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Dentons must have a large support staff whose only job is to introduce the firm’s new partners to each other. Three months ago, it joined with the massive China-based Dacheng to create the world’s largest law firm — or whatever it is. Now McKenna Long & Aldridge’s partners will merge their 420 lawyers into the Dentons North American verein.
Well, not all 420 lawyers because, as McKenna Long’s chairman Jeffrey Haidet told the Daily Report, “There will probably be some fallout from the legacy partnership. It’s unfortunate….”
There’s nothing unfortunate about the deal for Haidet, whose personal “fallout” will make him co-CEO in Dentons-US.
Eliminating The Opposition
Haidet tried to make this deal in 2013, but according to the Daily Report, it collapsed when a few key McKenna Long partners balked over concerns about losing the McKenna identity and name. The currently prevailing big law firm business model doesn’t value such dissent. So it’s no surprise that during 2014 McKenna Long lost a greater percentage of its partners (22.3 percent) than any other Am Law 200 firm.
Haidet told the American Lawyer that some of his firm’s record-setting 59 departures last year “were of partners who disagreed with the firm’s growth strategy.” That’s not surprising either, since that strategy apparently involved extinguishing the firm itself. A venerable Atlanta institution that is also highly regarded for its Washington, DC government contracts and policy work will soon disappear.
If and when McKenna Long releases its financial results for 2014, the underlying motivations behind Haidet’s renewed discussions with Dentons may become clearer. Perhaps the firm’s financial performance limited its options. But this much is obvious: Compared with McKenna Long’s earlier focus that gave it a clear identity, the partners who survive this transaction will join an organization that has an open-ended goal, namely, getting bigger.
Dentons’ global CEO Elliott Portnoy told the Wall Street Journal, “There is no logical end.” That echoed global chair Joseph Andrews’ remarks in an earlier article: “We compete with everyone. We compete with the largest law firms in the world and the smallest law firms.” Combine those two thoughts from the top of Dentons’ leadership team and it sounds like an effort to be all things to any and all potential clients.
“We’re going to be driven by our strategy,” Portnoy told the Journal. Even so, it looks like the strategy is growth for the sake of growth — a dangerous path. But as Andrews put it, they’re out to prove everybody else wrong about the perils of that approach: “What we’re trying to do is to take these myths that have gathered in the legal profession and say (they’re) not true.”
The Evidence Speaks
Andrews and Portnoy are fighting more than “myths.” Last year, the 2014 Georgetown/Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor Report on the Legal Profession devoted most of its annual report to the folly of growth alone as a business strategy. It begins by debunking the argument that increased size means economies of scale and cost savings:
“[O]nce a firm achieves a certain size, diseconomies of scale can actually set in. Large firms with multiple offices — particularly ones in multiple countries — are much more difficult to manage than smaller firms. They require a much higher investment of resources to achieve uniformity in quality and service delivery and to meet the expectations of clients for efficiency, predictability, and cost effectiveness. They also face unique challenges in maintaining collegial and collaborative cultures, particularly in the face of rapid growth resulting from mergers or large-scale lateral acquisitions.”
In addition to the quality and cultural issues discussed in my February post on the Dacheng deal, Dentons’ expanding administrative structure prompts this question: How many CEOs can a law firm have at one time? In addition to global CEO Portnoy and global chairman Andrews, Haidet will join four other current Dentons CEOs. Additional senior management will result from implementing the Dacheng deal.
Turning to the key question, the Georgetown Report notes, “[G]rowth for growth’s sake is not a viable strategy in today’s legal market. The notion that clients will come if only a firm builds a large enough platform or that, despite obvious trends toward the disaggregation of legal services, clients will somehow be attracted to a ‘one-stop shopping’ solution is not likely a formula for success.”
Compare that analysis to the Wall Street Journal’s summary of Dentons’ strategic plan: “[T]he firm hopes to become a one-stop shop for big corporations and small businesses alike.”
The Georgetown Report’s most intriguing suggestion is that a law firm’s pursuit of indiscriminate growth can mask a failure of true leadership:
“Strategy should drive growth and not the other way around. In our view, much of the growth that has characterized the legal market in recent years fails to conform to this simple rule and frankly masks a bigger problem — the continuing failure of most firms to focus on strategic issues that are more important for their long-term success than the number of lawyers or offices they may have.”
As a way for law firm leaders to convince their partners that they have a strategic vision, the Report continues, growth is “a more politically palatable than a message that we need to fundamentally change the way we do our work.”
Drawing an analogy to Amity Police Chief Martin Brody’s line (delivered by Roy Scheider) in the movie Jaws, the Georgetown Report concludes, “For most firms…the goal should be not to ‘build a bigger boat’ but rather to build a better one.”
Dentons has already built an enormous boat and, as Portnoy said, “There is no logical end.” Someday soon we’ll know if it’s a better boat, and whether it even floats.