Its roots in Scotland – via its acquisition of Glasgow-based legal firm Maclay Murray & Spens (MMS) – date back nearly 150 years, while it has advised high-profile enterprises north of the Border on pioneering deals.
And legal giant Dentons, which describes itself as the world’s largest law firm, with 9,000 lawyers across 175 locations in 78 countries, is this week reinforcing its presence in Scotland with two events in Edinburgh.
The first is its global board meeting on Tuesday, which will give global chairman Joe Andrew and global chief executive Elliott Portnoy the chance to meet various clients and connections, providing a view of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Scotland’s economic landscape.
The following day, Andrew will play a leading role at an evening discussion at the Balmoral Hotel titled “Future of Law – building the legal industry together”. Speakers – including Skyscanner’s former chief legal officer Carolyn Jameson and Caroline Brown, head of legal operations at Aviva – will “explore what it means to be a law firm and legal department of the future and the collaboration that will be required to achieve it”.
Such topics have occupied the thoughts of Dentons’ Scotland senior partner Kenneth Shand, who notes that the legal landscape has undergone “considerable” upheaval, facing changes in the procurement and delivery of services as well as the advent of technology, for example.
He joined what was then MMS nearly four decades ago as a trainee, having studied law as it seemed like a “logical” option given that he “was probably always more of a language and history type person than a science type person but looking for a vocational career”.
Shand became a practising corporate transactional lawyer, mostly covering mergers and acquisitions and private equity work. He led MMS’s corporate team for about ten years until 2014 when he was elected managing partner.
Duties involved not just the day-to-day operations, but developing and implementing the strategy to grow MMS, which was the first commercial law practice to be set up in Scotland and in 1917 hired as an apprentice Madge Easton Anderson, who became the first woman in the UK to qualify as a solicitor.
“We felt that organic growth of the firm was good… and we had some major successes with that, but it wasn’t going to be sufficiently rapid to move the firm forward to an extent that we wished and felt we needed to, to cope with the changing climate.”
MMS was seeking greater scale in England – and London in particular. “We felt that the organic growth approach would take us too long to get to the scale to which we aspired, so a merger was brought to the forefront of our strategy… and therefore some of my time was spent analysing that and identifying a suitable merger partner.”
It was reported in 2016 that talks with Addleshaw Goddard had fizzled out. But MMS’s destiny instead lay in becoming betrothed to Dentons, which operates under a “decentralised” structure enabling it to be something of a chameleonic presence.
Shand notes that its aim is to be “in and of the community” wherever it is. “We don’t have a shiny central headquarters anywhere on the planet,” he says, adding that there is no dominant culture.
There is obviously some consistency and coordination among locations, but “the view is very much that the law firm in each country, in each location within each country, knows its market best, has the best connections, is best networked in its local community.
“We serve those communities better being as strong as we can be in local communities, backed and supported by that global breadth and depth.”
And he stresses the advantages of this in a Scottish context, with local clients and potential new clients increasingly harbouring global aspirations.
“We’re very much better placed to service our community, our local marketplace, with the expanded coverage that we now have and are continuing to expand.”
Dentons last week launched a tie-up with Chilean law firm Larrain Rencoret Urzua, as it seeks to be the “go-to” firm in Latin America and the Caribbean.
That followed on from expansion in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Guyana, and Trinidad & Tobago.
Also a big focus for Dentons is China, where it has nearly 6,000 lawyers and 47 offices, and where many projects are under way in collaboration with its Scottish operations. In March the firm said it had advised Beijing-based wind turbine manufacturer Goldwind regarding its £21m subscription for shares in the capital of Oxford Photovoltaics.
David McGrory, partner at Dentons in Edinburgh who led on the transaction, said at the time: “As the only law firm in Scotland with a significant presence in China, we’re delighted to have helped our client.”
The firm also has nine sites in the Middle East – Abu Dhabi, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Doha, Dubai, Jeddah, Muscat and Riyadh – with bustling interaction between the region and its Scottish arm.
Dentons, which has offices in Edinburgh and Aberdeen as well as Glasgow, is certainly operating in a Scottish legal sector that has undergone vast reshaping in recent years.
Earlier this year Morisons, which had offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow and some 90 partners and staff, fell into administration. A report on the collapse said it came about after a number of partners resigned to join rival practices.
Furthermore, when the administration was announced, Law Society of Scotland chief executive Lorna Jack said: “There has been ongoing, significant change within the legal services sector which, combined with a challenging economic environment, continues to have an impact on law firms.”
Deals have seen native names disappear, with Dundas & Wilson swallowed by London-based CMS, for example.
“I think for the middle-tier firms, it’s probably quite a challenging marketplace,” says Shand, also stressing the advantage of taking on activity outwith Scotland.
That said, he admitted when it became apparent that the MMS name would disappear that he had an understandably profound sentimental attachment to the Scottish brand.
Nonetheless he is keen to proclaim the benefits of the merger, which was announced in 2017, with the potential for collaboration highly evident “before we had even got to the point of an integration strategy as such.
“But it felt that would bode well. And so it has proven,” he adds, explaining that the merger needed to be handled sensitively, for example reassuring clients that they would not be “unduly disrupted” by the transition. “We’ve been very pleased with how rapidly that settling-down period has happened. The volume of working together… across offices has been very significant and has happened more quickly than we thought might have been possible.”
Dentons in January of this year reported that for the 12 months to 30 April, revenue in its UK and Middle East operations jumped by 21 per cent to £205m, while net profit increased by 27 per cent to £60m.
The average number of UK members in the year was 155, reaching 176 following the merger.
Jeremy Cohen, chief executive for the UK and Middle East region, said when the results were announced: “This is our strongest-ever set of financial results… It is particularly pleasing to have achieved this level of revenue and profit growth during a period of intensive integration activity arising from the merger with [MMS]. Since joining forces half-way through the financial year, our lawyers in England and Scotland worked together on more than 1,000 client matters.”
The firm acted on behalf of the UK government during the Carillion liquidation, and it co-ordinated work across more than 70 jurisdictions regarding private equity firm KKR’s €6.8 billion (£5.9m) purchase of Unilever’s spreads business. Closer to home, the legal firm represented Edinburgh-based FreeAgent on both its £34m initial public offering (IPO), which it noted was the first-ever IPO of a UK-crowdfunded fintech company, and its subsequent sale to Royal Bank of Scotland. Glasgow-based clothing retailer Quiz also turned to Dentons regarding its £200m stock market flotation.
Dentons is making a concerted effort to expand its food and drink activity (“it’s clearly an important part of the Scottish economy”), with spirits company Edrington a long-standing client and advised on the sale of its Cutty Sark whisky brand.
The legal firm last week launched a Global Brexit Board, to provide up-to-date advice on how the UK leaving the EU may affect businesses globally, amid Shand’s aim to help Scottish firms navigate global waters. “I think [in Scotland] we’re going to see exporting being an important feature.”