want people who are motivated: people who are going to be proactive and creative in being able to help the whole team deliver outstanding client service, while also promoting the spirit of collaboration and camaraderie within the office.
CS: Anything to add?
Patrick: Last yearwe had our first London partner who had come through from being a trainee in our London office. He was a trainee in one of the first trainee intakes, so our training contract programme is now fully mature. This has been the best possible endorsement of our training programme.
The other thing to add is that in London this year the firm has made up three partners. To give you an idea for comparison: in New York, our biggest office, we made up four partners this year. I think that really goes to show the health of the London practice, and the commitment to the London practice that we have within the firm. The future is extremely bright for the team here in London.
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
65 Gresham Street,
- Partners 25
- Associates 140 (number of non-partner UK and US qualified lawyers)
- Total trainees 18
- UK offices London
- Overseas offices 8
- Graduate recruiter: Romina Tsvetkova
- Training partner: Patrick Taylor
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 9
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1 or equivalent
- Minimum UCAS points or A levels: 144 (new tariff) UCAS points or equivalent
- Vacation scheme places pa: Around 30
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 June 2020
- Training contract deadline, 2022 start: 12 July 2020
- Vacation scheme applications open: 1 October 2019
- Vacation scheme 2020 deadline: 5 January 2020
- Open day deadline: 5 January 2020
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £50,000 pa
- Second-year salary: £55,000 pa
- Post-qualification salary: £131,100 pa
- Holiday entitlement: 22 days vacation + bank holidays
- LPC fees: Yes
- GDL fees: Yes
- Maintenance grant pa: £9,000 during LPC and/or GDL
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: London, Hong Kong
Main areas of work
• Life and Income Protection Insurance
• Employee Assistance Programme
• Group personal pension plan
• 22 days vacation
• Cycle to work scheme
• On-site subsidised café
• Interest free season ticket loan
• Discretionary qualification leave on completion of your training contract
Open days and first-year opportunities
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2019
- Banking & Finance: Sponsors (Band 4)
- Commercial and Corporate Litigation (Band 3)
- Financial Crime: Corporates (Band 1)
- Litigation (Band 5)
- Public International Law (Band 1)
- Tax Recognised Practitioner
- Construction: International Arbitration Recognised Practitioner
- Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 3)
- International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 1)
- International Arbitration: Investor-State Arbitration (Band 2)
- Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 2)