Dentons Chair on ‘The Big Picture Race’ to Move Upstream

In today’s legal market, a lawyer who considers him or herself a generalist and doesn’t adapt to change may find themselves out of the job.

At least that’s the case at the 7,600-lawyer Dentons, which this week experienced a mild tremor as news surfaced in The American Lawyer that “as many as 20 or more partners have been forced out” of the firm since January.

The negative publicity of the layoffs still lingering Tuesday afternoon, the firm’s chair Joseph Andrew stressed that the development should be taken in appropriate context, and explained that the firm — about two years after its mega merger with China’s Dacheng — is attempting to refine its ranks.

“We are going to continue to tailor our offerings,” said Andrew. “We want to be bespoke here. We want to lead, not just to be the largest.”

Part of that means Dentons will have to change its personnel, he said. Although Andrew didn’t identify lawyers affected by the reported layoffs, he said many of Dentons lawyers are being encouraged to specialize in particular practice areas.

“You have to be a really high-profile generalist in the United States [to be successful],” added Andrew. “It’s really about having that defined area of expertise. If someone says that’s not for me, that’s fine, but they might obviously choose to go to a different place, or we may ask them to.”

To be sure, the departures should be placed in the big picture: as Andrew put it, “a couple dozen” people leaving a firm of 200 lawyers is much different than a “couple dozen” leaving a firm of nearly 8,000. And yet, when it hits the press, the lawyers and headhunters eat it up all the same.

As Dentons continues to march into 2017, Big Law Business caught up with Andrew about how the firm is coming into its own, where it’s looking for new geographies for growth, and news about recent layoffs. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

 

Big Law Business: What can you tell us about the news today?

Andrew: We never comment on individual partners and individual activities, but in each one of our regions across the globe, we do as every single law firm does, which is having routine reviews, which is making sure we can meet client needs. I read your interview with Louise Pentland, who like all GCs is looking at different law firms and judging them differently than they used to. Dentons is a big beneficiary of that. We have won more panels and awards of all sorts and types in 2016. That’s all because our clients and general counsel like Louise are looking at firms not just based on brand, but they are trying to come up with objective indicia of the quality of service they provide. They want to have a contemporary sense of what service and responsiveness is like, and therefore, the make-up of partners across the globe is going to constantly change to meet clients need.

 

We want to be bespoke here.

 

We are not going to comment on any individual, but they are going to come up with their own individual stories about why they are going to their firms to do something different. What has really changed fundamentally in the profession is the rate of change. We are trying to make change part of the routine. That is very much part of the strategy: from largest to leading. I have never met a client who cares that we have 8,000 lawyers. They need just one. But it’s more likely we can find one that they need. You have got to continue to make sure your internal programs work on improving the quality of your service. People are going to choose if they want to be part of a high performance culture. Many do not. That doesn’t mean we won’t be in every jurisdiction. But we are certainly not going to be right for every lawyer. Some are more comfortable in organizations that don’t change as much or as quickly as we do.

We are going to continue to tailor our offerings. We want to be bespoke here. We want to lead, not just to be the largest. We will have people join and people will inevitably ask to move on.

 

Joe Andrew

Joe Andrew, Chair, Dentons.

 

Big Law Business: So what does that look like? Is the firm focusing more on specific geographies, practice areas, industries, or is it cracking down on under performers across the board?

Andrew: Performance is actually defined differently in different legal cultures. What clients assume they will need in the United States is different than what they need in Bogota and Berlin. There is a different sense of what lawyers do. So first, it’s hard to generalize about the specificity in multiple markets.

 

The big picture race here is that you have to move however upstream you can, in a business driven culture. That may be the only work that is left.

 

Fundamentally, clients often have two different types of law firms. They have a law firm that is their leading law firm, however they define that — doing a bet the company deal or major litigation — and then they have a general firm that is for everything else. What you see across the board is that all these big ten firms, they have competed against each other for leading work. Being the firm that increases your Chambers rating and wins awards and so on. It’s not a size of the client or size of matter issue. The reason they are focused on that is that the legal profession is changing so fast around us. There are many people who believe the firms that are not truly leading and the most important, those will be more likely not be in the realm of an outside law firm in the future. Those are things that become commodities — work that lawyers bring in-house, or someone other than a law firm might do that. The big picture race here is that you have to move however upstream you can, in a business driven culture. That may be the only work that is left. In the past we moved upstream because it’s easier to bill, and build a brand on it. The work would appear on the front page of the newspaper. It’s still true, but the heart and soul of the legal profession is moving because you don’t know if the work will be there.

Dentons has had some advantages. We have had some people moved up in Chambers. And we have volume in size. Internally, we can develop expertise and specialization faster than others, because we have more lawyers. That internal structure needs to be about connecting lawyers with the opportunity, and not just the lawyer who has done it once or twice, but the lawyer who has done it hundreds of times. You have to have partners who really fit into that model. To get a sense… you have to constantly be reviewing the offerings you have. We are going to do that because our clients are doing it faster. What you do every other year, now you have to do every year. You are going to try to have that continuous self-improvement to self-reviews. That is what it means to go from largest to leading.

 

Big Law Business: Does that mean Dentons lawyers should expect more reviews? 

Andrew: The missing word is opportunity. If someone has an interest in a given area, it means opportunity. If they are really fascinated by a topic, that this is what they live for… they really thrive in our environment because we can steer to the particular thing that they are fascinated about. It used to be that you could be a generalist. An environmental lawyer could dabble in a bunch of renewables, and oil and gas deals and solar…. [Today,] our clients [looking for a solar deal lawyer] don’t just accidentally get a lawyer who has done a couple of solar deals. Rather, that’s all the do. Every couple of hours they are doing a solar deal.

You have to be a really high profile generalist in the United States [to be successful]. It’s really about having that defined area of expertise. If someone says that’s not for me, that’s fine, but they might obviously choose to go to a different place, or we may ask them to.

 

Big Law Business: A number of large law firms focus on key industry sectors and practices. Does this mean Dentons is going to start doing that now?

Andrew: We have the luxury of having a handful of firms that don’t have to have core areas. If you have deep expertise, you can make money doing anything as long as you are the leading law firm in that area.

You grow up in law firm leadership and think you only have to do a couple core things and do them really well, but that’s just not true. You have to do the opposite. You have to connect with clients. Some could care less about solar and alternative energy. For others, that’s their core issue.

 

I have done more law firm combinations over the past couple years than any other firm has in history and we are just getting started. 

 

Big Law Business: Dentons has grown rapidly in a very short period of time. Do you feel the firm has reached its peak and the firm is now trying to improve the quality of talent it has acquired?

Andrew: It’s not an ‘either or’ question for Dentons. It’s not, ‘If you are set in terms of growth, therefore you are going to now carve the firm you want.’ We are doing both. The way you get expertise and become the leading law firm in what is core for a client is that we continue to dramatically grow and have more places in more business sectors. We are barely getting started on our growth plan, in order to increase the quality of the work plan. I have done more law firm combinations over the past couple years than any other firm has in history and we are just getting started. We will have more deals this year. We tend to get less press for them now because everyone just yawns, because we’ve done so many. Not that all will be big blockbusters than we might have done in China and the U.S. But there are legal jurisdictions and specialties that we are not in.

 

Big Law Business: Any insight into where the firm is headed next? 

Andrew: It’s pretty easy to look at the globe and see where we are not and that’s where we are looking at.  We aren’t in Latin America, so you can guess we are focused on Latin America.

 

Big Law Business: Why is your firm set on this strategy, of rapid expansion and simultaneous specialization per attorney? Why do you think it will work? 

Andrew: We are doing it for a different reason than most. Most firms are doing it because they have no choice.

There is renewed interest. [GCs aren’t just hiring] the same law firms they were at, when it was an old boys club and there was no way to assess the law firm. Now, you find more younger, diverse GCs who really want people to demonstrate they know what they are talking about. At the same time, they are using fewer law firms, and they need fewer law firms with more expertise.

 

Have a news tip, comment or inquiry? Write to Big Law Business at biglawbusiness@bna.com.

 

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