How big can a law firm get?

by Hannah Norton17 Apr 2015
The spotlight is on significant law firm growth following Dentons’ latest merger with US firm McKenna Long & Aldridge, with some commentators envisaging global firms of the future employing 10,000 lawyers within the next five years.

“There is no logical end,” Dentons global chief executive Elliot Portnoy told the Wall Street Journal this week. “We are going to be driven by our strategy.”

One international firm with a New Zealand outfit foreseeing massive growth and consolidation in the global legal industry is DLA Piper.

When asked how big he anticipated DLA Piper becoming globally, DLA Piper New Zealand chairman Martin Wiseman said “as big as is required to serve clients wherever they do business and their general counsels require us to be”.

“[Which is] is a lot bigger when you think of the percentage market share held by the large global professional services firms like Deloitte, PwC, EY and KPMG compared to the much smaller market share held by the global and international law firms.”

Global and international law firms will need to grow to counter the entry into legal services of the large professional service firms, he told NZLawyer.

“In that regard I almost see a convergence into a pool of global firms. So yes, in short DLA Piper will continue to grow and be disruptive in the markets it is in.”

When questioned about the importance of firms having a global focus, Wiseman responded: “I think it depends on who your clients are and what your vision is.

“If you aspire to serve the general counsels of multi-national businesses wherever they do business - very important. If, like DLA Piper your vision is to be a leading global business law firm, a global focus goes without saying.”

But it was also imperative to maintain a local focus at the same time.

“Having a local focus, having bench strength in local markets and being networked in local markets is still very, very important to DLA Piper.

“For example, as a corporate lawyer in Auckland, I need to know - and be known by - the accountants, investment bankers, banks and many other players in Auckland.”

Wiseman said firms like DLA Piper would be looking to expand in places where the general counsel of the clients needed them to be.

“Having said that, certain markets spring to mind - being Africa, China and South America; and the hitherto relatively closed to international firms’ legal markets of Canada and India.”
Meanwhile, in Australia, Baker & McKenzie’s Australia managing partner, Chris Freeland, told Australasian Lawyer the legal profession will follow what has happened in nearly every other profession, adding that domestic only firms are a diminishing part of the market. 

“We are the most global of any of the firms and we think there is still room to grow.  We opened an office in Brisbane last year; it’s no surprise that Africa is the next frontier for law firms globally and so they’ll get bigger,” said Freeland.  “We absolutely, unashamedly are looking to grow.”

In Freeland’s view, law firms are behind in the expansion game compared with other industries. “Law firms are only just waking up to this in the last less than five years that there is tremendous value, and not only value, but clients are demanding that of us,” he said.  “Frankly, the other professions have done this a long time ago.”