Everywhere I go in legal circles these days, people ask about Dentons. How incredible it would have been even 18 months ago that this child of a second-line Illinois player and the most battered City law brand of the 2000s would attract such interest. Much of that attention is aghast that this dismissed institution has emerged somehow after a remarkable 2015 as the world’s most lawyered firm.
Given the chequered history, the scepticism is understandable and was shared by Legal Business as we sat down to hear the Dentons pitch to potential suitors for this month’s cover feature. But that presentation – backed by Dentons’ dynamic duo of Elliott Portnoy and Joe Andrew (pictured) – is pretty good. Whatever the chinks in the armour (and there are chinks), the basic premise stands up. The legal industry called time on globalisation in the 2000s amid a series of troubled mergers, inter-firm competition and the fallout from the banking crisis. But that’s not to say there isn’t a good case for building a genuine global giant. Quickly.
The speed point is material. The difference between law firms that do or don’t have momentum is night and day. Yet the industry, buoyed by low failure rates, opts for safe and stodgy again and again. Take Baker & McKenzie, a pioneering firm that has spent the last 15 years integrating and polishing its network. I’ve no sense that this approach – as opposed to trying anything dramatic – has put Bakers any closer to securing a breakthrough than a decade ago. Bakers is losing relevance. DLA Piper also lost something when it started trying to be too respectable. You have to give Dentons credit for using the verein structure for what it always looked to be good for: blisteringly fast consolidation rather than a watered down merger. It’s not an approach likely to challenge elite advisers in the near future but there is room for a firm handling broad service for major clients on a genuinely global basis.
Can such consolidation be managed in a conventional sense? Probably not but it’s not a given that the conventional idea of management is the only option on the table. Are Big Four accountancy firms managed as one unit or do they have varying networks in which members’ fortunes rise and fall? To an extent, the latter but that doesn’t invalidate the model or the reality that the wider institution can generate a huge gravitational pull that draws members along. People respond to feeling part of something going somewhere. Even lawyers. And why logically shouldn’t the legal industry develop a few 10,000-lawyer giants?
That’s not to say that the critics lack material. Dentons has been stitched together by a group of firms that have in some cases struggled to assert themselves or faltered. And so far there has been little evidence that the combined firm can deliver organic growth to match the marketing. Dentons will have to do better here in the next three to five years as all the mergers in the world won’t obscure an inability to organically compete in key global markets. The showmanship and fresh thinking of Andrew and Portnoy will also have to be matched by a more consistent and rigorous approach. Given what they’ve achieved with a weak hand, the pair are respected and liked, but they are prone to defensiveness and can make off-the-cuff decisions that cut against a coherent working strategy. There are still areas in which the gap between soaring rhetoric and prosaic reality is too big. Dentons still has a lot to prove.
But at least they are doing something different, which in big picture terms is more than you can say about 99% of the profession for the last 15 years. Will it work? I honestly don’t know. No-one’s ever tried it before. But they’ve got a shot – a genuine shot – at redefining the globalisation of law in a way that looked unthinkable a little over a year ago. And that’s worth talking about.
See ‘The pitch’ for our in-depth analysis of Dentons.