Faced with the possibility of becoming the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, the Motor City has taken heart in more promising news, such as April sales for the U.S. auto industry hitting their highest mark in six years.

Detroit firms are once again riding out the storm in the hopes they’ll see better days. Gross revenues among the city’s largest firms mostly held steady in 2012. And federal economic data from 2011 pointing to economic growth in Michigan following a resurgence in the U.S. auto industry has some local firm leaders expressing guarded optimism for a rebound.

“The two best years financially for our firm were 2011 and 2012,” says William Burgess, who in January 2010 became CEO of Detroit-based Dickinson Wright. The Am Law 200 firm has spent the past six years expanding beyond Michigan as the state’s economy shrank during the global economic downturn.

Dickinson Wright—whose chairman emeritus and American Lawyer Lifetime Achiever Dennis Archer once served as mayor of the Motor City—saw gross revenue slip slightly in 2012, to $127.5 million, while profits per partner dropped 13.3 percent, to $490,000.

Burgess attributes that dip to a drastic rise in contingency fee revenue that inflated Dickinson Wright’s 2011 finances, as well as the 255-lawyer firm’s expansion of its equity partnership. Those ranks are poised to expand once again in 2013, as Dickinson Wright announced in January its acquisition of 60-lawyer Phoenix firm Mariscal, Weeks, McIntyre & Friedlander. (While the deal will push the combined firm past the 300-lawyer mark, no financial or head count boost will be incorporated into Dickinson Wright’s Am Law 200 performance until next year.)

The Mariscal Weeks acquisition was the latest in a series of expansion efforts by Dickinson Wright. In 2012 the firm struck an alliance with Macau’s MdME in a bid to grab some of the legal work emanating from the world’s largest gaming market, according to our previous reports. Dickinson Wright also set up shop in Columbus after hiring Baker & Hostetler real estate partners Harlan Robins and Michael Bridges, and Burgess says his firm has since expanded the office to 11 lawyers.

Dickinson Wright bolstered its Toronto office in 2011 by merging with 25-lawyer local shop Aylesworth. In 2010 the Detroit firm opened in Las Vegas after acquiring three-lawyer local IP firm Gibson Lowry Burris. In 2009, Dickinson Wright headed to Nashville after merging with 19-lawyer Stewart Estes & Donnell. And in 2007, Dickinson Wright firm picked up nine-lawyer IP shop Artz & Artz in suburban Detroit.

Burgess sees “vibrant opportunities” for both clients and his firm through its entry into markets like Columbus, Nashville, and Phoenix, which he claims are all growing business and population centers. But Dickinson Wright also remains focused on its home state.

The auto industry underpins a number of Dickinson Wright’s key practice areas, such as corporate/M&A, business litigation (especially IP), and finance. As the auto sector continues to grow in health, Burgess says the hope is it will “trickle down” to those practice areas, especially in terms of transactional work.

Directly underneath Dickinson Wright’s headquarters in the One Detroit Center skyscraper are the offices of Clark Hill, a firm formed through a merger of two local shops back in 1996 that over the past decade has watched its head count double in size.

Clark Hill is nipping at the heels of The Am Law 200—it did make an annual list of the country’s 250 largest firms compiled by sibling publication The National Law Journal—but CEO John Hern Jr. demurs when asked about its financial performance in 2012. That’s because earlier this year Hern’s firm inked a merger that could put it into Am Law 200 territory in 2013.

On May 1, Clark Hill’s merger with Pittsburgh’s 82-lawyer Thorp Reed & Armstrong went live, creating a more than 300-lawyer firm with offices in 12 cities. Hern says the two firms were drawn together when two former University of Virginia fraternity brothers—Clark Hill partner Edward Hammond and Thorp Reed partner Randy Struk—ran into one another at a conference.

“Our clients increasingly have a global footprint, so it was important that we forge a broader national presence,” says Hern, who has headed Clark Hill for more than a decade. The Mad Man-esque need to compete with the big boys drove Clark Hill to pursue a tie-up with Thorp Reed, which besides bolstering Clark Hill’s head count had a banking and finance group that was attractive to the Detroit firm.

“The Thorp Reed merger broadens our geographic base and gives us a deeper bench,” Hern says. “You need that nowadays when pitching for work—general counsel are going to think hard before they go to their CEO saying they’ve given something to a smaller firm.”

Before merging with Thorp Reed—the combined firm will go by the named Clark Hill Thorp Reed in certain markets where Thorp Reed had a presence—Clark Hill picked up nine-lawyer suburban Detroit firm Kupelian Ormond & Magy last year, eight-lawyer Chicago shop Trexler & Bushnell in 2010, and 10-lawyer Scottsdale, Arizona–based Norling Kolsrud Sifferman & Davis in 2009.

Hern says that even before the abrupt economic downturn in 2008, Clark Hill had been grappling with a decadelong slowdown in the southeastern Michigan and Detroit-area economy that forced it to look elsewhere to broaden its horizons.

Nonetheless, Hern says there is a “renewed sense of optimism” in Detroit as a result of the revitalized auto industry, even as the city’s municipal finances remain in disarray, something that has provided restructuring opportunities for other local and national firms.

Some of those firms recently made their own pitch to the Motor City. The Am Law Daily reported last month on the decision by Detroit’s city council to sign a $3.35 million legal services contract with Jones Day over pitches by leading local shops like Butzel Long, Dykema Gossett, and Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, as well as larger Am Law 100 firms like Foley & Lardner, McKenna Long & Aldridge, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Sidley Austin, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and Weil, Gotshal & Manges.

Miller Canfield has picked up a $300,000 legal services contract to advise Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s office on matters related to a consent agreement with the state-appointed emergency management team led by Jones Day restructuring partner Kevyn Orr, who was hired in March, according to our previous reports.

Miller Canfield, which named a new CEO last month as public finance partner Michael McGee succeeded Michael Hartmann, saw its gross revenue dip nearly 6 percent, to $129 million in 2012, while profits per partner at the 300-lawyer firm increased 2.5 percent, to $410,000. (Miller Canfield also saw its equity partnership contract 8 percent, in part due to Schiff Hardin’s poaching of a prominent sports and antitrust practice last year—the Am Law 100 firm took some more lawyers from Miller Canfield last month.)

Dykema Gossett, another 340-lawyer, Detroit-based firm that expanded into Minneapolis in January after making two key local partner hires, saw its gross revenue increase 3.4 percent, to $180.5 million, and profits per partner rise at nearly the same percentage to $585,000.

Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn, which saw Bing’s office dedicate an award earlier this year in honor of founding partner Alan Schwartz, saw its gross revenue increase roughly 7 percent in 2012, to $186.1 million, while profits per partner rose another 4 percent, to $776,300.

Of course, not all large Detroit firms are riding high.

Butzel Long, which did not provide financial numbers to The American Lawyer for 2012, sought relief from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation in January to cope with the loss of more than 100 lawyers over the past four years. In March, the NLJ reported that the former head of Butzel Long’s employee benefits group and a former executive committee member at the firm, Jordan Schreier, left to join Dickinson Wright.

Schreier, who signed the papers submitted by Butzel Long to the PBGC, was subsequently joined at Dickinson Wright by former colleague Roberta Granadier. The ex–Butzel Long employee benefits partner became of counsel last month at Dickinson Wright, which in March also hired Miller Canfield energy, environmental, and regulatory practice leader Anna Maiuri.

Additional reporting by Amy Kolz.