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Joe Andrew of Dentons Goes Out on Top—Just Like Everyone Else

Nov. 10, 2022, 10:30 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we look at how Dentons global chairman Joe Andrew is conducting a master class in messaging about his time as a leader. Sign up to receive this column in your Inbox on Thursday mornings.

Kudos to Dentons global chairman Joe Andrew.

He built the world’s biggest law firm by sheer scale through what seemed like a force of will he shared with co-founder Elliott Portnoy. The duo engineered “combinations” between Dentons and more than 50 law firms over the last decade, creating a 12,000-lawyer behemoth in more than 80 countries.

Now, as Dentons celebrates its 10-year anniversary, Andrew is retiring from his leadership post. (He’ll continue practicing at the firm.)

To mark the milestone, Dentons issued a news release on Nov. 7 describing Andrew’s accomplishments.

It’s rare that Big Law leaders pat themselves on the back on their way out. Most Big Law leadership announcements are about promoting the new leader.

This release is different—and it’s a master class in messaging. Andrew laid out the goals he set and said he reached them.

“As the architect of Dentons’ strategy, I am most proud of this simple thing: the idea that is Dentons,” he said in the release.

You cannot argue with this formulation. He came up with an idea, and he remains proud of it.

What idea, exactly, did he create? Dentons has often called itself the “world’s only global polycentric law firm.” That’s confusing, but don’t worry, the firm did a YouTube explainer.

He continued: “When we announced the launch of Dentons a decade ago, many of our critics doubted it would succeed. But today we know it is a powerful concept because more law firms and lawyers have joined Dentons than any other firm in the history of the legal profession.”

No other law firm readily lauds the number of “combinations” it has done. But it’s indisputable Dentons has done more than anybody.

Dentons has 12,000 lawyers! That’s more than double the largest AmLaw 100 firm. If growth was his goal, he could only be accused now of running up the score.

Years ago, I wrote about managing partners insisting that mergers or lateral hires aren’t “growth for growth’s sake.” Firm leaders still say that all the time.

In the Dentons release, we had the opposite: A law firm leader who said growth was, in fact, the primary goal.

Law firms do have other success metrics. Dentons doesn’t score as well on those.

The firm Andrew built ranks third-to-last among the 100 largest global firms in profits per equity partner at $379,000 last year, according to The American Lawyer. For context, partners at Baker McKenzie, the second-largest firm by headcount, made nearly five times that amount in profit last year.

Dentons leaders don’t like these numbers. They once created a website to discredit the way AmLaw calculates them.

Still, Dentons partners were well pleased, according to the release. Andrew had the confidence of its global board to carry on in his position for another term, it said.

Andrew said he had different plans. In an interview with AmLaw, he laid out the general goal for people in his position: “Going out on top is something all law firm leaders aspire to do.”

And that’s what Andrew said he’s doing.

“Dentons has never been stronger, so it’s time for me to ‘go out on top’ with all the successes we have had,” he said in the release.

Again, the formula: Set the goal and announce you’ve accomplished it.

It’s worth noting that almost all managing partners who have retired over the last decade have left their firms in stronger financial positions. The overwhelming majority of major law firms experienced significant growth during the years Andrew built Dentons.

It’s hard to come up with a list of law firm leaders who haven’t gone out on top. Only a couple come to mind. Latham & Watkins chairman Bill Voge departed the position amid a scandal. Steven Davis faced criminal charges from the demise of Dewey & Leboeuf.

Still, Andrew is different than most Big Law leaders. He didn’t safeguard a 100-year-old institution, the task most law firm leaders face.

Rather, he came up with something new—and he went out and built it.

It’s fair to say there will never again be a leader like Andrew at Dentons—quite literally. Like a sports team honoring a legend by retiring a jersey, Dentons said it is ending the title of “global chairman.”

It all portrays Andrew as a sort of Peyton Manning or John Elway.

He has won his Super Bowl. Now he’s driving off into the sunset—and letting everybody know about it.

Worth Your Time

On Law Firm Layoffs: Cooley has laid off a group of corporate associates as the pandemic-induced boom in demand cools off, Chris Opfer reports. The firm confirmed that an unspecified number of associates have been let go, though three sources familiar with the situation described the cuts as “layoffs” not related to performance.

On Dentons: The firm lost its latest bid to overturn a $32.3 million legal malpractice award that leaders at the firm had said could have ramifications for law firms across the country, Sam Skolnik reports.

On Law Firm PACs: Law firm political action committees gave roughly equal amounts to Republicans as Democrats in this week’s midterm elections, Justin Wise reports. That comes after they favored Democrats 60% to 40% last year.

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com; John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com