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Baker & McKenzie has topped the NLJ 250 — The National Law Journal‘s list of the largest 250 U.S. law firms by attorney head count — since 2009, and this year was no exception. The firm reported a total of 3,774 attorneys spread across 60 offices in 2010. Even with a decline of 219 attorneys last year, it still beat out its closest competition, DLA Piper, by 326 attorneys. The National Law Journal spoke with Eduardo Leite, chairman of the firm’s executive committee, while he took a break from attending the Latin American World Economic Forum in Rio de Janeiro on Thursday. His answers have been edited for length. Q: Is being big the firm’s primary strategy? A: It’s not a strategy to be big. That’s a consequence of our expansion. We have several offices with more than 200 attorneys, and critical mass is important in a full-service firm like ours. The strategy is to be client-driven. But it’s good to be the largest, because it gives you the notion and the push for more responsibility and better performance. If you lead in any fashion, you assume the risk and responsibility to be always at the top, which is a constant challenge. I use that to encourage my partners to keep going and going. It’s a good thing. Q: What is the primary advantage in being the largest U.S.-based firm and having 60 offices around the globe? A: We’re are not only present in many jurisdictions, but we have been there for so many years that we have built teams of local attorneys who are very knowledgeable — not just about the laws, but also about the culture, the ways of doing business, who is who, and that is very important in the client’s eyes. We see that as a true differentiator. The second is that we are truly global in that we are organized in a global management team. The executive committee is made up of eight partners from all over the world — not necessarily centered around the U.S., the U.K. or any country in Europe. That’s another interesting advantage we have. We see the world as truly global.

Q: So what is the primary disadvantage of having a firm that is so huge and spread out? A: Let me tell you my personal difficulty factor, which is trying to be omnipresent: Being in Rio at the World Economic Forum, being in New York, visiting offices here and there — I’ve been traveling non-stop. You should see my passport. It is something I like to do. I enjoy being close to the partners and the clients and the staff and associates. It’s a challenge for the partners, as well, which is why we meet so much in person, as opposed to only through conference calls. We do not save money when it comes to personal contact and personal connections. Clients notice that we are friends and not just partners. Q: What does the firm look for when considering new office locations? A: The first topic in my due diligence when I identify a new place for an office is: What are the clients asking for? Every time I meet a client, I ask them, ‘Where are we not present that is important for you?’ That’s our first indication that there may be a business case. The second issue is the jurisdiction itself. Do we have the right people in our firm to move to that jurisdiction? Sometimes we have nationals of that country in our firm — which is extremely important, because they already know the culture. And then, how much work do we have? How much work would we be generating? What are the strategic connections with other offices. It’s a long list. Q: Baker & McKenzie shrank by 219 attorneys last year. What do you predict for this year, as far as headcount? A: It’s hard to tell. We are seeing growth in some jurisdictions, such as Asia Pacific and Latin America. It’s very competitive in other regions, such as Europe. Eastern Europe, not so much, but in Western Europe, especially. We have been adding laterals in New York and Paris. It’s hard to predict. I expect some growth, but it has to be very careful growth in the right practices and at the right level of attorney. We do have gaps, as does everyone else, and we want to fill those gaps. I would say I’m positive about growth, but I don’t expect anything drastic or extraordinary. One never knows what opportunities will arise between now and the end of the year.

For more on the 2011 NLJ 250, click here.

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