How big can a law firm get?

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Dentons’ latest merger with US firm McKenna Long & Aldridge and the appointment of 30 new staff in Hungary this morning, has sparked discussion around law firm growth, with some commentators predicting 10,000 lawyer firms could become a reality in the next five years.

When asked how big Dentons would become, global CEO Elliott Portnoy told the Wall Street Journal this week “there is no logical end.  We are going to be driven by our strategy.”

Global law firms DLA Piper and Baker & McKenzie are also among the international players predicting a period of considerable growth and consolidation for the legal industry. 

Baker & McKenzie’s Australia managing partner, Chris Freeland, said 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.”

DLA Piper Managing partner, John Weber said firms are looking to China in their expansion, and other regions where they can better service their clients by being on the ground.

“Any firm with aspirations to be global will be looking further afield, particularly to China, and aiming to increase in size as markets continue to globalise. It isn't always necessarily just a question of size, but also geographic footprint,” he said.

“Ultimately success will depend on the ability of law firms to provide high quality and seamless support to clients across the globe.”

He said that as professional services firms, the legal industry has to be where the clients are operating.

According to Freeland, being a global firm isn’t without its challenges, and with scale comes the need for a greater level of organisation.

“Inevitably when you are bigger it’s more difficult to communicate as easily and as smoothly.  We think we do it pretty well, but of course if you’re not sitting next to someone in the office next door, you bump into time zone issues and technology issues,” he said. 

“We think we manage those pretty well but it’s true that as you get bigger, some of the things that are much easier to do when you are in one office are much harder to do when you have 77 offices.”
 
 

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