DLA Piper topped the NLJ 350 this year, marking only the third time that it has unseated rival Baker & McKenzie from the No. 1 spot in the survey’s 36-year history.

DLA Piper, now with 4,036 lawyers, added 290 in 2012, for a 7.7 percent increase. Nonequity partners rose by 6.1 percent and equity partners by 0.7. Overall, the number of partners jumped by 4.3 percent.

The results are part of this year’s NLJ 350, The National Law Journal‘s annual survey of the nation’s largest law firms. Rankings are based on the number of full-time lawyers at firms as of December 31.

DLA Piper earlier beat out Baker & McKenzie as the largest law firm in 2007 and 2008. A Baker & McKenzie spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

DLA Piper’s growth far outpaced the rest of the NLJ 350 firms, which overall saw just a 1.1 percent increase from 2011 numbers.

At the same time, this was the first year that DLA Piper was the top-grossing law firm on the Am Law 100, NLJ affiliate The American Lawyer‘s ranking of firms by financial results. The firm brought in $2.44 billion during 2012, an 8.6 percent increase from 2011. It displaced Baker & McKenzie in that position, as well.

DLA Piper’s profits per partner were $1.31 million and revenue per lawyer was $605,000.

DLA Piper’s headcount growth was designed to meet client demand, said Roger Meltzer, DLA Piper co-chairman of the Americas. (Meltzer is a member of the board of directors for ALM Media Holdings Inc., the parent company of The National Law Journal.)

For example, in August, the firm brought aboard about 90 lawyers, including 30 partners, to its Paris office from Frieh Bouhenic. The firm this year also finished its full integration with Australia’s Fox Phillips.

"As clients continue to grow globally and continue to focus on very high growth, they are looking for firms that are able to service them broadly," Meltzer said.

In 2012, DLA Piper changed the way it categorized associates and "other" lawyers — full-time attorneys who are not associates and not partners. Last year, it reported 2,494 associates and 240 other lawyers. In 2011, it reported 1,243 associates and 1,255 other lawyers. The re-categorization did not affect the percentage changes in the firm’s overall headcount in 2012 and 2011.

During the first half of 2012, DLA picked up about 15 partners from Dewey & LeBoeuf, according to The Am Law Daily, also an NLJ affiliate.

The former Dewey partners were in corporate, M&A, securities and project finance practices. Most landed at DLA Piper’s New York office; others went to Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Washington.

Growth during 2013 would depend on client demands and future opportunities, Meltzer said. The firm’s project and infrastructure practice has particular growth possibilities, he said.

Meltzer noted that other firms are following the same strategy, pointing to Hogan Lovells, created in 2010 by the merger between Hogan & Hartson and Lovells, and Norton Rose Fulbright, formed earlier this month by the combination of Norton Rose and Fulbright & Jaworski.

With the number of mega-mergers, global firms should expect to face increased competition from niche firms, which could in turn drive down profits per partner, said Amy Knapp, principal at Washington-based Knapp Marketing.

"It opens up the opportunity for smaller firms to fill a niche and become profitable," Knapp said.

Contact Matthew Huisman at mhuisman@alm.com.