World’s Largest Law Firm to Grow Business Through Referrals

With an estimated 8,600 lawyers, Dentons global chairman Joe Andrew likes to say he presides over the largest law firm in the world, and that it’s still not big enough.

“Our clients come to us with problems,” Andrew said. “Those problems do not have a neat bow around them that says, ‘This is a legal problem, this is a public affairs problem, this is an accounting problem,’ — you can go on and on.”

That’s why Andrew said Dentons is building a series of electronic referral networks that he hopes eventually will be able to connect its clients with professionals from all disciplines to solve their problems.

This week, the firm took its first step to developing a referral network outside the legal sphere and unveiled Nextlaw Public Affairs Referral Network — an online platform that more than 60 firms have joined, including large PR firms such as Hill+Knowlton, but also small shops that focus on lobbying, crisis communications, campaign management and other areas.

It follows the firm’s announcement last May that it had launched a referral network for lawyers, so its partners can refer clients to lawyers in either geographic locations or specialty areas where Dentons lacks expertise.

Both referral networks function on the same electronic platform, which firm leaders said they hope to build out in the future for other professional services such as accounting or perhaps finance. According to Andrew, the idea is that the referral networks are totally free to join, and that Dentons will receive derivative benefits — such as better branding and cross-referrals — by helping clients solve problems.

“We don’t profess to be the people to go to anywhere around the globe, what we profess is we’re going to link you up with the people who can [solve your problem],” said Andrew. “We’re winners if we do that.”

To launch the Nextlaw Public Affairs Network, Dentons tapped Paul Hatch, a former political director of the Republican Governors’ Association and cousin of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

A lawyer by training, Hatch also spent six years in the government relations group at McDermott Will & Emery, according to his LinkedIn profile. Before joining Dentons in 2016, he worked in a boutique shop, 101 Strategy, that provides lobbying, campaign management, political strategy, polling, branding and other services.

In an interview, Hatch said that part of the reason the firm is launching a public affairs referral network is that it has some expertise in this area, noting it has a lobbying arm in Washington, D.C. as well as other areas.

“In some parts of the world, public affairs mean lobbying but we use the term more broadly to encompass not only lobbying but also media, crisis communication, campaign management,” said Hatch, who added: “anything that is encompassed in helping a firm tell its story.”

He said only three large firms have been accepted into the network: Hill+Knowlton, FTI Consulting and Portland, while the rest are small boutique shops, he said, adding the goal is to continue growing the membership.

Andrew stressed that Dentons’ referral networks will differ from the standard referral network in that there is no cost to join. Instead, anyone can apply — although not other law firms — and Dentons’ partners in the region where the firm is based ultimately screen the applicant and make a decision based on their own criteria to accept or reject.

In a previous iteration, when Dentons was called Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, the firm helped found a legal referral network, LexMundi, Andrew said. But he argued that network’s members had to pay to join, and in exchange the network guaranteed each member would have “geographic exclusivity” for all legal work in a certain area.

“We have a lot of these big law firm referral networks claiming that they can do the same thing as us,” Andrew said. “Our argument is not that networks are intrinsically bad, but networks that are pay to play, where you have to write a check to join, are.”

Andrew said Sonnenschein had geographical exclusivity for Illinois, even though its lawyers there were not equipped to handle every possible type of legal problem. In contrast, he said Dentons network is free so that it can build a broad membership base and maximize the number of areas where its lawyers have expertise.

Carl Anduri, president of LexMundi — which now operates independently from Dentons declined to respond to Andrew’s criticism, but said the company is using a different model and isn’t a referral network. He called it a “client service platform,” and said members do pay but receive professional development training and other services.

Andrew acknowledged that Dentons is hoping its referral networks create a steady stream of referrals to the firm. For instance, members use the public affairs electronic platform to search for an expert in a particular location or sector, and Dentons automatically appears first in the search results if it has an office in that location.

Marie McDermott, global projects director at Dentons, said the firm hopes to create an algorithm that ranks firms in the search results based on the number of referrals received or some other metric.

“We may consider a public rating system, such as what you see on Yelp,” said McDermott. “For now, it’s straight alphabetical” rankings in search results.

She mentioned that the firm may eventually expand to finance or other professional disciplines.

With its massive size, and desire to reach outside the legal sphere into other professional services, Big Law Business asked Andrew whether he hopes to remake Dentons in the mold of the Big Four, which have expanded beyond auditing to law and consulting in a broad range of areas.

“At least three of the big four are trying to build [legal expertise],” said Andrew. “I would argue that they’re trying to look more like us than we’re trying to look like them.”

Write to the reporter at gabefriedman@outlook.com.

Write to the editor at csullivan@bloomberglaw.com.