ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL
Large law firms take a more strategic approach to head count, our survey finds.
BY KATELYN POLANTZ
THE LARGEST LAW FIRMS APPEAR TO BE GETTING SMARTER
about which size they want to be.
In a world where size and growth have been a near-obses-sion at some of the country’s largest firms, many have continued to grow at a rate that’s more volatile than the average
nationwide statistics suggest. Meanwhile, some of the biggest
firms have decreased their footprints in a noticeable way.
Those shifts aren’t always captured in industry averages.
Overall, the number of lawyers last year who work at the
country’s largest 500 law firms increased by about 2 percent,
to 163,700. The average firm size was 327 lawyers, up a hair
from 320 the year before. In comparison, only a handful of
firms among the 20 largest on our list remained within 2 percent of the same head count year over year.
Law firm consultant Miriam Herman, who regularly ad-
vises major firms on global growth, calls the phenomenon
“continuous recalibration.” She adds: “Savvy firms will be
adding and shedding consistent with a strategy geared
to the particulars of their practice, client and geographic
Baker McKenzie, the largest U.S.-centered law firm in
the NLJ 500, grew by almost 6 percent. That increase in size
came without the firm completing a merger or opening a new
office. Meanwhile global giant DLA Piper, the second largest
firm in the survey, declined in head count by 4 percent, even
in a year when it acquired three small firms, in Sweden, Fin-
land and Canada.
In the two greatest head count swings among the 20 largest firms, Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith grew by almost
12 percent, while Reed Smith shrank by more than 5 percent.
(Dentons, which is based in the United States and claims to
be the world’s largest law firm, is not included in the NLJ 500
survey because it counts more lawyers in China than in the
Michael Wagner, Baker McKenzie’s chair for North
America, says that programs at his firm that focus more on
client relationships and feedback—plus emphases on certain
industries—allow for more targeted lawyers to come aboard.
At the geographic level, Baker McKenzie added the most
lawyers to its São Paulo office last year: a total of 50, representing more than 30 percent growth. The
office now has almost 200 lawyers. Wagner
notes that the firm is leading compliance and
investigations work for several clients in Brazil, including JBS SA, a meat processing company facing a bribery investigation.
“No one wants to slip in their market
ranking. [But] our focus is on the clients,
not on the prestige, not on the reach and so
forth,” Wagner says. “We’re just targeting
our investments to things clients tell us in the
market to do.”
Roger Meltzer, global co-chairman of
DLA Piper, calls his firm’s net loss of lawyers
in 2016 a “result of natural attrition and the constant reshap-
ing of our professional workforce.”
Even the firm Jackson Walker—whose 347 lawyers and
2. 8 percent growth last year make it a quintessentially aver-
age firm in our survey—has taken on a nuanced approach to
firm size. “We continue to believe we’re in a slice of the mar-
ket where we can continue to grow,” says Wade Cooper, man-
aging partner of the Texas-based firm. “We don’t have ambi-
tion to grow outside the state.”
Jackson Walker has made strategic plans twice since the
recession, when for most law firms steadily ascending annual
growth became a thing of the past. The firm decided it was
comfortable being a regional firm, and that it could find lat-
erals from both national practices and locally. Jackson Walker
hopes to continue to grow, but Cooper says he’s not inter-
ested in doing so the classic way, via merger.
“Since our last strategic plan, my instructions are not to
entertain any [merger] conversations,” Cooper says.
AVERAGE FIRM SIZE