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DLA Piper growing global presence under Burch

Frank Burch, CEO of DLA Piper

When The Daily Record honored Francis “Frank” B. Burch Jr. with a Leadership in Law award nearly a decade ago, his firm had 850 lawyers in nine offices.

Much has changed since 2001, when Burch served as co-CEO of Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe LLP. Today, that firm has become the multinational DLA Piper, with more than 3,500 attorneys in 70 offices.

If all goes according to plan, DLA Piper will add another 500 lawyers to its ranks in May with the full integration of Australian business law firm DLA Phillips Fox and extend its reach in the Asian market. Partner consent is expected by the end of February and integration is expected May 1.

The firm’s intention was not to grow for the sake of growth, but to meet client needs, according to Burch, now chairman of DLA Piper.

“We did not set out to become the biggest firm; rather, size is a product of the strategy,” he said. “If you commit to having a meaningful presence in many world markets, by implication you will be big.

“The commitment to build a presence in those markets is all about what we see the clients’ needs to be, not about what we want our law firm to look like,” he said.

DLA Piper had courted the Australian firm for about four years, trying to determine if it wanted to commit to bringing the group on. In a relationship he described as “being engaged — you’re not supposed to go out with anybody else,” he said they passed client work to one another and shared work in Africa.

Burch said there were external and internal factors to consider before moving forward, like growth in the Australian and Australasian markets and the ability of DLA Phillips Fox to streamline its offices, strengthen its corporate operations and drop lower-margin work.

When DLA Phillips Fox’s CEO stepped down in 2009, DLA Piper suggested the firm hire Tony Holland, who was then the managing partner at DLA Piper’s Dubai office. Putting Holland in as CEO “really accelerated the process because we were speaking the same language with one of our own,” Burch said.

Integrating with the Australian firm is part of DLA Piper’s strategy to be a leading global business law firm. That means having what Burch calls a meaningful presence in most of the important and emerging markets.

On Friday, DLA Piper announced plans to open a Miami office on March 1 and an agreement with law firm InterJuris Abogados SC to establish a presence in Venezuela.

Burch expects the firm to turn its focus to adding lawyers in Canada next.

Burch said he knows many people would question why the firm continues to expand when many businesses are contracting, but in his mind the answer is simple — DLA Piper is just following its clients’ lead.

“Most of the world’s largest companies are based in the United States and most of them will generate more revenue and more net income abroad over the next 10 years than they will in the United States,” he said. “They’re buying, selling, investing, joint-venturing, financing increasingly in markets other than the U.S. Our strategy is to support them in those activities wherever they are.”

Concerns about the financial market caused the firm to require all partners to become equity partners, meaning they contribute to the firm’s financial stability, but on a graduated scale.

Burch said it has worked out “spectacularly well” for two reasons: the firm has a very strong capital structure and very low debt. It’s not a subject he thinks DLA Piper will re-examine because of its success.

“We have not borrowed a nickel to grow the business,” he said. “It has made mostly everybody who is called a partner behave more like an owner of the business and less like an employee.”

All of that growth has caused many challenges to crop up. Some of Burch’s biggest obstacles are “getting everyone to pull the oars in the same direction,” making sure clients feel like they get the same service in Baltimore, Bangkok and Brussels.

Conflicts of interest also bring challenges.

“Because we’re so big it’s a much bigger process of deciding who you will represent, who you won’t represent — you have to turn lots of things away that maybe you would have continued to do if you were a smaller, more regional firm,” Burch said. “That creates a lot of tensions, so people who are attached to that kind of work will not be happy in our law firm.”

That has led some lawyers to leave the firm voluntarily, but others were not so lucky during the recession. The firm laid off hundreds of attorneys and staffers in the U.S. and in Europe and Asia.

Burch admits that he worried during the recession as demand for services dropped and he had to make difficult staffing decisions, but he never had concerns that the firm would not make it through the economic downturn.

Despite the challenges of running a large firm, Burch said he is confident that he and the other firm managers can handle the risk that comes with such a large staff.

“The thing that would really scare me right now would be if we were fundamentally out of position,” he said. “If you don’t have an idea of what you want to be and why, that’s really scary. We’ve got a very good idea of what we want to be and why.”