Debevoise & Plimpton LLP

John W Rife III
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP

University: University of Manchester           
Degree: Politics
Year of qualification: 2009
Position: Partner
Department: Corporate

What attracted you to a career in law?

I was drawn to the legal profession because it requires you to apply academic knowledge and skills in a very practical way.

Did you train at Debevoise & Plimpton?

I did, I was part of the firm’s third ever trainee intake in 2007. I grew up in the US and moved to the UK just before I began university. I was a complete newcomer and didn’t know much about training contracts or the fact that students were being sponsored through the postgraduate courses by the law firms they were joining. One of my lecturers on the GDL took a degree of pity on me, I think, and helped introduce me to someone who worked at Debevoise – it was through them that I first learned about the firm.

Please outline your area of expertise. What might you do in a typical day?

I set up private equity funds, which involves working with fund sponsors to establish and market private funds, negotiating with institutional investors around the terms of their investments into those funds and then advising the fund sponsor with respect to ongoing matters relating to their funds.

The course of a regular day could include everything from helping to design the structure for a sponsor’s next private equity fund, to working on the marketing materials and disclosure documentation that they will need to produce, to drafting the legal documentation for the fund itself. The part I like the most is negotiating with the institutional investors, who are based all over the world, and finding ways to build partnerships that last 10 or 15 years. Nobody is trying to win – it’s about trying to ensure that everyone’s interests are aligned in order to create a mutually beneficial relationship that can endure.  

It sounds like business development is a vital part of the job…

Absolutely, it’s an incredibly important part of my job and also the wider private equity industry. It is made easier by the fact that I am working with people who also appreciate the importance of both personal and institutional relationships.

Does your team work with other departments in the firm?

Yes, on any matter that I’m working on there will normally be London-based UK and US tax lawyers working on it with me. Meanwhile, our finance department will be arranging the bank lending facility for the private equity fund we’re setting up; and once the fund is established, my M&A colleagues will help it to deploy its capital as it buys private businesses. And of course, if things go pear-shaped, the litigation team is there to step in.

What stands out for you about working at Debevoise & Plimpton?

One thing that always attracted me to the firm – and is probably the main reason that I have stayed at Debevoise for my whole career – is that it is a lockstep firm. That means that every first-year partner globally is paid the same amount, every seventh-year associate is on the same pay level and so on. What that does is engender a culture that values collaboration and collegiality, which is good for clients because they always get referred to the person in the firm who is best placed to advise them – there is no incentive to try to hoard work because you are not in competition with your colleagues.

It is all part of the firm’s commitment to the quality of work we do. Starting out, I was surprised at the variation in quality of work that you see at some other firms, but here excellence is expected and the whole culture of the firm is geared toward facilitating that.

What do you most/least enjoy about your career and why?

One of the things I love most about my job is that no two days are the same.

Keeping timesheets and tracking how I’m spending every minute of my day is probably my least favourite aspect of working in the law. But that is a small annoyance – I don’t think it would be possible to do this job and not love it, because it is such a big part of your life.

What has been your highlight of working at the firm so far?

It has to be becoming the first English-qualified lawyer to train at the firm and become a partner.

What is the social side of the firm’s culture like?

We have the full range of affinity groups, networks and sports teams that you would expect at a large commercial firm. There is also a very active social scene, which I would say is a little less formal than some of the English firms in that after-work drinks and so on are often impromptu, while more formal events take place four or five times a year.  

What is your dream holiday destination?

Patagonia in Argentina – one day!

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