Dentons will soon turn ten—and with a characteristic bang. The firm sent a letter to its clients heralding its forthcoming birthday milestone and looking to the future. Days later, Dentons announced an historic agreement to combine with leading Indian law firm Link Legal, making it the world’s first global firm to combine with a law firm in India. The convergence of these two events is emblematic of Dentons’ commitment to “always be the firm of the future.”
Dentons was formed in 2013 when Salans, Fraser Milner Casgrain (FMC) and SNR Denton combined. Dentons has been big and been bold from day one. The leadership duo of Global Chairman Joe Andrew and Global CEO Elliott Portnoy held the same titles at the predecessor firm that was to become Dentons. They charted a course to reimagine the scale, scope, and boundaries of a law firm. The goal was to build a leading global professional services enterprise-not simply a law firm- designed to provide client solutions to business challenges locally and around the globe.
Andrew and Portnoy challenged the profession’s longstanding dogma that law is a vertical whose “bespoke” work is its birthright. They had a different view— law is a horizontal function that cuts across the enterprise, society, and geography. Legal expertise is part of a wider problem-solving dynamic that requires integration of lawyers, technologists, finance, data scientists, risk and compliance managers, and a host of other professional and paraprofessional disciplines. The goal of law—and professional services more broadly—is to drive value to business.
A decade on, Dentons is the product of its founders’ iconoclastic conception of the legal role. The firm has altered the paradigm of the traditional law firm, replacing it with an entity designed to deliver solutions for business challenges and opportunity capture. Dentons has challenged other deeply rooted law firm precepts—talent mining, homogeneity, parochialism, and origination. It has fashioned a firm culture that is diverse, collaborative, innovative, purpose-driven, andcustomer-centric.
The explosive growth of Dentons and the return of the Big Four to the legal space is no coincidence. These organizations recognize that in an increasingly complex, fast-moving, and fluid geopolitical environment, clients require real-time, multidisciplinary, platform-driven, data-backed solutions to business challenges. No single discipline—legal, financial, data analytics, policy—has all the answers. Integrated solutions are more valuable than piecemeal ones.
Dentons and the Big Four have taken different paths to the same destination. For clients, what matters is not whether solution providers are described as “law firms,” “enterprise legal service providers,” or business advisories. While the designation might initially determine a provider’s initial point of client engagement (GC, CFO, CTO, Board, etc.), what matters most to clients is the ability to produce impactful solutions for business challenges.
Local and Global
Dentons’ philosophy is grounded on the idea that clients gain a competitive advantage when their law firm combines local culture and community knowledge with global reach. This duality benefits clients by promoting successful deal completions, dispute resolutions, and business challenge solutions. It also frees the firm’s lawyers from geographic constraints, enabling them to engage in global practice that better serves clients, the firm, and themselves.
As the first global firm to be launched after release of the iPhone, Dentons recognized that tech-enabled connectivity would accelerate globalization and enable geographically-dispersed collaboration. Leadership foresaw the need to scale, innovate, and connect to keep pace with the needs of business. Those are the core precepts of the firms’ primary mission: to meet the demands of clients by building a law firm that provides top legal talent and business solutions wherever it operates.
Dentons is (almost) everywhere. The firm has more than 12,000 lawyers and 21,000 legal professionals operating from 215 offices across 83 countries. It is comprised of 51 whole-firm combinations-testament to the strength of its brand, business model, and integration philosophy of “harmonization, not unification.” That’s not to mention its business advisory services, legal referral network, legal accelerator, and other complementary offerings. Dentons is more than a law firm; it is a multidisciplinary ecosystem built to serve the local and/or global needs of digital business.
Dentons Speaks The Language, Understands the Challenges, and Moves at the Speed of Business
How has Dentons’ leadership pulled all this off in a mere decade? Spoiler alert: leadership thinks big, has a clearly articulated purpose and mission, executes well, understands global macroeconomics, and focuses on its mission: to meet the demands of clients, create a law firm that provides high quality legal expertise and business solutions wherever they operate and to do so seamlessly.
Fahreed Zakaria notes in his recent book Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, that “In today’s economy, big is beautiful.” If he is correct, then Dentons is looking good. The firm’s growth methodology identifies quantity as a tool for quality. The larger the firm, as measured by depth of talent and depth of geographic reach, the more likely it is to have the fit-for-client purpose resource. This resembles the strategy successfully implemented by the Big Four.
Dentons was built for business, speaks its language, and describes what it does in business terms. For example, its innovative go-to-market strategy is built on four key concepts, “Grow, Protect, Operate, and Finance.” This is a marked departure from law firms’ listing their practice and sector offerings. The difference goes well beyond marketing strategy. It profoundly changes how lawyers—and all professional service providers—view their purpose and how they interact with clients.
Unlike most large firms built around a handful of global population and financial centers, Dentons has a polycentric model. This celebrates its diversity, discourages hierarchical segmentation, provides partners greater autonomy and market flexibility, and promotes collaboration. There is evidence the model is working. Dentons has generated $1.5B cross-regional revenue during the past 18 months. The significance of this total goes beyond partner profit; it speaks to the success of the firm’s collaborative culture and its ability to service clients “anywhere and everywhere.”
Dentons has reimagined legacy legal delivery paradigms from the customer and talentperspectives. This is the real story behind its rapacious growth, brand recognition, and market ascendency. Dentons learned from its clients—in advance of “The Great Resignation”— that purpose-driven organizations are more likely to attract and retain top talent. It became the first global firm to adopt a purpose statement: “We redefine what is possible and shape the future. Together. Everywhere.” This captures the crux of Dentons’ ethos—innovation, collaboration, and scale that produces paradigm change for the benefit of clients and workforce. Dentons’ purpose statement and firm strategy are a clarion call to clients and talent in search of what has long been an oxymoron: an innovative law firm.
A ”Challenger Brand” and a Law Firm of Firsts
Law firms are not known for bold ideas, challenging legacy paradigms, and mercurial rises. Dentons is different. As a self-described “challenger brand,” Dentons competes with its strongest competitors not by imitation but by differentiation. It has expanded the boundaries of law firm size, market reach, vision, collaboration, and has removed the artificial boundaries separating legal from other business advisory expertise. It has leveraged the scope of its legal expertise with seamless business advisory services to provide clients with local and global solutions to business opportunities and challenges.
Dentons has achieved all this by executing on its vision to be “the firm of the future.” That requires agility, adaptation, collaboration, innovation, and understanding the macroeconomic trends that are (re)shaping our world. Diversity—in the most holistic sense of the term— is another core element of the Dentons ethos. The firm’s polycentric model; cultural philosophy of harmonization, not unification; and local/global approach reap the benefits of diversity for the enterprise, workforce, and clients.
Dentons, like a number of other global law firms, operates through a Swiss verein structure. The Firm has mitigated the balkanization endemic to the verein structure through its Master Agreement whereby each member contractually agrees to adopt the positive attributes of a unified partnership within this model. This is the best structure under which Dentons can currently operate as a polycentric, global firm to meet clients’ needs and to promote internal collaboration. In addition to the governance agreements, the firm’s global policies promote regional investment in the global firm and provide incentives for cross-region work. This creates a “One Firm” experience for clients and the workforce.
The big idea that is Dentons has produced a number of legal industry firsts. Each is part of the Dentons mosaic, and all must be seamlessly integrated to achieve its purpose and mission. Here is a representative sampling of the Firm’s long list of firsts:
- combination with a black law in South Africa (2014);
- fastest increase of Chambers and Legal 500 rated lawyers of any firm (2014-present)
- world’s largest law firm (2015) and 10,000 lawyer headcount (2019);
- formed Nextlaw Labs, global tech accelerator (2015)
- launched Nextlaw Referral Network, only law firm referral network not “pay-to-play”
- most awarded law firm in the world (2016-present)
- formed Dentons in-House Solutions, former GC and in-house legal advisory
- Pan-Latin American and Caribbean law firm (2018);
- global law firm to adopt a purpose statement (2018);
- inaugurated Project Golden Spike, US market “local/national” initiative/”two-partnership model” (2019
- $1B cross-region revenue (2020);
- Second most favored firm and fastest improving brand of any law firm (2021)
- launched Dentons Global Advisors, an independent strategic advisory firm focused on “commercial diplomacy” (2021);
- appointed Global Inclusion and Diversity Officer (2022).
Some Key Challenges
Dentons and its clients will confront headwinds in the years ahead. The Firm founders identified a list of key global challenges in the coming decade. The list includes: accelerating change, greater economic turbulence, rising geopolitical risks, climate change, complexities of globalization, demands for more diverse teams of lawyers and professionals, importance of scale as a success criterion, and the challenges of recruiting and retaining talent.
Dentons, like other enterprises, will also encounter a host of internal challenges during the next decade. Presently-identifiable risks include:
- Founder succession planning
- elevating the level of internal collaboration not only among lawyers across regions but also with complementary business advisory solutions
- competition not only from traditional law firms but also the Big Four and new market entrants
- adhering to the Firm’s purpose and mission and proactively adapting to changing market conditions
- data agility and sharing internally and with clients
- expanding its strategic partnership network
- selling to the C-Suite, not simply to the Office of General Counsel
- investment in thought leadership and upskilling.
Dentons is a firm of the future. If it retains its “challenger brand” mindset, commitment to constant improvement, and business zeitgeist, it is well-positioned to hold its own against existing and new competitors. And as it is Dentons, it might just combine with one.
Article originally published in Forbes.