Best Lawyers® — 26/01/2016 at 15:36

Bigger, Stronger, Faster

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“You gotta be careful who you root for—you might antagonize someone.” Those were the words from Dentons’ global chief executive, Elliott Portnoy, advising caution when selecting professional sporting teams to cheer on, from the perspective of a leader in what is now the largest law firm in the world, by head count.

And that sentiment is at the heart of the Dentons self-styled “polycentric” approach, meaning that many of the cosmopolitan firm’s 6,600 attorneys in 128 offices in 52 countries are multilingual and work out of offices in more than one of Dentons’ home cities, and that the firm attaches itself to no national culture, no flag, and emphasizes localism in each of its offices.

Playing on the current super-trend toward mergers and acquisitions in the legal industry, Dentons merged with the largest law firm in China, 大成, in January 2015, officially accepting the mantle of setting a good example, forging through the challenges and reaping the benefits of what it means to be a truly global law firm. Yet more mergers and acquisitions since then have expanded Dentons’ seemingly unstoppable empire: In November 2015, the firm announced plans to combine with Rodyk & Davidson in Singapore, Australian firm Gadens, and OPF Partners in Luxembourg. Those proposed moves, as well as the firm’s new office in Milan, Italy, and a new office in Johannesburg, South Africa [the first Level 1 Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) status office for a large, global firm], bolster Dentons’ plan to buttress their holdings in the Pacific Rim and Africa, two markets with what Mr. Portnoy calls “growth potential.”

“We follow our clients to the markets where they have business needs to provide them seamless service at a local, national, and global level.”

And although being the biggest kid on the team seems—rightly—like a position of power, it is not without its pitfalls. “We follow our clients to the markets where they have business needs to provide them seamless service at a local, national, and global level,” says Portnoy. Dentons’ broad and fast-paced growth strategy has drawn some criticism for opening them to possible conflicts of interest or to the dangers of spreading themselves too thin. But Portnoy says their strategy has been different from a lot of other global-growth firms.

“In China, many law firms believe their focus should only be in Beijing and Shanghai and Hong Kong, to focus exclusively on foreign investment into China,” says Portnoy. “But last year was the first year in China that outbound investment exceeded inbound, which means success there today means something very different. It’s about Ningbo and Shenzhen and Xi’an and all these incredibly dynamic cities that are home to both private and state enterprises that are actively doing business all over the world.” This method gives Dentons unparalleled access to Asia Pacific clients, and the same goes for their approach in Africa, according to Portnoy. “Many competitors have gone to South Africa, a very important market in Africa, and combined with traditional, white Afrikaner firms. We wanted to do something different and became the first law firm to combine with a black-owned law firm.”

As for challenges brought by going the less-traveled road—one that often leads into regions of turbulence? Says Portnoy, “Being one of the largest global firms in Russia and Ukraine, and the largest in the Middle East, national and international economic and political events require us to have a different degree of agility to navigate those circumstances. We address the safety of our attorneys, obtain state of the art information and data protection infrastructure, and ensure that we meet our clients’ needs uninterrupted.”

And Dentons isn’t stopping there. Though Portnoy says that growth is not the end goal in itself, and emphasizes that they are “following their clients’ business needs,” he admits that in the future Dentons will be yet larger and more widespread.

To that end, in November 2015, Dentons announced that its partners are voting on a combination with yet two more law firms: Cárdenas & Cárdenas in Colombia and López Velarde, Heftye y Soria (LVHS) in Mexico. If these considerations become reality, it would be “the first physical presence” for Dentons in Latin America—and a presence on every habitable continent on the planet (excluding Antarctica).

Eva Saviano / Best Lawyers Winter Business Edition 2015

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