Juggling a slew of multibillion-dollar deals and bet-the-company litigations, Debevoise & Plimpton posted double-digit profitability growth last year, the firm reported Tuesday.
Average profits earned by the firm’s 134 partners grew 10.9 percent, from $2.38 million to $2.64 million, marking a record high and Debevoise’s third straight year of profitability growth.
Debevoise’s overall gross revenue also grew, though at a slower pace. The firm collected $756.9 million in fees in 2015, up 6.5 percent from the prior year. That brought gross revenue within a few million dollars of the firm’s record high in 2008, when it was handling an internal investigation for German industrial giant Siemens AG, a high-profile assignment that brought at least $260 million into firm coffers.
Net income also increased by more than 10 percent, to $351.6 million in 2015. Whereas revenue growth in 2014 was partly attributable to higher attorney head count, last year’s bump was mostly due to a surge in work at Debevoise.
“We’re very happy with the year,” said presiding partner Michael Blair, noting that profits per partner were the firm’s highest ever. “We were able to achieve a nice increase in client demand and also stronger realization because of improved project management across our practices. That’s what drove our improvement in the bottom line,” Blair said.
The firm’s total lawyer head count remained identical to 2014, at 615, meaning that the increase in demand boosted revenue per lawyer higher, to $1.23 million per lawyer last year from $1.155 million in 2014. Blair said the flat head count wasn’t intentional. “What it reflects is that we are just running into ordinary-course partner retirements as a mature firm,” he said. “We are getting younger on average.”
Like other New York corporate firms, Debevoise benefited from record M&A deal flow, ranking 10th in volume of U.S. announced deals last year with 88 transactions, according to Bloomberg’s legal advisory league tables.(Fifty-five percent of Debevoise’s lawyers work in the corporate area, and another 7 percent in tax.)
Among the M&A highlights: representing Verizon Communications Inc. in the pending sale of local wireline operations in several states to Frontier Communications Corp. for $10.54 billion in February 2015; advising the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB) in its $12 billion acquisition of GE Capital Corporation’s sponsor finance business, for which Debevoise corporate chair Jeffrey “Jeff” Rosen and private equity co-chair Kevin Schmidt were named “Dealmakers of the Week” in June; and representing California video gaming giant Activision Blizzard Inc., the creator of hit games such as the “Call of Duty” and “World of Warcraft” franchises, in its $5.9 billion purchase of King Digital Entertainment plc, the creator of “Candy Crush Saga,” which closed Tuesday.
Debevoise’s elite private equity and funds practice was also juggling several multibillion-dollar matters last year. The firm advised Baring Private Equity Asia in the launch of a $4 billion fund in February 2015—believed to be the largest such fund ever raised by an Asia-based manager. The firm also represented longtime client The Carlyle Group in raising $4.1 billion for a European fund last July; and U.S. chemical distributor Univar Inc., backed by private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, in a $3 billion initial public offering, one of the last large IPOs ahead of a dip in global capital markets.
In litigation, an area handled by 38 percent of the firm’s lawyers, the firm continued to handle significant—and sometimes headline-making—matters. Debevoise was retained by daily fantasy sports website FanDuel Ltd. in connection with a range of regulatory issues linked to allegations of a lack of transparency and insider trading. In November, Debevoise filed suit on behalf of FanDuel against the New York Attorney General’s Office, which had demanded that the company stop doing business in the Empire State. Debevoise is also advising The Home Depot Inc. in connection with an internal investigation following a massive data breach that imperiled 56 million customers’ financial information.
Other major matters included helping Chase Card Services negotiate a $186 million settlement with the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and agreements with 47 attorneys general relating to collections litigation and debt sales practices on defaulted credit card debt; advising the Republic of Korea in its defense of an arbitration filed by Abu Dhabi’s International Petroleum Investment Co.; and helping Viacom Inc. secure the dismissal of a nationwide privacy suit that accused the media giant of illegally sharing data about children’s Internet activity on Nickelodeon websites.
Debevoise added three new lateral partners to its white-collar and regulatory bench in 2015. The firm, honored by The American Lawyer in January 2014 as “Litigation Department of the Year,” brought over Matthew Biben from JPMorgan Chase & Co., where he had been general counsel of consumer and community banking. Biben helped negotiate the landmark $25 billion multiservicer National Mortgage Settlement in 2012 with the 50 attorneys general and the U.S. Department of Justice. That same month, Debevoise added David O’Neil, who as acting head of the Justice Department’s criminal division helped the government extract an $8.9 billion plea deal from French banking giant BNP Paribas over its business dealings with Iran. (The American Lawyer recently named O’Neil one of its Lateral All-Stars of 2015.)
Last March, Debevoise officially hired Mark Johnson, a top-tier disputes partner who left global legal giant Herbert Smith Freehills in Hong Kong a few months before. A fourth lateral addition, Sullivan & Cromwell corporate partner William Chua, who focuses on capital markets and private equity matters, joined the firm’s Hong Kong office in January.
“We are focused on building out our franchise practices, which has been the strategy we’ve been pursuing for three years now,” said Debevoise’s Blair.
But will 2016 be as strong for Debevoise?
“It’s way, way too early to tell,” said Blair, noting the slowdown the past seven weeks in capital markets and M&A deal flow generally.