Dentons Looks to Expand Reach Through Referral Network

Photo by Dominic Alves (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Dentons announced Monday it aims to launch its own law firm referral network by this summer, as part of an effort to position and brand itself as the law firm that can connect clients with lawyers anywhere in the world.

Membership will be free, and a committee will determine which law firms are permitted to join the network. Initially, the committee will be comprised solely of Dentons’ lawyers, and later it will be open to other network members, according to Jeff Modisett, the Dentons’ lawyer overseeing the initiative.

Dentons says it has more than 7,000 lawyers around the world following a robust year of mergers, and alliances, including its blockbuster Swiss verein in 2015 with the 4,000-lawyer Chinese firm Dacheng. Still, there are many locations where the firm does not have lawyers, according to Dentons’ chair Joe Andrew and CEO Elliot Portnoy.

They described the network, “Nextlaw Global Referral Network by Dentons,”  as a long-term branding play that also will help the firm assist clients in geographic areas where it does not have lawyers.

“We’re the largest law firm in the world, but there are places where we don’t have a presence and where we are unlikely to ever have a presence,” Portnoy said.

Andrew said later, “There’s no pretense here that we’re doing this out of the goodness of our hearts.”

The firm said in 2015 it referred work to nearly 1,000 law firms and received roughly 500 inbound referrals.

Andrew said the problem with existing legal networks is they’re “pay to play.” Some charge a fee that prevents the membership from growing. Other networks allow members to purchase “territorial exclusivity” rights, and thereby receive all referrals for a given geographical region, without regard for that firm’s actual capabilities, according to Andrew.

In contrast, Dentons claims its network will be free. A demo shows members will login and then be able to search for lawyers based on location, practice, sector or by keyword. An algorithm takes into account how each law firm has been rated by other members, the number of referrals it has given and other factors, and will determine how high in the rankings a law firm appears.

A press release said the network will promote “repeat reciprocal referrals.” The demo showed Dentons appearing first on one rankings list, although Modisett said the algorithm will be transparent, and controlled by network members.

Some people took issue with Dentons’ characterization of the current state of affairs in the referral world.

Stephen McGarry, founder of LexMundi and the association of international law firm networks, said that requiring a fee to join a network ensures a level of quality control.

“Isn’t there an old saying that you get what you pay for?” said McGarry.

Lindsey Griffiths, director of global relationship management at the International Lawyers Network, added that if Dentons’ system promotes “reciprocal referrals,” as a press release states, then it too has a pay to play aspect.

“Obviously, the more you put into it the more you’re going to get out of it,” said Griffiths.

At Dentons, Andrew said that of the 170 law firm referral networks worldwide, none are free. He said there will be user generated reviews of members, likening the platform to a business-to-business version of Uber or Airbnb.

Said Andrew, “We’re trying to develop this one brand where [clients] say, ‘That law firm is honest.’ … because we believe that clients will be quite amazed that someone has put together a referral network that includes their competitors and that will position us as a firm that has candor.”

The goal is to launch in July, dependent on how long it takes to gain a critical mass of other law firms to join, according to Modisett.

Initially, the network will only have English, Chinese and French language capabilities, with more languages coming in the future, according to the demo.

Dentons said it is targeting small to mid-sized firms and specialty firms that focus on a specific geography or practice area. Andrew said the network would be open to competitors but doubted any other AmLaw 200 firms would join.

“I would guess that [for] the vast majority, their egos would not allow them to do that,” said Andrew.