Don’t be afraid: “There’s a misconception that American firms are big bad wolves, but friendliness is the name of the game here” (alongside some top-notch international disputes and funds work, we’d add).
Debevoise & Plimpton training contract review 2022
Debevoise has long been known in our guide for being the ‘nice’ US firm, where, as this trainee put it, “everyone really encourages friendliness and approachability.” Who wouldn’t want that in a firm they’re about to join as a fresh-faced trainee? And while ‘nice’ is often construed to be a polite synonym for ‘bland,’ we can assure you that there’s nothing bland about the kind of work that Debevoise does. When it comes to jurisdiction-crossing disputes work, Debevoise is one of the best places to be: the firm scores praise in Chambers UK for its international arbitration and public law expertise especially. Its commercial litigation and financial crime teams also get nods in the London market too.
"This firm did the deals I was most interested in."
For many of our sources, it was this line of expertise that appealed: “It was the quality of disputes work – I thought I’d have to spend too much time in transactional seats elsewhere,” one commented. However, Debevoise is a dab hand at the transactional stuff too. One trainee was drawn to the firm for its work on M&A deals in the insurance industry – an area Debevoise is ranked in alongside its highly regarded investment funds practice and sponsor-side work in the banking space. “When applying I was mostly looking at the transactions being done and this firm did the deals I was most interested in,” recalled this interviewee.
Being ‘nice’ doesn’t come at the cost of ambition and drive at Debevoise either. One common factor voiced among our interviewees was the desire to work in a small intake (of nine trainees in each year). “You get more attention that way,” one source commented, while another mentioned that the smaller group “suited my personality better.” The sense we got from trainees is that they invited and sought out the extra scrutiny and responsibility that comes with being part of a smaller intake. On a broader scale, the firm’s ambition is clear too. When it comes to revenue, it’s in the billion-dollar (plus) club of US firms, and its desire to grow hasn’t been sated just yet; it was one of the few firms to open an office during the pandemic – in Luxembourg – and it currently has its eye on a San Francisco opening that’s anticipated to happen in late 2021.
Incoming trainees are allocated their first seat, but for subsequent seats they’re able to put forward two preferences. Half the trainees we surveyed got their first choice at least once – some lucky trainees got their top choice every time: “There are multiple spaces for trainees in the biggest practices, like arbitration and funds, which is good as they’re the most heavily demanded seats.” When there's not a pandemic on, trainees can also jet off to the firm’s Moscow or Hong Kong offices for an overseas secondment, though some interviewees thought other destinations should be on offer given the scope of the firm’s international presence: “That’s one thing other US firms [in London] have over us.”
The firm’s litigation department is divided into international arbitration, public international law, commercial litigation and white-collar crime. All trainees will complete a seat in this department and will focus on one of these areas during their time here. Arbitration trainees were pleased to discover that their seat wasn’t admin-heavy: “We do lots of research into the background of cases. For example, we’ll look into any historical and political elements, as well as related previous cases, then summarise our findings for the senior associates.” Rookies also do a bit of case management: “We keep track of all new points that arise and the correspondence between parties so that we have a chronology of key documents.” Arbitrator vetting is a common task: “We look into the arbitrators that our counsel or the other side have suggested, then prepare our suggestions for the client.” Our interviewees had regular calls with their colleagues in New York and Paris, with this source reporting that it’s normal to be “kept in the loop with our cases around the world.” The team recently represented Dutch investment company The Nova Group in a claim against the Romanian government for allegedly breaching its bilateral investment treaty. Other clients include Qatar Airways, the Russian Federation and the government of Grenada.
"One day you’re on a small private acquisition in London and the next you’re doing a big restructuring in Africa.”
The corporate department is divided into separate seats: finance, funds, funds regulatory, M&A, corporate, insurance, tax and competition. The former reportedly involves a lot of admin, “which is good if M&A is your first seat, but you can get tired of it!” one trainee pointed out. The good news is that “we work on loads of very different deals. One day you’re on a small private acquisition in London and the next you’re doing a big restructuring in Africa.” It’s a small team, so trainees work closely with associates. “We have institutional relationships with private equity clients,” a source noted, adding that with this kind of work “trainees handle the non-disclosure agreements, which are good for practising your mark-up skills.” Due diligence and doc review form a significant part of the insurance seat, but trainees still sink their teeth into meatier matters: “I was responsible for producing the centralised report for a multibillion-pound global deal that was all over the news. I liaised with partners in New York, Hong Kong, DC and Paris, so it was a round-the-clock process, but one of the most exciting parts of my training contract.” On the insurance side, Debevoise lawyers recently advised New York Life on its partnership with (and acquisition of a minority stake in) Luxembourg-based fund manager Kartesia Management.
The funds team works closely with the M&A folks, “which leads to very interesting and cerebral work,” a trainee informed us. The amount of client contact was felt to be the main difference between this seat and M&A: “M&A transactions last a couple of months at most, so partners get the client contact, but fundraises last for years, so there’s time for trainees to get involved with clients. I was on the phone to GCs every day, which was really cool.” Clients here include AfricInvest Group, Canson Capital Partners and Credit Suisse Asset Management. The team recently advised the latter on a multibillion-dollar formation of a private credit platform with the Qatar Investment Authority. Typical trainee tasks included marking up documents and taking the first stab at drafting side letters and subscription documents. Responsibility increases as the seat goes on: “I was the one answering investors’ questions during negotiation calls.”
"I was on the phone to GCs every day, which was really cool.”
Finance at Debevoise is split into fund finance, leveraged buyouts, structured and other general finance. This trainee estimated that they “spent about 80% of my time doing fund finance, which involved setting up leveraged facilities for private equity funds.” Fund finance is a big growth area for the team, and a recent deal saw them advise EQT Partners on two subscription line facilities valued at €2.3 billion and €2.5 billion. Trainees may well find themselves working with the likes of private equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice, healthcare-focused company Huntsworth and Warner Music Group here too. Rookies tend to play a project management role by coordinating with local counsel and clients, proofreading key documents and creating the slide deck (essentially a PowerPoint that helps client understand how the finance works!). Others had drafted entire conditions precedent documents and reviewed shareholder agreements: “There aren’t many junior associates in this group so trainees get a bunch of responsibility. We don’t just sit around doing the printing.” We heard this team has been significantly busy lately, with trainees putting in longer hours than usual.
The stereotype of US firms having the longest hours persists, but it’s worth noting that while Debevoise trainees will work hard, the hours will not be wildly different to what they are at other City firms. This trainee summed up their schedule as “good, but uneven: in M&A, you could have a whole day where you’re doing little and then the next day work from 9am until 2am. Arbitration is famous for being really busy, but you never really finish past 11pm. Most days, however, I finish by 6pm.”Another source agreed with this assessment and said that “the main surprise has been that I haven’t been slammed every day – as I thought I would be in commercial law!”According to our survey, trainees put in 49 hours a week on average.
Debevoise is one of the highest-paying firms in London: “The salary is exceptional for a graduate job and skyrockets upon qualification,”a trainee commented. The firm has a lockstep compensation structure (meaning that everyone gets paid the same base salary according to their level), “so there isn’t any competitiveness between lawyers. The partner giving the introduction speech on my recruitment day insisted on being nice, helping each other and winning as a team rather than as an individual.” Another source summed up the culture like this: “We don’t have that aggressive deal-making culture where people want to be superstars at the expense of everyone else.”
This attitude is also reflected in the pro bono work that’s undertaken at the firm, which this trainee described as “the best part about working here, hands down.” Trainees are encouraged to spend 25 hours on pro bono, “which most people achieve. Pro bono is also assessed on the vac scheme, which shows how important it is here.” Trainees mentioned a project with the Center for Reproductive Rights, with one highlighting work on “an amicus brief we’re submitting to the European Court of Human Rights.” We also heard of other trainees who were involved in drafting a report to the UN on arbitrary detention: “It’s so cool that the work will be published by the UN.” In addition, Debevoise is one of eight firms that have banded together to give free legal advice to those applying for the government’s Windrush Compensation Scheme.
Where diversity and inclusion are concerned, “the junior ranks are relatively diverse but most senior people are white males. Our only Black female counsel left to rejoin her old firm.” Others pointed to how gender diversity varied by department, with this source saying: “There are lots of women in arbitration, but I wish there were more women in the transactional departments.” The firm’s women’s network hosts monthly ‘Lunch for Three’ meetings: “We get together in a group of three, which changes each time, so that we can meet more women across the firm that you wouldn’t ordinarily come across and get some mentorship. It’s pretty cool.” When it comes to “getting people from more varied backgrounds,”we heard that “HR isn’t focusing on Oxbridge anymore; they’re attending recruitment events at other universities too.” We heard that the firm's marketing events to reach students extended beyond the Russell Group universities as well.
Training-wise, “the experience is variable across departments as there’s no real effort made to normalise the amount of training or contact hours with a partner,” a source reported, before qualifying that with: “It's not a bad thing necessarily. The firm broadly takes the view that the most valuable learning is achieved through doing, which is generally true.” Another trainee commented: “The individuals and partners in each team were, without exception, lovely to work with and made me feel welcome each time. The senior lawyers are always happy to help teach you on specific matters.” Of course, mentorship is harder to enforce with remote working, “but we have an informal policy that if anyone has made changes to the work you’ve submitted, they have to explain why.”
Use your voise
Considering the smaller trainee intake, qualification can mostly be navigated with some well-timed conversations with partners in groups that qualifiers are interested in. However, there is a formal process of course, which involves qualifiers submitting their preferred choices to the professional development manager. These preferences are matched against business need and the trainee's overall performance.
How to get a Debevoise training contract
Training contract application deadlines (2024): 3 January 2022 (opens 1 October 2021)
Open day deadline (2022): 3 January 2022 (opens 1 October 2021)
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 and/or March, to which around 100 candidates are invited. The day involves an introduction from the Training Principal during a welcome breakfast, followed by a tour of the office (usually with a junior lawyer). There's also a networking lunch, followed by a short commercial assessment. 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 45 successful candidates (give or take a couple) make it onto the vacation schemes. Debevoise usually runs three schemes: one in the spring and two in the summer, each lasting two weeks. However, owing to the impact of COVID-19 in 2020 and 2021 the firm held three one-week long virtual vacation schemes instead. Vacation schemers are assigned a mentor for their time at the firm, but they are also encouraged to explore other parts of the firm – “if for example their mentor is in finance but they are interested in arbitration work, they are encouraged to spend time with lawyers from the International Dispute Resolution Group as well ,” Recruitment Manager Romina Tsvetkova says. “All of our vacation scheme students sit together, so that they can get the opportunity to work together as a team while getting to know each other.” During the virtual vacation schemes this aspect was facilitated through a number of Zoom meetings.
Candidates also have a number of assessments during their vacation scheme. There is usually a group white collar crime exercise, as well as a pro bono written project. “The most formal 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.
This firm has no profile.
This Firm's Rankings in
UK Guide, 2021
- 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 (Band 6)
- Construction: International Arbitration (Band 3)
- Insurance: Non-contentious (Band 3)
- International Arbitration: Commercial Arbitration (Band 2)
- International Arbitration: Investor-State Arbitration (Band 2)
- Investment Funds: Private Equity (Band 2)