DLA Piper, on the other hand, dwells near the top of the law firm financial charts, with 3,400 lawyers working in 64 offices around the globe, harvesting $1.8 billion in gross revenue in 2006. The firm was bolted together in several stages, a process that was neither easy nor without its share of bloodshed. But DLA has kept itself together through post-merger tremors and is seeking to grow through aggressive lateral hiring.
“If we fail, we’ll fail because we were too ambitious, not because we were too timid,” says Francis Burch Jr., the joint chief executive officer of DLA, who is based in the firm’s Baltimore office. “By the way, I don’t think we’re going to fail.”
SPANNING THE GLOBE
DLA Piper has set out to be, as Burch puts it, “the leading global business law firm.” Come hell or high water. And the firm’s path of merger following upon merger has been well documented in the legal community. From the marriage of regional firms Piper & Marbury and Rudnick & Wolfe to the addition of Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich to the merger with U.K.-based DLA, the firm went from regional to nationwide to global in less than 10 years.
“It was one of the few transformational mergers you’ll ever see,” says Thomas Clay, a consultant with Altman Weil, of Piper Rudnick’s pairing with DLA two years ago.
The firm focuses on four main practice areas, eschewing the one-stop-shop mentality. Corporate, litigation, real estate, and government affairs dominate the firm’s business. And attorneys at DLA Piper want repeat customers. As Burch says, the firm is looking for “recurring, high-value work for the world’s leading mature and emerging companies everywhere.”
But the rapid growth also caused defections. Partners left because of client conflicts, higher billing rates, and that intangible sense that the global megafirm was no longer the place they had joined. Though the exodus has slowed in the D.C. office of late, the firm lost two environmental law partners, William Weissman and Douglas Green, to Venable earlier this year.
“It’s obviously not for everyone, and we don’t claim it’s the only way to do things,” says Burch of DLA’s modus operandi. “We would be the last people to tell you that it doesn’t come without a price.”
The firm has been recruiting heavily recently, using its global reach as a selling point to lure prominent laterals. It landed a private equity group from Winston & Strawn in Chicago last month, and Roger Meltzer, a corporate attorney and an original member of the WSJ Law Blog’s Bow Tie Club, joined from New York powerhouse Cahill Gordon & Reindel in February to lead DLA’s global corporate and finance practice. In all, the firm has added 35 lateral partners this year in the United States and 74 around the world.
“If you had looked at this two years ago, you would have said, �Well, they’ve just finished the DLA transaction. Let’s wait a little while to see if they can actually merge these cultures into a firm that’s all pulling in the same direction,’” says Meltzer. “People who wouldn’t have necessarily had confidence two years ago have confidence now.”
BORN IN THE ASHES
Alston & Bird first opened for business in Atlanta when the fires were still smoldering from the city’s unfortunate encounter with Gen. William Sherman. And the firm stayed firmly rooted in Georgia’s red-clay soil until almost 100 years later, when Conner came to Washington to open Alston’s first out-of-town office in 1990.
“I won by default of being the partner in charge, because I was the only partner,” says Conner.
From there, Alston opened up an office in North Carolina through a merger with intellectual property firm Bell Seltzer Park & Gibson in 1997, giving it a top IP practice and a foothold in Charlotte’s financial institutions market. Then, in 2001, the firm took on New York, merging with Walter, Conston, Alexander & Green, which used to represent Mark Twain back in the day.
All the while, the Washington office was shooting up in head count and acquiring key D.C. practices, including Food and Drug Administration, international, tax, energy, white-collar, and public policy groups. The firm made key hires as well, with former Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) providing a bipartisan duo in the lobbying arena, and Tom Scully, a sought-after lateral who was formerly the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“It’s not just Washington, it’s growth up and down the East Coast,” says James Hutchinson, the partner-in-charge of the New York office who, as a side gig, plays guitar in former White House press secretary Tony Snow’s cover band, Beats Workin’. “Like every other law firm, we continue to think about where we should be geographically and how big we should be.”
The firm’s revenue was bolstered by some huge pieces of litigation, including the Volumetrics Medical Imaging patent dispute and the Enron bankruptcy. The last of those concluded in 2004, and Alston’s revenue dropped slightly, with profits per partner falling 13 percent.
Last year, however, profits were on the rise, and according to Ben Johnson III, the firm’s managing partner, 2007 looks even better. Revenues are projected to be up nearly 15 percent, bringing the firm’s gross north of $525 million. Revenue per lawyer is projected at $725,000, and projected profits per partner are up 20 percent.
The firm continues to do work for core clients such as Nokia, UPS, Bank of America, and Wachovia. It is also representing British billionaire Joe Lewis in the purchase of 7 percent of investment bank Bear, Stearns & Co.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this will be the most successful year Alston & Bird has ever had in its 160-plus-year history,” says Johnson, whose Georgia drawl could charm a dog off a meat truck.
Yet despite this, some people are leaving a firm that historically holds on tight to its partners. In addition to the four partners who moved to DLA, this year Alston lost Bryan Davis to Jones Day; John Douglas and Chris Daniel to Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker; and Mitchel Pahl to Dewey Ballantine (now Dewey & LeBoeuf).
The departures could just be due to the increased competition in the lateral market, with the constant siren song of the headhunter wooing partners from their firms. “The lateral market, not just in D.C. but across the nation, is sort of the strategy of choice for firms,” says Clay.
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