From the looks of his resume, Jeff Bleich has had a charmed career — beginning with his clerkship for U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Bleich next made partner at Munger Tolles & Olson in three years, and took a temporary leave in 2009 to be the U.S. ambassador to Australia.
So when he gave up his partnership at Munger this week to join Dentons, it caught our attention.
In the past year, Dentons went on a supercharged growth spurt powered by tie-ups with law firms around the world that pushed its headcount from around 2,600 lawyers and professionals to more than 7,700 in 130 locations. Its tie-up with China’s largest law firm Dacheng, which has about 4,000 lawyers, took most of 2015 to complete and kept the law firm in the headlines.
Still, Dentons’ profits per partner were $680,000 compared to Munger’s $1.9 million, according to estimates reported by the American Lawyer.
Moreover, as one of the last remaining regional powerhouse firms in the country, Munger, which has only two offices, both in California, couldn’t be more different from Dentons.
In an interview, Bleich explained why he decided to leave Munger in a short period of time, what he finds so exciting about Dentons, and a few of his plans at his new firm. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
Big Law Business: This seems like a huge change. Why leave Munger for Dentons?
Bleich: I have loved working at Munger and I continue to love the firm. This is just a very different set of opportunities that were irresistible. Particularly, the large international platform … with the tie-ups in Singapore and Australia, it gives me the opportunity to [continue to develop my arbitration practice] and work in a region that I’m very familiar with and really enjoy working in.
Second, I was approached about establishing a new effort here, which is unique among all law firms, and to take a leadership role in that. We’re still working out the details, and I can’t really say what it is, but hope to announce something soon. Part of my job is to be able to keep secrets.
And finally, I’m just struck by how entrepreneurial the firm is in asking very important questions … in terms of how you solve problems that are both legal and non-legal. The approach that Joe and Elliot described to me made me feel this would be a very exciting time to be part of this group.
Big Law Business: What are some of the questions Dentons is asking or things they’re doing that impressed you?
Bleich: One of them is the whole Nextlaw Labs that they’ve developed. The attempt to incubate new technologies to drive down the cost of legal services is impressive. I think also in terms of recognizing that professional and legal services are going to be disrupted by technology, they’re trying to get out ahead of the curve on that. Given my roots in Silicon Valley, that’s a real draw for me. [Editor’s Note: Bleich is based in San Francisco and has represented many tech companies as a litgator.]
I think they also described a vision for where a law firm could evolve in the next ten years, where it’s not just focused on solving the legal problems of a client. Clients may have a whole host of problems associated with an issue. Efforts to use our legal skills to do dispute resolution, but also developing on communications, to better understand and shape the regulatory environment, developing acumen about how technology can shape some of the opportunities, and also understanding political repercussions.
Big Law Business: So how did this come about?
Bleich: It was a very quick courtship. As I said, I’ve been very happy with Munger Tolles, but at the same time had been thinking about ways to combine my interest with the law with my interest in international affairs, and some of the other issues I came across as international ambassador. I was approached unsolicited by Dentons global chair Joe Andrew, and he started talking about his vision and it aligned very much with things I had been thinking about.
It was a phone call. We had a mutual friend who said you two tend to talk about the world in the same way and one thing lead to another. That was less than two months ago, so relatively recently.
Big Law Business: So you’ll use the firm’s international platform to build out the arbitration practice you started several months ago while at Munger?
Bleich: Obviously I think arbitration is a growing field. Between Hong Kong and Singapore in particular, I think you’re going to see lots more arbitration opportunities —but also here in the United States.
Dentons also recently completed a tie-up with Gadens, which is a very substantial Austrtalin firm, so that will give me a chance to work with people who I stayed in contact with since my ambassadorship. I’m also doing a significant amount of work on cyber security issues, and that’s a truly border-less issue.
Big Law Business: I’ve recently heard people refer to Dentons as being like a giant professional services corporation. Do you agree with that?
Bleich: The similarity that I see is that these other professional service corporations understood that as you build out scale is it gives you an opportunity to approach a whole new set of problems. The scale that’s been built here does that. I’m hearing about challenges in the EU that relate to Australia that ordinarily I would not have known about. That really broadens my ability to be helpful. And that’s why you become a lawyer – you take this job because you like solving people’s problems.
Big Law Business: Dentons has also grown really, really rapidly. Does it concern you?
Bleich: I spent most of the time when I was contemplating this move to thinking through whether this was being done in a responsible way. I was very impressed that there was a comprehensive agenda that was being shared across all the regions. It was being bought into … they all agreed on a common vision. There is a cohesiveness to it that’s been developed. I think the other thing is the structure innoculates it to mistakes that are made in any one region.
It’s very fiscally conservative in the US. For all those reasons, I’m very confident about its health and well being.
UPDATED: This post has been amended to reflect that Bleich said he was attracted by Dentons’ presence in both Singapore and Australia.