Dentons, an ever-expanding global legal giant that recently announced mergers in the U.S. and China, is now adding a 30-strong team from White & Case in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. The move is essentially another merger, as Dentons will absorb the entire local affiliate of White & Case on May 3.
Tomas Dabrowski, CEO of Dentons’ European arm and a former co-chair of the corporate practice at legacy firm Salans, which combined with Dentons and a Canadian firm in 2013, tells The Am Law Daily that his firm has been looking for over a year to expand its operations in Budapest, where it has roughly a dozen lawyers. That number—just like Dentons’ global attorney head count following proposed unions with China’s Dacheng and Am Law 100 firm McKenna Long & Aldridge—is poised to surge.
István Réczicza, head of the telecommunications, media and technology, energy and regulated industries practice at White & Case in Budapest, is one of three key partners leaving the firm for Dentons. Others include Rob Irving, co-head of White & Case’s private equity and M&A practice in Europe, the Middle East and Africa region, and Edward Keller, head of the Budapest office’s capital markets practice and a member of the firm’s M&A and private equity group.
The departing trio takes with them nearly 30 other local partners, associates and nonlawyer legal professionals from Réczicza White & Case, the global firm’s local affiliate in Budapest. Réczicza himself was part of a team of lawyers from White & Case that advised the Hungarian government last year as it prevailed in an investor-state arbitration dispute over the cancellation of a mega-casino backed by U.S. billionaire Ronald Lauder.
As reported more than two decades ago by The American Lawyer, White & Case was one of the first Am Law 100 firms to expand into the former Soviet Bloc following the fall of the Berlin Wall, opening up shop in Warsaw and Budapest in 1990. White & Case’s website shows that besides partners Réczicza, Keller and Irving, the firm also has another five local partners, three counsel, two of counsel and 16 associates in Budapest.
On Wednesday, as news of its mass Budapest departure first emerged in the U.K. legal press, White & Case confirmed the looming exodus in a statement to The Am Law Daily, in which it reiterated its commitment to the region.
“[As of May 3], we will no longer maintain an office [in Budapest],” said a White & Case spokesman. “The firm is committed to supporting our clients’ cross-border needs in Central and Eastern Europe, and we will continue to be recognized as a market leader for international work in the region. We wish István, Rob and Edward and the Budapest team well in their future endeavors.”
In recent years, the Central and Eastern European region has watched some global firms shutter their local outposts. New York-based Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, which like White & Case headed to Budapest in 1990, shuttered its office a half-dozen years ago, right around the same time that Magic Circle firm Linklaters spun off its operations in Budapest, Bucharest, Bratislava and Prague into a new regional firm called Kinstellar.
Dentons’ Dabrowski, who officially took over last year as head of the firm’s European operations, has a long track record of his own in the region stemming from his time at Salans, a Eurocentric firm with French roots that was at the forefront of the Western legal market’s expansion behind the Iron Curtain. He says that Dentons’ polycentric model under the Swiss verein structure is an ideal fit for a region where clients aren’t looking to pay hourly rates common in London or New York. Middle-market work, a longtime strength at Dabrowski’s former firm Salans, is one that Dentons is seeking to capture by expanding in Central and Eastern Europe.
“Our strategy is quite different from Linklaters, which pulled out of smaller markets,” Dabrowski says. “We want to remain highly profitable but be successful in every market, since they all feed into our global network. That requires an understanding of local sensibilities—there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.”
Dabrowski adds that Dentons, which relocated its Budapest office last year to new space in a refurbished building that dates to 1893, is also looking at expanding its current operations in countries such as Russia, Ukraine and Turkey, places where global firms have found themselves coping with political and economic unrest in recent years.
Hungary’s government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban—a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and an increasingly vocal critic of the West and its sanctions against the Kremlin—recently inked a major natural gas deal with Moscow. Hungary’s closer ties to Russia under Orban have irked U.S. and European Union politicians and technocrats, but Dabrowski brushes off the tensions, citing recent developments in the region as a way for Dentons to capture market share from spooked competitors.
“We’ve been in this region since the early 1990s,” he says. “There have always been cycles in the market, and this is another one. We have a long-term commitment to this region even when times are difficult.”
Dentons has no immediate plans to open another office in the region—Dabrowski notes that the group joining the firm from White & Case handles cross-border transactional work that extends beyond Hungary into neighboring countries such as Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia and Macedonia—but the global firm is growing elsewhere.
“The three most important things to us are market position, clients and the bottom line,” says Dabrowski of Dentons, whose global leadership recently spoke with The Wall Street Journal and The American Lawyer about their plans for worldwide domination. “And the bottom line is different in different regions.”
The Am Law Daily reported earlier this week on Dentons hiring a banking and finance partner in London and picking up two more partners in Canada, with the latter hires coming roughly a year after the firm brought on nearly 50 lawyers north of the border from now-defunct Heenan Blaikie.