The contrasting headlines are striking. Two days after Fried Frank announced that it was pulling out of Asia, Dentons revealed that its partners had voted to jump in — big time. A week later, a ceremony that looked like a treaty-signing marked the combination of Dentons with Asia’s largest law firm, Dacheng Law Offices. The result is now a 6,600-lawyer behemoth.
A Big Bet
Dacheng and Dentons share some things in common. Both firms are themselves products of rapid inorganic growth. Dacheng was founded in 1992. Its website now boasts more than 4,000 lawyers worldwide.
Dentons resulted from transactions that combined four law firms — Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, Denton Wilde Sapte (UK), Salans (France), and Fraser Milner Casgrain (Canada) — into an organizational form known as a Swiss verein. Each firm maintains its own profit pool but shares strategy, branding, IT and other core functions. According to its website at the time of the Dacheng deal, 2,600 lawyers carried the “Dentons” brand.
But a brand is not a business, and any brand is only as good as its underlying product. Law firms have a single product to sell: the talent of their personnel. The most important challenge that comes with inorganic growth is maintaining consistent quality. In that regard and perhaps more than any other business, law firms have precious little margin for error.
In responding to anticipated questions on that subject, Dentons global CEO Elliott Portnoy framed the issue, but never really responded to it: “We know our competition will suggest that this dilutes profitability and will raise questions about quality control. But the simple truth is that we’re going to be able to generate more revenue, increase our profitability and position ourselves as a truly multicultural firm.”
The Big Question
Apart from failing to address the quality question, sound bites about multiculturalism don’t answer a central question: What will the culture of the combined organization become?
The practical differences between Dentons and Dacheng are enormous. According to The American Lawyer, average revenue per Dacheng lawyer is $78,000. In the October 2014 America Lawyer Global 100 listing, Dentons’ RPL was $505,000. Even with separate revenue and profits pools, integrating these two giants will still be something to behold.
For example, the leadership structure of the new entity reads like the fine print on securities filing. The American Lawyer reports:
“The combined firm will also have a Chinese chair, and none of the five vereins will have a majority of board seats. Any single verein can also block a policy it doesn’t agree with. In the combined firm, the global board will be increased from 15 to 19, with five seats for the Chinese verein and the same number for the U.S. verein. Andrew says the future number of Chinese seats will be adjusted according to the verein’s revenue growth. The chair of the global board, which includes all five vereins, will be Peng; Portnoy will remain the firm’s global CEO, and Andrew will continue to be the firm’s outward face as global chair of the combined firm.”
The Big Risk
The principal question that any leader embarking on a merger of equals should ask is: What happens if it fails? Among other things, leadership requires risk management. Anticipating worst-case scenarios might lead to decisions that outsiders view as too conservative. But the downside consequence of failing to consider those scenarios can be fatal. Just ask the former partners of Dewey & LeBoeuf.
In that respect, the nearly simultaneous decision of Fried Frank to exit Asia after a nearly decade-long effort to gain traction there is interesting. That firm’s China entry began in 2006 with lateral hires from Hong Kong. A year later, it opened an office in Shanghai. But it began deliberating the fate of its Asia presence in 2009 before reaching its recent decision to leave.
According to firm chairman David Greenwald “discipline and good business judgment” led the firm to close its China offices. He deserves credit for a tough decision and forceful action. Calling the time of death on any failed effort is never easy.
In commenting to the American Lawyer about Fried Frank’s departure, law firm consultant Peter Zeughauser said, ““Nobody wants to admit defeat, but Fried Frank might be the canary in the mineshaft. China has always been a hard market, and with the local firms getting much stronger and starting to capture the lion’s share, it’s not getting any easier. Some firms will view it as a necessary investment for the future, but for others, it’s just not worth it.”
Different Approaches; Different Outcomes?
Published reports suggest that Fried Frank initially went into China hoping to capitalize on its existing relationships with U.S. clients — including Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch. Dentons appears to have a dramatically different strategy: joining forces with the largest of the China-based firms that Zeughauser identified as getting stronger.
Whatever else happens, the leaders of Dacheng-Dentons can say that they once presided over the largest ever lawyer branding experiment. Especially for Dentons, it involves a big bet. For the sake of everyone involved, let’s hope it’s on the right horse.