Author: Legal Week
14 Dec 2009 | 00:13
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During 2010 Denton Wilde Sapte reached an agreement to merge with US firm Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, creating a 1,250-lawyer firm with offices on four continents, known as SNR Denton.
Dentons has arguably faced the most challenging few years to beset a top 20 UK law firm, with the firm suffering from a stream of defections, lagging profits and strategic dissent.
However, the firm - which is now far leaner and more tightly focused than the practice that was created by the 2000 merger of Denton Hall and Wilde Sapte - still boasts respected practices in a range of commercial areas, among them insolvency, asset finance, energy, projects and property.
Dentons has had an eventful few years, stretching even further back than the 2000 merger that created the firm. Crucially, the legacy Wilde Sapte almost secured the most famous merger that never was in the UK legal market: its proposed tie-up with accountancy giant Arthur Andersen. It is hard to remember now, in an age when Andersen has been defunct for years and accountants have virtually disappeared as a force in the legal market, but at the time the impending tie-up was viewed as ushering in an age in which the auditing giants were set become major players in legal - possibly the dominant players. As it happened, a number of senior Wilde Sapte partners quit ahead of the 1998 union and Andersen got cold feet, leaving Wilde Sapte exposed and the one-stop-shop model tarnished. Denton Hall had plenty of history of its own, having come close to a securing a tri-way merger with Cameron Markby Hewitt and McKenna & Co in 1997 and again with Theodore Goddard and Richards Butler in 1998.
As such, the union between the media-driven Denton Hall and finance-centric Wilde Sapte was viewed with some trepidation. The following few years were not kind to the newly-merged firm, which suffered another round of defections from Wilde Sapte's banking team as news of the union came out.
Worse problems became visible in 2002 as the slowdown in deal markets began to impact on City law firms. Faced with falling profits, Dentons announced a total of 70 redundancies, including 40 lawyers, the deepest round of cuts seen in the City at the time. Dentons was also to announce the dissolution of its European network and, even more dramatically, in early 2004 pulled the plug on its 50-lawyer Asian network to refocus its investment.
There were more problems to come as a memo went public in October 2004 that criticised then-chief executive Virginia Glastonbury, indicating that some in the partnership felt they were being 'bounced' into re-electing her to head the firm. The ensuing turmoil saw Glastonbury withdraw from the leadership race, leaving popular financial institutions head Howard Morris to clinch the role in a contested election in December of that year.
At the same time news emerged that 11 partners were to quit Dentons' respected TMT team, claiming the group had lacked support, to join DLA. During this period Dentons was to continue to lose partners, including a six-partner insurance team that quit for Chadbourne & Parke in January 2005.
There is some evidence that Dentons has steadied the ship in recent years, even if its profits continue to lag its peer group and the firm remains prone to losing senior lawyers. January 2009 saw Dentons join the ranks of firms laying off staff in response to the economic downturn, with 80 jobs put under review across its London and Milton Keynes offices.
And in June 2010 Dentons' tie-up with Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal was officially confirmed after partners were asked to express their support.
The deal creates considerable scale, forging a combined practice with revenues of around $730m (£486m) and more than 1,200 lawyers spanning 18 countries and 33 offices, putting the firm within the largest 40 global practices in the world.
In March 2011 co-chief executive Howard Morris stepped down from his leadership role to focus on integration at the newly-merged firm, with Washington DC-based Elliott Portnoy (pictured top) becoming the firm's sole chief executive.
Putting some concerns about the firm's current performance aside, Dentons still boasts a more collegiate partnership than many of its City rivals. Likewise, the firm appears to be have put behind it many of the problems with morale that dogged it in the wake of redundancies in 2002 and 2003.
Dentons structures itself around four key 'pillars', which loosely refers to a sectorial/industry focus: financial institutions; real estate; energy, transport and infrastructure; and technology, media and telecoms. While Dentons is regarded to have lost a little muscle in media and general banking thanks to departures, the firm still boasts a number of areas in which it can punch at or even above weight. Key areas of strength include insolvency, asset finance, project finance and energy law, reflecting the firm's strength in emerging markets. Dentons also has very capable litigation and property teams.
Relatively narrow, the vast bulk of the firm's revenue now comes from its London base, leaving its Paris office as its only sizeable foreign practice. However, the firm has in recent years focused more of its efforts in the Middle East and African regions, both through local branches and a wide array of referral partners.
Very positive in many senses for ambitious young lawyers. Having lost a number of its older guard, Dentons has made up a considerable number of partners in recent years. The firm also has a good reputation for giving its junior lawyers client exposure, a contrast to the typical gripes of assistants at larger London firms. Since some would regard Dentons as a patchwork of disparate practice areas, it is worth approaching with a view to specific skill-set.
The firm dramatically hiked its pay for junior lawyers in 2007, lifting its standard bands by as much as 17%. Salaries are near the rates paid by magic circle law firms, at least at junior levels. Trainees now receive £36,000, while newly-qualified lawyers start on £62,000. However, the firm's bonus is not reported to be among the most generous.
(Can we get some details on the bonus scheme? - Wiki Ed.)
If not quite a lifestyle firm, Dentons would be viewed as one of the most civilised of London's major law firms in terms of hours. Operates an annual billing target of 1,450 hours, which is also low for a major firm.
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