As the legal landscape began to shift to favor the client-side a decade ago, the law firm Dentons saw the need to adapt to the accelerating pace of the industry’s permanent restructuring.
Elliott Portnoy, Global CEO of Dentons, oversaw massive growth in the firm during that time, with more than 10,000 lawyers in 175 offices operating in 78 countries. “When we embarked on this journey we concluded that the law firm needed to change because we saw the world differently and believed that we had to take a dramatically different approach to building a law firm, engaging with our clients, and ultimately, ensuring we thrive,” explains Portnoy.
Earlier this year, he joined the board of directors at Catalyst, a global nonprofit that partners with the world’s most powerful CEOs and leading companies to help build workplaces that work for women. Claire Errington, Global Client Lead and Tommy Williams, Sales & Client Management Lead at Thomson Reuters sat down with Portnoy to discuss three components of the firm’s future success: pursuing strategic combinations; focusing on client-collaborative solutions; and embracing inclusion and diversity (I&D).
Combinations as a growth strategy
Under Portnoy’s leadership, Dentons has combined with elite firms as its core growth strategy. “With our first combination between Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and Denton Wilde Sapte back in 2010, and then in 2013, with the three-way combination with a Canadian firm and a European firm, we became very experienced at completing law-firm combinations,” Portnoy says. “Nurturing this momentum has been critical to continuing to combine with the highest quality law firms in each market where we need to build a presence to meet client needs.”
Indeed, Portnoy frames Dentons’ growth strategy as his proudest achievement and a way to build the firm for the future. “We are still an enterprise that is growing and building and far from complete,” he explains. “We intend to continue to scale, innovate, and ultimately build a very different law firm that is always the law firm of the future, so there will always be a next chapter for Dentons.”
“We intend to continue to scale, innovate, and ultimately build a very different law firm that is always the law firm of the future, so there will always be a next chapter for Dentons.”
Perhaps what sets Dentons apart the most is the firm’s polycentric foundation and approach — an approach that does not force the firm to subscribe to a single national or local way of doing business, Portnoy says. “We have built a firm to be in and of the community where our lawyers do business,” he says. “Our clients are not hiring us to be a global law firm — they’re hiring us to be the best lawyers in each place where they need us.” That’s why the firm has no headquarters and no dominant culture, he adds. “In Canada, we are Canadian. In the US, we are American. In Singapore, we are Singaporean.”
Evolving to a business solutions firm
Another key component of Denton’s growth strategy has been to evolve from a law firm into a business solutions firm in response to its clients’ changing needs. “We are proud to be a law firm, but increasingly, our clients come to us with a problem that they want to be solved in the most efficient high-quality, seamless way,” Portnoy says, adding that the competitive marketplace demands it.
For example, Portnoy shared how Dentons brought in a cyber-response team for a significant legal client to handle a crisis after the client suffered a privacy breach. Another example he shared involved a healthcare company which had employed the firm with litigation involving healthcare fraud and abuse. To better serve the client, Dentons brought in a group of consultants to do the coding and reimbursement analysis.
Portnoy also discussed how the Nextlaw brand has been a key mechanism for the firm to achieve its strategy to innovate and discover how it can serve clients more efficiently and effectively. “We’re trying to embed a culture of innovation within the firm with a recognition that innovation is about disaggregating all the ways in which client service is delivered and finding better, more creative ways to be able to deliver the law to our clients,” Portnoy explains.
The Nextlaw brand was launched in 2015 when NextLaw Labs first created a fully-owned internal incubator within the firm; since then, Nextlaw has spun off a whole suite of innovative solutions, some of which it developed itself and others it developed in collaboration with clients. Dentons is using the newest Nextlaw enterprise, NextLaw In-House Solutions, which has more than 60 former general counsel who are now employed by Dentons around the world, to create an internal legal in-house consultancy unit to help clients with their legal operations.
Diversity & Inclusion as a business strategy
Dentons takes a different approach in how it leverages inclusion and diversity as part of its business strategy, Portnoy says, adding the firm takes the position that diversity is core to its business strategy. “It is not as a matter of values, but as a matter of business strategy,” he says. “We’re going to create an environment where women and diverse lawyers are able to be fully included, thrive, and advance within the organization, consistent with their local business culture.”
Portnoy joined the Board of Catalyst and became instrumental in focusing I&D around business and its clients. “We have a business strategy to become, and indeed, we are, the world’s most inclusive and diverse law firm because it is important to our clients, and therefore, important to us.” Sitting on Catalyst’s Board of Directors with CEOs of a number of Dentons’ clients, Portnoy says this is the group of business leaders who have the greatest potential to really drive change.
Since joining Catalyst, Portnoy has identified two key I&D tactics companies are undertaking that he thinks should be adopted within the legal profession:
- Establishing of targets for diversity that law firms have historically avoided — “Without them, it’s very difficult to hold ourselves accountable for the outcome,” he says, adding that Dentons intends on embracing such targets for its board, the partnership, and firm leadership.
- Embracing programs that are designed to drive change among senior white men — “Like many law firms, we have a generation of older white males who need to become champions for the place of women within the law firm,” Portnoy says. Indeed, by making I&D core to its business strategy, Dentons has seen progress in creating more champions among senior men who, by and large, continue to occupy a large number of partnership and leadership positions within the firm.