Business & Leadership

"A very different approach": An interview with Dentons' CEO Elliott Portnoy

Elliott Portnoy (Global CEO) & Joe Andrew (Global Chairman) have led the firm over five years and stood unopposed in the reelection in November 2018 as they continued to expand the firm globally. We spoke last year with Elliott Portnoy about Dentons’ manifesto of expansion plans for 2019. It is remarkable that the firm successfully delivered on the promises it made.

In this recent interview, Elliott Portnoy discusses the firm’s recent expansions, Dentons’ criteria while combining with a law firm as well as the firm’s vision for 2020.

Elliott Portnoy (Global CEO) & Joe Andrew (Global Chairman) have led the firm over five years and stood unopposed in the reelection in November 2018 as they continued to expand the firm globally. We spoke last year with Elliott Portnoy about Dentons’ manifesto of expansion plans for 2019. It is remarkable that the firm successfully delivered on the promises it made. In this recent interview, Elliott Portnoy discusses the firm’s recent expansions, Dentons’ criteria while combining with a law firm as well as the firm’s vision for 2020.

You can read the 2018 interview of Elliott Portnoy here.



Leaders League: Let’s talk about Dentons’ recent expansions in Latin America and Africa in 2019. Just in the last couple of months Dentons combined with two new law firms in Argentina and Uruguay and announced five whole-firm combinations in Africa in one single day. What is so unique about the expansions in Africa & Latin America?  



Elliott Portnoy: As a starting point, it continues to be a source of great pride and importance for our firm and our clients that our competitors are withdrawing from these markets or scaling back, and we are doubling down and entering into the markets that our clients tell us are the most important for their respective businesses. Each one of these markets is significant in its own right and each one of the combinations is distinct as each law firm has a unique history, set of values and outstanding people so each combination deserves a separate discussion.



Coming back to the recent combinations, our strategy in both Latin America & the Caribbean (LAC) and Africa is very much inconsistent with the strategies that our competitors have followed. Our competitors in Africa and LAC either try to serve those business markets from another place or they send lawyers from their home market or headquarters into the new market to try to meet client needs. In a way, it’s a colonial or invasion approach that characterizes our competitors. Our competitors will have a Latin America desk in Miami or hire a lawyer in London to fly in and out of Africa to serve client needs. On the contrary, Dentons has an entirely different approach, we do whole-firm combinations in each of those markets with the leading local law firms with deep roots in the community and outstanding talent. So, we offer very different client propositions than our competitors.



In Latin America and Africa, we are now truly the only pan-African and pan-Latin American and Caribbean law firm. We take a very different approach when you consider all of the locations where we now meet client needs and the way we do so. We don’t hire a group of laterals, we don’t send lawyers from one place to do business in another, instead, we combine with leading law firms. We are particularly proud of what we have built-in Africa with the leadership with our Africa CEO, Noor Kapdi, and LAC CEO, Jorge Alers. Joe Andrew and I are very proud of having such outstanding regional CEOs at Dentons.



Can you tell us about Dentons’ next expansion plans and strategies? 



We have ambitious plans to grow in our existing markets and into new markets. As the fastest-growing law firm in the world, we expect to see the growth we have had in 2019, continue it in 2020. There will be further growth in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean and in the ASEAN region where we now have a very strong presence in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar, and several other existing markets. We anticipate continued growth & focus in many of the other markets, chief amongst them would be the United States on the heels of our recent announcement of the golden Spike model. The combinations with Pittsburgh-based Cohen & Grigsby and the Midwest’s Bingham Greenebaum Doll are the first step in creating the first truly national US law firm.



Please tell us more about the Golden Spike campaign in the US. What was the rationale behind this campaign?



We are enormously excited about the effort and it begins with our assessment that there is no “truly national” law firm in the United States. Many firms hold themselves as national law firms but in reality, when you see where they meet their client needs, it is remarkable that the global law firms or even the US law firms don’t exist in all top 10 legal markets and none of them are in all 20 of the top 20 legal markets. These are very significant legal markets with outstanding clients, lawyers, and business operations. The legal spend in those markets is also quite significant. Markets such as Pittsburgh and Indianapolis are very large markets competing with the legal market size of countries as big as Poland or Saudi Arabia. Yet, global law firms still don’t believe they should have a presence in such markets.



We have taken a very different approach and are focused on building the very first “truly national” law firm in the US - which is what we describe as Golden Spike-so named in honor of the celebratory railroad spike that completed the first transcontinental railroad in the US and united the country in commerce. Creating a national law firm has not been done before, but we believe that there is an opening in the marketplace to build that “truly national” law firm. Achieving that requires an innovative approach. Law firm mergers are exceedingly challenging to execute on and we have seen that many efforts of law firms’ mergers have fallen apart.



To overcome this issue, Dentons has introduced a new, unique model— a dual partnership model in the US. To the extent other jurisdictions around the world have ethical and Bar rules that permit partners to be members of more than one partnership, it may be a model that can be implemented elsewhere.   However, the dual partnership model is permitted in the US. Golden Spike is just the start of our growth in the US. In the second phase of this effort, we intend to invite additional, vetted law firms in the US to join together with Dentons as we continue to build a “truly national” law firm.



Can you explain the dual partnership model in your own words? 



All of our partners and those firms that will follow us will be partners on two levels (i) local and (ii) national. Under the US state Bar rules, with the exception of one jurisdiction, individuals can be partners in more than one partnership. Using the dual partnership model, the original structure of the firm that we are combining with remains intact. It means the compensation systems, firm identity, culture, and such elements that are magnets for talent and clients don’t change. Additionally, they will also be national partners under the umbrella of a new national Dentons partnership through which we will go to the market to meet client needs on the national and global level.



The dual partnership model sounds like innovation. Was it tested already by some other firm? How long did it take to design the model?



This will be the first time that we are aware of a law firm using this model. We believe it will simplify the way our clients do business in that they will be able to engage with a global firm with one single point of contact  versus managing dozens of law firms



Joe and I get the privilege to lead the team, but our team has been responsible for the creation of the dual partnership model. With respect to the time-frame to advance Golden Spike, we have an outstanding team that worked for nearly 18 months to finalize the first two US combinations as mentioned earlier. The timeframe is not surprising because all of the combinations that we have done recently, in New Zealand, across Africa or South Korea, generally took about 18 months from the first meeting to get to the finish line.



What criteria do you have while choosing the market and the law firm to combine with in the US?



We evaluated the initial phase and our goal was to focus on markets important to clients and where we don’t have an existing Dentons presence. The recent combinations with Cohen & Grigsby and Bingham Greenebaum Doll will allow us to access clients in Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Louisville. We talk to our clients about where they are most eager to see Dentons have a presence. We are currently engaged with a substantial number of potential law firms that might be interested in joining together with Dentons as we build this national law firm. There is no market within the top 50 legal markets where Joe and I are not interested in having a conversation; we are simply focused on markets and firms that have outstanding talent, culture and client mix that might benefit from being part of the first “truly national law firm”.



In response to the announcement of Golden Spike at the beginning of October, we are now in preliminary conversations with well over a dozen law firms and that list continues to grow each day. In some instances, we don’t decide to move forward if a law firm doesn’t meet our criteria. We are not focused on the number of lawyers within a law firm, but instead on our clients’ needs in those markets. You need to have more than a few conversations to be successful in finding the right fit for a firm combination.



So, talent, culture & client mix form your criteria to select the firms. In terms of talent, what kind of talent are you looking for? Do they have to be international-minded or have a strong local presence first and foremost?



When we consider combining with a law firm, our primary focus is on the clients and their needs. It’s the clients who need the global reach that Dentons offers and that’s what drives our efforts. Each of these local firms at present is largely trapped by geography in that they have not been able to follow their clients in other markets. So, it would be somewhat unnatural to expect talent that is completely globally focused in such a market. It’s the clients who are intensely driven by the need to find seamless service globally. However, even given that global approach to client service, clients still want to turn to their local firms with whom they have always worked, knowing that the local relationship partners can guide them locally and take them all around the world where they need legal advice.



Considering a risk factor of cultural clashes while integrating the newly combined firms in the US or otherwise, how do you integrate the new local firms into Dentons?



I have had the pleasure of getting to know the partners from Cohen & Grigsby and Bingham Greenebaum Doll and culturally they are already very tightly aligned in terms of focus on client service, diversity, inclusion, and innovation. So, the fact that they may be in a market where we don’t have a presence doesn’t create any barriers for cultural integration.



Sometimes we encounter arrogance; people believe that lawyers in London and NY are more accomplished than lawyers elsewhere. I came into practice from West Virginia, and Joe started his legal practice in Indiana! We believe that lawyers in Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Indianapolis are talented, culturally aligned and focused on the core strategy of the firm just as much as lawyers anywhere around the world. So, we are very excited about the integration and harmonization process and we believe that we share a great deal of common ground with these outstanding law firms.




We are highly focused on firms that are “in and of the community”, that are very active in their respective communities, in CSR and pro-bono efforts and lawyers playing active roles in nonprofit organizations in their communities. All of this represents the rootedness of any particular firm. Our focus on inclusion and diversity is core to our business and any law firm that does not share this core strategy would be unlikely to pass through our filters or that of our current national partners.



Is there any particular practice area or client mix that you are focusing on while selecting the firms?



From a talent perspective, we are focused on transactional practice groups, such as corporate, private equity, M&A, capital markets, tax, securities, and similar practices. These areas have been important for our talent or practice area focus.



From the client’s perspective, we want to proudly represent clients for their local, national, and global needs. The client that benefits the most is the one that has all three sets of needs i.e. local, national, and global. These needs cut across virtually every industry and sector and of course, also by community-based on which certain industries and sectors are particularly active or prevalent in the market. For example, in Pittsburgh, there are several prominent industries like financial institutions, life sciences, and energy. Whereas in Louisville, Kentucky, there is a very large industry centered around bourbon and global distillery businesses, horse racing and horse breeding businesses. So, very different clients in both markets but both require local, national, and global representation.



How long do you think your vision of truly national law firms will take place?



Our hope is that next year around this time, we would have accomplished many of our core ambitions and additional steps that will propel our efforts. Momentum will be very important, and we hope to be able to take the momentum from the first phase with the two firms that we combined with recently and replicate it with other outstanding law firms in the early part of 2020.



- Sneha Ashtikar


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