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The normally contained Larry Cranch becomes animated as he describes the sensation of rowing his scull on the lake near his weekend home in Pennsylvania. Tennis and running are fine, but Cranch, the managing partner of New York’s Rogers & Wells, lives for that feeling of gliding across the water. It’s best when a light breeze ripples the water; you feel like you’re moving faster, explains Cranch, a short, compact man with the gaunt look of the compulsive athlete. There’s just one problem: He has to get on the lake at the crack of dawn, before the water-skiers arrive.

It’s an apt metaphor for his firm. After drifting in the 1980s, a wrenching turnaround in the early 1990s set the firm back on course. It has cruised on a steady heading since, with profits up each year. But with a strong international focus — 40 percent of its work is for foreign clients or for U.S. clients overseas — the 400-lawyer firm was always at risk of being swamped, if not sunk, in the wake of bigger competitors. “We thought of ourselves as a global law firm and had an international focus,” Cranch explains. Rogers & Wells has offices in London, Paris, Frankfurt, and Hong Kong. But, he says, for the best international work, “we found it harder and harder to compete with the Clifford Chances of the world.”

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