Stepping into his role as global co-chair of 4,500-lawyer DLA Piper, Frank Ryan says the best path forward is to get even bigger.
The law firm wants to compete, Ryan said, for high-end, global projects while also providing “full-service” to clients, a strategy many of the country’s most profitable firms have shied away from to focus on the highest-rate practices. Growing revenue by taking market share is how Ryan said he will measure the firm’s success.
“The real opportunity for us is to drive that top revenue line, and to really build business,” Ryan said, adding, “We want to fight for more work.”
Ryan, whose intellectual property and litigation practice focuses on clients in the sports and entertainment industries, was elected in May 2019 to begin this year a four-year term as chair of DLA Piper, the third largest U.S. firm by revenue, according to American Lawyer data. Last year, he said the firm’s U.S. business grew revenue and profits per equity partner in the high single digits.
DLA Piper declined to provide specific data on its financial performance in 2020. Globally, the firm’s profits per partner in 2019, the latest available AmLaw figures, approached $2 million last year and the firm’s revenue was just north of $3.1 billion.
The growth last year stemmed from strong demand from clients navigating a stressful business environment, Ryan said, and cuts all law firms made in travel and entertainment budgets. The firm’s transactional practice, historically one of the industry’s busiest for deals valued below $500 million, reached a “fever pitch” in the fourth quarter that has continued into the New Year, Ryan said.
In a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg Law, Ryan described how the events of 2020 have shaped DLA Piper’s plans, including a re-examination of both office space and political spending. He spoke to the firm’s diversity goals and expansion ambitions in booming areas like life sciences and healthcare.
“For us, the theme of 2021 is unlocking value in the institution: breaking down walls and building teams to compete for the best work around the world,” Ryan told Bloomberg Law in a recent interview. “Given the size and scale of the firm and the fact we are still in the Covid environment, there are challenges to that.”
DLA Piper was hit with a debilitating cyber attack in 2017 that shut down the firm’s phone lines and computers. Its response to that event included moving more systems to the cloud, which Ryan said made for a smoother transition when law firms switched to remote working early in 2020.
The pandemic presents an opportunity for the firm to rethink its roughly 90 offices in more than 40 countries, Ryan said. That size makes real estate a larger portion of DLA Piper’s expenses than most law firms.
Ryan said the firm was putting together a three-year plan to reduce its real estate expenses, exploring options including “hoteling,” which law firms have traditionally resisted in favor of giving every lawyer a dedicated office. The firm is also considering hiring lawyers in new locations.
“What Covid taught us is we can be more flexible,” Ryan said. “We can find talent and have them close enough to a regional hub and have them connect to that.”
Finding Their Voice
Law firms have been central to discussions about the strength of U.S. democracy and a broader push for stronger measures to promote diverse lawyers.
DLA Piper in January was among 19 law firms to sign a letter calling for former President Donald Trump’s immediate removal from office following the riot at the U.S. Capitol that led to his impeachment.
Ryan said the firm had been “rethinking” since before the Jan. 6 attack how it allocates spending through its political action committee, which spent nearly $475,000 during the 2020 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending.
Diversity has also recently moved further to the fore in Big Law, driven in part by the national outcry following George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police last spring.
DLA Piper had 38% diverse partners and 61% diverse associates in the U.S. as of Feb. 1, according to the firm. It did not provide diversity data for previous years to show how the firm’s workforce has changed over time.
The firm in September was named Mansfield 3.0 Certified Plus, meaning 30% or more of its lawyers are women, people of color, LGBTQ, or lawyers with disabilities in key leadership roles, partner promotions, and lateral hires.
DLA Piper is engaged with more clients than ever who are discussing how they can work together to retain and promote diverse lawyers, Ryan said, noting he’d already participated in a handful of conference calls with clients discussing DLA Piper’s strategies. He said “the most important piece” of that is law firms promoting diverse lawyers into the partnership and making sure they work directly with clients.
“You learn a lot more when you understand the pressure points of clients and how they evaluate fees and what’s important to them,” Ryan said. “So if your diverse partners are not involved in that, that is a critical piece because it can hold lawyers back.”
DLA Piper last year served as primary outside counsel to Pfizer advising on the rollout of the company’s Covid-19 vaccine, Ryan said. The project required 85 lawyers who negotiated with countries around the world on licensing, liability, and intellectual property issues, he said.
It was an example of the type of project that took advantage of DLA Piper’s global reach that Ryan said he wants to do more. He said the firm wants to build its presence in life sciences, healthcare, antitrust, and technology through hiring individual partners and groups of lawyers.
“Most people wouldn’t know DLA has that kind of depth and capability in the life sciences space,” he said about the Pfizer project. “That’s where we are. Where we need to get better is getting bigger and deeper in our regulatory side and building even more our transaction experience.”