Debevoise & Plimpton
Debevoise & Plimpton
Founded: 1931 as Debevoise & Stevenson
Sales: $269 million (1999)
NAIC: 54111 Offices of Lawyers
Debevoise & Plimpton is one of the United States’ major law firms. Clients such as American Airlines, the Democratic National Committee, the National Football League, and The New York Times receive advice from the Debevoise firm on intellectual property, tax, litigation, mergers and acquisitions, and other legal specialties. Although the firm has relatively few foreign offices, its far-flung international practice makes Debevoise & Plimpton a major player in the globalization of the world’s economy. It also is a leading provider of pro bono services to those with limited resources.
In 1931 Eli Whitney Debevoise and William Stevenson, two associates at the New York law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell, decided to form their own partnership. Two years later, Francis Plimpton joined them, and in 1936 Robert G. Page became the fourth name partner.
Initially the new partnership received work from some of New York City’s large law firms, including Davis Polk & Wardwell, Sullivan & Cromwell, and Milbank Tweed. Its early work for Phelps Dodge increased until it became their first corporate client. The firm’s bankruptcy work for Kreuger & Toll in 1932 also helped it get started. The partnership also represented the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company in one of the first public stock offerings issued under the newly enacted Securities Act of 1933.
Starting in the Depression years, lawyers at the young firm did considerable reorganization work for the Florida East Coast, Central of Georgia, Norfolk Southern, New Haven, and Erie railroads, and also public utilities such as American Power & Light and General Gas & Electric. The 1930s also marked the beginning of the firm’s service for the St. Joe Lead Company that had mines in Missouri and New York State and also for the Consolidation Coal Company that eventually became the nation’s major bituminous coal company. In 1937 the John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company came to the partnership to request assistance in a private securities placement, a new form of financing that was developed to avoid the strict requirements of public securities. Similar work for other insurance companies became a prominent part of the law firm. By 1940 the partnership gained as clients the investment counsel firm of Scudder, Stevens & Clark and also Tampax Inc., later renamed Tambrands Inc.
During World War II, the law firm lost several lawyers as they left to support the war effort. For example, Stevenson left to head the Red Cross. Although Debevoise remained with the firm, he spent many hours as the chairman of an Alien Enemy Hearing Board in New York City. At the time, because the firm’s attorneys were not specialists, they were able to handle work left by those who had joined the military. After the firm merged in 1943 with Hatch, McLean, Root & Hinch, it had 13 lawyers. At the end of 1944, the number had grown to 19 lawyers, increasing further as veterans returned in 1945.
In 1948 the young law firm gained American Airlines as a major client when it decided to move its headquarters to New York City from Washington, D.C. As the airline’s general counsel, the firm earned at least $150,000 in annual income, and American Airlines remained a client for several decades.
In the early years of the Cold War, firm partner Edward C. McLean defended Alger Hiss in what D. Bret Carlson called “undoubtedly the most publicized matter ever handled by the firm.” Accused in 1948 by Whitaker Chambers of transmitting government documents to the Russians in the 1930s, Hiss demanded a public trial to defend himself. Although he was never convicted of spying, in 1949 he was convicted of perjury in a controversial case during the second Red Scare.
After World War II, the firm’s reputation increased from its partners’ work in government, higher education, and business. Phelps Dodge Corporation chose Page as its president in 1947. Debevoise became counsel to the high commissioner of West Germany in 1951 and served as the acting deputy high commissioner in 1952 and 1953. Stevenson was the American ambassador to the Philippines and later became the president of Oberlin College. In the 1960s Presidents Kennedy and Johnson appointed Plimpton as ambassador to the United Nations. In 1956 the law firm represented The Ford Foundation when it completed its first public offering of stock of the Ford Motor Company. According to George Lindsay, in the firm’s history, “That was the largest financing that had ever been held up to that time and was replete with new inventions in the law,” and thus involved complex negotiations among the company, foundation, and Ford family members.
In 1959 Debevoise & Plimpton became general counsel for the First National City Trust Company that administered the pension fund of the affiliated First National City Bank, later renamed Citibank. In 1961 the law firm moved its offices to a new building at 320 Park Avenue constructed for the bank and trust company. After the trust company merged with and became a department of the bank, the law firm continued as its general counsel. Meanwhile, Debevoise & Plimpton represented the Rockefeller family in various matters, including the transition of Rockefeller Institute into Rockefeller University and the family’s real estate dealings through the Rockefeller Holding Company.
Growth of the Firm in the 1970s and 1980s
In 1980 the firm accepted a request by Chrysler to serve as its lead counsel in its struggle to survive financially. Following the Arab oil embargo of 1973, many Americans chose small foreign cars that used much less gas than did American cars. Thus, Chrysler lost market share, acquired a large inventory of unsold cars, and received over 400 loans from American, Canadian, Japanese, and European banks and other entities by the end of the decade.
In 1979 Congress had passed a law guaranteeing loans to Chrysler, but the automaker had to adhere to strict requirements for the law to be implemented. Debevoise partners, with the help of more than one-fourth of all its associates, helped Chrysler understand the complex federal law and then restructure its old loans and gain new ones. Although its operations were disrupted by a major fire in Debevoise’s New York office, the firm finally helped Chrysler avoid bankruptcy and eventually recover in what James B. Stewart described in 1983 as “the largest corporate rescue mission ever attempted.” The firm continued to do work for Chrysler on other matters in the years to come.
In 1982 Debevoise & Plimpton joined the growing number of law firms with offices in Washington, D.C. The number of lawyers in the nation’s capital increased from 11,000 in 1972 to 45,000 in 1987.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Debevoise & Plimpton grew rapidly. From its origins with 2 lawyers in 1931, it had grown to employ 102 in 1970. By 1980 it employed 147 lawyers, and then in the 1980s it grew even faster, reaching a total of 368 lawyers at the end of 1990. Important corporate clients at the time included Prudential, Aetna, John Hancock, Equitable Mutual Life, Mass Mutual, American Airlines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, St. John Minerals, Continental Corporation, Cooper Laboratories, Wheelabrator Frye, and Kelso and Company. The firm also represented the Ford, Russell Sage, and Hartford Foundations and Columbia and Princeton Universities.
Debevoise & Plimpton’s growth was part of a general trend that transformed many law firms. In the late 1970s two major developments spurred the changes. First, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that professional restrictions on advertising violated the First Amendment’s free speech provision. That led to more lawyers and other professionals openly soliciting clients. Second, legal journalism changed dramatically with the publication of two new periodicals, The National Journal and The American Lawyer, both of which covered the internal management practices and finances of law firms. With such data available, and attorneys becoming more aware of salaries and opportunities elsewhere, lateral hiring increased significantly in the 1980s as large law firms added literally hundreds of lawyers to their ranks. Intense competition for top talent, more formal management methods, the use of public relations experts, and the use of management consultants were also part of the transformation of America’s large law firms.
- Firm is founded in New York City.
- Firm becomes Debevoise, Stevenson, Plimpton & Page.
- Firm merges with Hatch, McLean, Root & Hinch.
- Firm becomes known as Debevoise, Plimpton & McLean.
- Firm’s client Alger Hiss is convicted of perjury in a well-publicized case.
- Paris office is opened.
- Barbara Robinson becomes the firm’s first female partner.
- Firm is renamed Debevoise & Plimpton on its 50 anniversary.
- Firm opens its Washington, D.C., office.
- A book based on oral history interviews of firm lawyers is published.
- Firm’s first Asian office in opened in Hong Kong.
- Moscow office is formally opened in December.
Practice in the 1990s and Beyond
In 1992 Debevoise & Plimpton represented Infinity Broadcasting Corporation when it became a public corporation. In 1996 the law firm helped the broadcasting corporation acquire TDI Worldwide, Grannam Holdings, and Alliance Broadcasting, then assisted Infinity when it was in turn acquired by Westinghouse Electric Corporation.
The law firm began to take on more work representative of the Information Age. Starting in 1994, it helped the Internet service provider CompuServe deal with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s rules concerning online intellectual property rights. Around 2000, the firm was involved in other major developments related to digital technology and the Internet. It represented The New York Times, Time Inc., and Newsday in Tasini v. New York Times, an important case that dealt with publishers’ rights to disseminate their work online. Its media and technology practice also served clients such as the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Dow Jones, Reuters, The Washington Post, Times Mirror, CNN, and USA Today that were concerned about the proper role of the Internet.
Like several other law firms, Debevoise & Plimpton cut the number of attorneys that it employed during the economic downturn of the early 1990s, decreasing from 397 attorneys in 1992 to 376 in 1993, when 307 worked in New York and the rest in branch offices in Washington, D.C., Paris, Los Angeles, London, and Budapest. According to Of Counsel of May 3-17, 1993, Debevoise & Plimpton assisted the Mexican telephone company Telmex and Bancomer, a large Mexican bank, when they were transformed from government to private businesses. The firm also participated in developing the oil and natural gas resources of Russia’s Sakhalin Island and in the privatization of the Prague Ruzyne International Airport. Later the firm closed its offices in Los Angeles and Budapest and opened its Moscow office.
In a 1996 survey by the Volunteers of Legal Service, Debevoise & Plimpton was one of the top New York law firms for pro bono work; it was one of only four New York firms that averaged 91 to 110 hours per lawyer and had increased its pro bono totals from 16,085 hours in 1995 to 30,714 hours in 1996. Debevoise & Plimpton’s pro bono activities ranged from international human rights and poverty law cases to prisoners’ rights, civil rights, and various environmental, educational, arts, and other nonprofit concerns.
The firm’s Washington, D.C., office, with about 30 lawyers in the late 1990s, operated differently from other firms. From that office’s 1982 beginning, “We had an odd-duck philosophy,” said partner Ralph Ferrara in Of Counsel on October 18, 1999, explaining that the firm did not do legislative work for its corporate clients. He also said, “Washington lawyers do trade regulatory work.…We do [Securities and Exchange Commission] stuff, but it’s not regulatory, it’s disclosure.” The Debevoise office represented financial, telecommunications, and other business clients in arranging mergers and dealing with complex litigation. For example, in the 1990s it helped insurance companies like New York Life and John Hancock deal with unprecedented class actions filed by policyholders.
In 1999 Debevoise & Plimpton provided counsel in over 135 mergers and acquisitions worth more than $435 billion. Merger and acquisitions clients included: 1) the Jim Henson Company (Jim Henson was the creator of the Muppets) when it was purchased by EM.TV & Merchandising AG; 2) Lawrence Dolan in his purchase of The Cleveland Indians; 3) Chrysler in its $38 billion merger with Germany’s Daimler-Benz. Fashion house Prada, LG Electronics, GlobeNet Communications, and AXA Financial, Inc. also used the Debevoise firm during 1999.
The firm’s litigators in 1999 won victories for Gap Inc. in a copyright/trademark case, General Electric in both British and U.S. courts, and Showa Aluminum Corporation in a patent trial. It also represented American Home Products Corporation, American Express, Citibank, MetLife, the Council for Tobacco Research, and American Lawyer Media in litigation cases.
According to The American Lawyer, Debevoise & Plimpton was ranked as the nation’s 37th largest law firm in 1999, based on its annual gross revenues of $269 million. Its revenue per lawyer was $670,000, which placed it at number 13 nationally, and its profits per partner of $1.225 million ranked the firm as number eleven in the United States. With an 80 percent increase in its profits per partner since 1990, the firm was considered one of the “Winners of the Nineties.” Debevoise & Plimpton also was the nation’s 18th most prestigious law firm, according to a survey of 4,800 lawyers published in 2000 in the third edition of the Vault.com Guide to the Top 50 Law Firms. These statistics and surveys indicated that Debevoise & Plimpton was well prepared to confront the numerous legal challenges of the new millennium. However, the firm needed room to expand, so it planned to move its New York headquarters in summer 2001 to newly built offices at 919 Third Avenue.
Principal Operating Units
Corporate; Tax; Litigation; Trusts and Estates.
Davis, Polk & Wardwell; Skadden, Arps; Sullivan & Cromwell.
Carlson, D. Bret, Debevoise & Plimpton: The Autobiography of a Law Firm, New York: Debevoise & Plimpton, 1991.
Cherovsky, Erwin, The Guide to New York Law Firms, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991, pp. 74–78.
Dean, William J., “Pro Bono Digest: Law Firm Activities,” New York Law Journal, July 9, 1997.
“Debevoise & Plimpton [profile],” Of Counsel, May 3–17, 1993, p. 138.
Jaskunas, Paul and D.M. Osborne, “Cashing in on Cyberspace,” Am-Law Tech, summer 1996.
“Lawyers Reveal All in New Guidebook to Top Law Firms,” Business Wire, August 29, 2000.
Malkani, Sheila V. and Michael F. Walsh, The Insider’s Guide to Law Firms, 2d ed., Boulder, Colo.: Mobius Press, 1994, pp. 347–350.
Merelman, Diana, “Dealmaker,” American Lawyer, September 1996.
Pearlman, Laura, “Opening Doors,” American Lawyer, March 1999.
Stewart, James B., “Chrysler: Debevoise, Plimpton, Lyons & Gates,” Chapter 5 in The Partners: Inside America’s Most Powerful Law Firms, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983, pp. 201–44.
Tripoli, Lori, “Ralph Ferrara Pioneers a New Breed of DC ‘Inside Outside’,” Of Counsel, October 18, 1999.
—David M. Waiden