Cleary Gottlieb was established more than 75 years ago in New York and Washington, D.C. by seven lawyers with notably different backgrounds, diverse interests, and a range of skills who ventured to create a new kind of law firm for their time.
Despite their differences, these seven lawyers—George Cleary, Leo Gottlieb, Henry Friendly, Mel Steen, Hugh Cox, Fowler Hamilton, and George Ball—shared a deep respect for each other’s intellectual prowess, high professional standards, and progressive social values. They had built prestigious careers in post-war government service and as partners in the Wall Street law firm of Root Clark Buckner and Howland, but were driven by a further sense of purpose.
This common “vision and audacity,” as George Ball would later call it, inspired them to form a law firm in which internal competition would be avoided to the fullest possible extent, and democratic principles would reign supreme. It was in this spirit that they based the firm’s name on each partner’s age seniority, and established equal profit-sharing among partners.
Four years later, in 1949, Cleary would become one of the first U.S.-based firms to open a European office. The firm hired and trained local European lawyers, included them as equal partners, and established a leading position in Europe. Soon after, Cleary expanded its international practice to Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Today, Cleary is widely regarded as preeminent in the areas where we work. And we remain proudly rooted in the forward-looking vision, collegial values, and inclusive ethos of our founding partners.
Firm History by the Years
1946 – 1959
- Cleary opens offices simultaneously in New York and Washington, D.C. on January 1, 1946. The firm’s founders are seven partners from the Wall Street law firm of Root Clark Buckner and Howland: George Cleary, Leo Gottlieb, Henry Friendly, Mel Steen, Hugh Cox, Fowler Hamilton, and George Ball.
- Cleary opens its first international office in Paris in 1949, one of the first U.S.-based firms to do so after World War II, playing a critical role in the implementation of the Marshall Plan and in the development of an economic plan for post-war Europe.
1960 – 1969
- Cleary establishes an office in Brussels in 1960 to better serve its clients, including Jean Monnet, chief architect of the European Community. The foresight to open an office in Brussels, long before any U.S. or European law firms developed a presence of any significance there, positions the firm to build a leading international practice in what is now the principal seat of EU institutions.
- Representing a long-held commitment to pro bono work, Cleary establishes the first law firm externship program in 1968. One year later, “externs” begin temporary full-time positions at MFY Legal Services, a not-for-profit organization that annually provides legal representation and community education to thousands of low-income households.
1970 – 1989
- Cleary opens an office in London in 1971, strengthening the firm’s position in Europe, and opens an office in Hong Kong in 1980, establishing a presence in Asia.
- Cleary opens a Tokyo office in 1987, immediately after the Japanese government changes its rules to permit non-Japanese lawyers to practice in Japan. Although the firm would later close this office in 2006, it would contribute to a prevailing presence in Asia.
1990 – 2004
- The firm establishes a presence in Russia with the opening of its Moscow office in 1991, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the thawing of the Cold War. This office closed in 2022.
- Cleary also opens an office in Frankfurt in 1991 with two homegrown German partners, strategically positioning the firm to participate in the rapid development of Germany’s financial markets.
- Cleary establishes an office in Rome in 1998 with two partners and several associates from our Brussels office, and later opens an office in Milan in 2001 in the center of the city’s business district, the result of its rapidly expanding practice in Italy. Chambers and Partners honors the firm with its inaugural “International Law Firm of the Year” award in 2001 as well, recognizing Cleary’s preeminence as a leader in the marketplace for sophisticated, global legal services.
- The firm establishes an office in Cologne in 2004, one of Europe’s most important business centers, building on the success of its practice in Germany and expanding its commitment to the growing German market.
2005 – Present
- Cleary establishes an office in Beijing in 2006 to further support its Asia practice and its clients conducting business in the rapidly expanding Chinese economy. The firm would later open an office in Seoul in 2012 to establish its Korea practice and further bolster its Asia presence.
- The firm continues its global expansion and formalizes its nearly 50-year presence in Latin America with the opening of offices in Buenos Aires in 2009 and São Paulo in 2011. These openings highlight a regional practice that has already established itself as one of the most accomplished in the world. Cleary would eventually close its Buenos Aires office in 2022.
- The firm opens its Abu Dhabi office in 2012 to offer clients in the Middle East and North Africa, and those doing business in the region, access to the full range of the firm’s services, including its leading practices in mergers and acquisitions, capital markets, litigation and arbitration, bankruptcy and restructuring, and project finance and infrastructure.
- After decades of working with clients in Silicon Valley and San Francisco, Cleary opens in the Bay Area in 2021, handling antitrust, M&A, and capital markets work on transformative deals, as well as high-stakes litigation, investigations, and enforcement matters.