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Chicago. It’s headquarters to the world’s largest law firm, Baker + McKenzie. And now, the Chicago-based Piper Rudnick merger with Britains DLA puts that firm into second-in-the-world category, 350 lawyers behind B+M.

One of the biggest law firms in Chicago is about to become one of the biggest in the world.

Piper Rudnick, which five years ago was a Chicago-based firm of 355 lawyers, agreed Saturday to merge with the British law firm DLA to create a legal giant of 2,700 lawyers. The deal, set to close in January, will make Piper Rudnick the world’s second-largest law firm, behind Chicago-based rival, Baker & McKenzie.

“Our clients were doing more and more work overseas,” said Lee Miller, Piper Rudnick’s co-chairman. “We saw an opportunity for a full-service law firm to be created.”

WORLD’S BIGGEST LAW FIRMS

FIRM LAWYERS
Baker & McKenzie 3,053
DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary 2,700*
Clifford Chance 2,684
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer 2,225
Linklaters 2,000

GROSS REVENUES FIRM NAME (BILLIONS)

Clifford Chance $1.84
Skadden Arps 1.58
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer 1.52
DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary 1.5**
Linklaters 1.4

*When the merger closes. **Projected
SOURCE: American Lawyer Media

The DLA merger caps a stunning growth period for Piper Rudnick, during which it grew from a locally focused practice emphasizing real estate and franchise law into a full-service firm with offices across the U.S. The original Chicago firm, Rudnick & Wolfe, dates back to 1936. In 1999, it merged with Baltimore-based Piper Marbury, and hatched a plan for more ambitious growth. Since then, it has gobbled up other firms, most recently California’s Gray, Cary, Ware & Freidenrich. The Gray Cary deal catapulted Piper into the top 10 firms by size, with more than 1,300 lawyers in 20 offices.

“They’ve done something stunning. If they can polish it off and perfect it, they’ve done what very few firms can do,” said Kay Hoppe, president of the legal search and consulting firm Credentia Inc., who helped broker the 1999 merger. “… I have honestly never seen anything like it.”

DLA has 1,350 lawyers in 29 offices in Europe and Asia. Like Piper Rudnick, its leader has long nursed ambitions of growth on a global scale. And while both serve large corporate clients, neither is considered among the handful of top-tier firms — those that work on the biggest corporate mergers and high-stakes lawsuits — in its home country.

But with the merger, “They’re getting there,” Hoppe said. “It gives them size, so that they can get a real shot at some of the most prestigious work. And once you develop that resume, then you’re pretty hard to beat,” she said.

Once the Piper-DLA deal is completed, the firm will have 49 offices in 18 countries and projected 2005 revenues of $1.5 billion, roughly triple Piper Rudnick’s 2003 revenues. Miller, Baltimore partner Frank Burch and DLA’s Nigel Knowles will serve as co-CEOs. Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a partner in Piper Rudnick’s Washington D.C. office, will become chairman of the new firm.

Legal consultants credit Miller and Burch with successfully sharing power at Piper Rudnick. The men are currently co-chairmen of the firm. While management gurus view divided leadership with skepticism, observers say Miller and Burch have made it work, in part by sharing a vision of growing the firm. Miller, 57, is a real estate lawyer who became chairman of Rudnick & Wolfe in 1990.

The partners at DLA and Piper Rudnick approved the merger in a vote held over the weekend. The new firm will be called DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary.

Piper Rudnick is the eighth-largest firm in Chicago, based on the number of lawyers here, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. World leader Baker & McKenzie ranked No. 17 in Chicago. The average partner at Piper Rudnick earned $565,000 in 2003, according to the American Lawyer. Its clients include General Motors, McDonald’s, Philip Morris, Donald Trump and the Chicago Cubs.

DLA’s clients include Barclays, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Virgin, according to Miller.

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