DLA boss: Canada in the crosshairs as expansion keeps firm ‘relevant’

Drivers that took DLA Piper to Oz will see the world’s biggest firm continue to grow. By Matt Byrne

Frank Burch
Frank Burch

Last Monday night (28 February) at Columbia Law School two law firm leaders from very different parts of the market treated the assembled students to their views on the state of the world.

The event was hosted by David Barnard, Columbia law lecturer and founder of management ­consultant Blaqwell, and was part of Barnard’s annual ’Anatomy of Large Law Firms’ course. In the corner we at The Lawyer like to label ’elite’ stood John Ettinger, the soon to be ex-managing ­partner of Davis Polk & Wardwell. Stepping up for the global firm perspective was Frank Burch, global chairman of the world’s largest firm, DLA Piper. What was surprising was that the pair, although coming at the market from diametrically opposed ­positions, reached similar conclusions.

hese days it is all about being ’relevant’, whichever market segment you are chasing.

For Davis Polk that still ­primarily means high-end capital ­markets and M&A. So the ­occasional São Paulo opening aside, the firm will continue to base the majority of its talent
in the world’s leading capital ­markets, New York in particular.

For DLA Piper it means global coverage. The firm’s recent merger with Australia’s DLA Phillips Fox goes to the heart of that strategy. Sitting in the firm’s Sixth Avenue offices next morning, Burch was more than happy to expand on the drivers that took DLA Piper to Oz and are likely to see the firm ­continue its expansion in the ­coming months and years.

“It’s a combination of market coverage, scale and your importance to the leading companies of the world,” said Burch. “Last night John and I reached the same ­conclusions about what’s going on in the world. Both firms are trying to chart a course, and they’re both very different. For our part, we started as a group of regional players in places like Baltimore in what was already a hostile world, where the companies we served were being gobbled up by bigger rivals.”

Back then Burch and his ­partners recognised the necessity of growing scale to compete both regionally and nationally. The Phillips Fox deal is the latest move in a strategy designed to ensure that DLA Piper remains ­competitive – and relevant – ­globally.

Were they still to exist today, it is likely that all of DLA Piper’s component firms – think Dibb Lupton Broomhead in the UK, Baltimore’s Piper & ­Marbury or Chicago-based ­Rudnick & Wolfe – would fall into the ’irrelevant’ category.

“I’d much rather be relevant and have challenges than not be ­relevant,” stressed Burch. “Our challenges are more on the ­execution side than the relevance side these days. Integration, ­consistency across the platform and conflicts are big, sticky ­problems, but they can be ­managed. If a regional firm was looking to take our position of ­several years ago today, I think they may be too late. There are fewer high-quality indigenous merger candidates available.”

Much of DLA Piper’s recent growth is tied to the explosion in demand from the world’s energy ­markets, a trend highlighted best by Norton Rose’s looming mergers with Denys Reitz in South Africa and Ogivy Renault in Canada. It suggests a move by DLA Piper to secure a merger partner in Canada may not be far away.