DLA Piper has retained its crown as the world’s largest litigation practice by fee income, taking the top spot in this year’s The Lawyer Global Litigation Top 50 ranking with a total litigation fee income of $1.128bn.

In last year’s Litigation Top 50 DLA Piper also took the top spot with a revenue of $1.09bn (9 December 2013). But in contrast to revenue, which last year showed a rise, the total number of litigation lawyers at DLA Piper fell last year from 1,850 to 1,610.

As a result the firm’s average revenue per lawyer (RPL) rose by 18.6 per cent from $590,000 to $700,000.

Average revenue per partner also rose at DLA Piper last year, from $2.02m to $2.4m (a rise of 18.8 per cent), as the total number of partners generating the litigation revenue worldwide also fell by 12.8 per cent from 539 to 470.

Steve Sly, co-global head of litigation and regulatory at DLA Piper, said that during 2013 the number of lawyers outside the firm’s litigation and regulatory group who spent more than half their time on contentious work had dropped.

“However, the core group had an exceptionally good year working on an increasing number of significant cross-border disputes and global investigations,” added Sly. “At the same time we have been re-shaping our core business to make it fit for the next stages of evolution we see in the market. The impressive performance of the team has been reflected in this year’s increase in revenues per lawyer.”

DLA Piper’s 3.4 per cent rise from $1.090bn in 2012 is dwarfed by the increase in the total litigation revenue generated by the firms in The Lawyer’s Top 50 list.

Litigation Top 50 revenue
Litigation Top 50 revenue

Last year the total stood at $24.357bn. In this year’s list that total had grown by 7.4 per cent to $26.164bn, the highest level since The Lawyer began tracking global litigation revenue in 2008.

The growth is likely a reflection of two major international legal market trends: continued high levels of litigation worldwide, particularly in relation to regulatory matters (the focus of this year’s report); and consolidation among the ranks of the world’s largest firms.

Most clearly the latter is visible in the first time entry of Dentons to this year’s ranking at number 18 with a total litigation revenue of $567.6m, an estimated 45 per cent of total firm-wide revenue, generated by around 950 lawyers and 400 partners.

The Lawyer’s Global Litigation Top 50 continues to be dominated by US-headquartered firms. Only eight UK firms make this year’s table including DLA Piper and Hogan Lovells, both of which are effectively dual US and UK-headquartered.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is the highest-ranked magic circle firm, appearing at 11 compared with Clifford Chance’s 34th place and Allen & Overy’s 50th (Linklaters does not make the list).

For Freshfields this year’s boost up the list is a reflection of the significant investments the firm has made into its litigation practice over the past five or so years, most noticeably in the US (22 January 2009).

Litigation now represents around a third of the firm’s practice overall while global investigations is one of the fastest-growing parts of that.

Indeed, the firm posted the highest ‘organic’ increase in litigation revenue over the past three years of any firm in this year’s top 50. Since 2011 Freshfields’ global litigation revenue has increased by 32.5 per cent from $491.3m to $650.9m.

As Geoff Nicholas, the head of the international commercial disputes group and co-head of the global investigations practice, says, “global investigations has been the biggest growth area in the firm over the past five years, not just from a litigation group standpoint but from a firm-wide standpoint. It is one area of our practice that has really expanded and with which clients have really engaged”.

Litigation Top 50 headcount
Litigation Top 50 headcount

Of the eight UK firms the highest climber by some distance is Norton Rose Fulbright. Between 2011 and 2012 the firm rose two places from 26 to 24 but last year, thanks to the legacy UK firm’s merger with US firm Fulbright & Jaworski (14 November 2012), it jumped into the top 10 at number eight.

The firm posted a 64.6 per cent increase in global litigation revenue between 2012 and 2013, the highest of any of this year’s 50 firms.

Herbert Smith Freehills is another UK-led firm that has benefited from merger activity (28 June 2012). HSF rises from 30th to 20th in this year’s table, with disputes revenue rising by 27.5 per cent from $401.7m to $512.3m.

A similar 27.5 per cent revenue rise can be seen at K&L Gates, which has also grown significantly through merger over the past few years and most recently through its 1 January 2013 deal with Australian firm Middletons (4 December 2012).

This trend for acquisition-driven rises is certain to continue in next year’s ranking. The firm Norton Rose Fulbright dislodged from eighth position this year, Morgan Lewis, is likely to see a significant jump next year following its hire of 227 partners and more than 500 lawyers from Bingham McCutchen (17 November 2014).

Read our executive summary of the Global Litigation Top 50 and buy the full report at TheLawyer.com/LitigationTop50