Legal Business Blogs

Some eye watering growth statistics later and its goodbye from Latham’s Bob Dell

When the ordinarily press-shy chair and managing partner of Latham & Watkins, Robert Dell, gave Legal Business his first-ever in depth interview in 2005, the interview began by reminding the reader that ‘Latham & Watkins used to be little more than a Los Angeles-based tax firm with ideas above its station.’

At the time of that interview Dell, who is widely recognised as one of the greatest law firm leaders of his time, had already been at the helm for ten years, since when revenues had grown an eye watering billion dollars, from $260m to $1.2bn in 2004, with profits per equity partner (PEP) having doubled from $550,000 to $1.4m.

Scroll forward almost another decade to last week’s announcement that Dell is retiring, and the most up to date comparative data again serves as a stark reminder of just how far the firm has come.

After nearly two decades and four consecutive terms in the role, revenue is up by yet another billion dollars since 2005 to $2.2bn in 2012. Profit per equity partner during that period has jumped by another million to $2.44m. The firm is right to remind us that ‘this has been achieved without mergers’.

Despite this largely organic approach Latham’s number of offices has risen from 11 at the start of Dell’s term to 31 today and headcount under his watch has increased from 586 on 31 December 1994 – the day before he took over aged just 42 – to over 2100.

And yet in spite of this rapid growth Latham has remained one of the most cohesive and consensual of the global firms, with its famously lengthy lateral hiring process entailing a potential recruit meeting around 100 Latham lawyers and visiting numerous offices before they are signed up.

Latham was also one of the first US firms to introduce a meaningful corporate governance structure and top down strategy and the culture that Dell inherited from his equally long term predecessor Clint Stevenson and fostered to this day is famously transparent and with no head office or profit centre.

Dell will retire in December 2014 at the end of his final term, allowing even a firm that is known not to rush these decisions plenty of time to find a successor. A succession committee has been appointed to ‘oversee the identification and election of a new chair and managing partner for the firm’. The committee is chaired by New York litigation partner Miles Ruthberg, with the remainder of the group drawn from across it different offices and practices.

Latham plans to conduct the election in July 2014, with the new chair working alongside Dell throughout the second half of 2014 before officially starting his or her term on 1 January 2015, when Dell is retiring completely in order to afford his successor space.

As a final matter of curiousity, how did Dell – often described as visionary – predict Latham’s future back in 2005?

‘Next is moving from a strong US firm to be one of the strong global firms, and we are in the middle of that effort.’ He added that the next five years will be about growth in London and New York, before filling out Latham’s European presence in Italy, then Spain, maybe Northern Europe and long term, maybe even after he’s gone, Latin America.