5 Minutes With... Elliott Portnoy
When did you decide to become a lawyer? Why?
Over a summer while in college, I worked for Legal Aid in West Virginia, my home state. I saw firsthand how everyday people are affected by our legal system and I was inspired by the impact that lawyers who cared could make in peoples’ lives.
Starting out, what did you expect from a career in the law?
In college, I became very interested in public policy and I thought a law degree would be a means to an end through public service. Instead, my legal career has become an end in itself where I can blend my public service and professional interests. That’s what I love about the law, as there is no single path for personal and professional advancement.
Has it lived up to your expectations?
As the Global CEO of the world’s largest law firm, it has wildly exceeded them by virtually every measure.
How did you get into the areas of law you are known for today? By design? Chance? Both?
One of my first jobs was working on Capitol Hill for a US Senate Committee, which piqued my interest in the relationship between law, politics and business. Although I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, it was integral to my development of a public policy practice.
What do you consider to have been your big break?
The biggest break in my career was moving my team of public policy lawyers from another firm to what was then Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and today is Dentons.
"One regret I have is that I didn’t make the move sooner to a law firm that was interested in changing and disrupting the legal profession."
What differences do you see in today's legal market compared to when you started?
What was once viewed as a profession has become a complex and highly competitive business. Today’s legal market is dramatically more competitive, technology is making legal services more of a commodity and that is driving law firms to bring innovation to a vocation that essentially has not changed for centuries.
What achievement are you most proud of?
I’m enormously proud to have played a role in transforming Sonnenschein, Salans, FMC, Denton Wilde Sapte, 大成, Gadens, Rodyk and our other foundational firms – law firms with great people, wonderful values and rich histories – into Dentons, not only the largest but also one of the most dynamic, diverse and future oriented law firms in the world.
What do you consider your greatest failure or regret?
One regret I have is that I didn’t make the move sooner to a law firm that was interested in changing and disrupting the legal profession. But my partners and I are making up for lost time.
What have you enjoyed most during your career in the legal profession?
I have the pleasure of spending time visiting lawyers and clients in all of the 50+ countries where we have a presence. Especially in light of the turmoil we see around the world, I am inspired by of the opportunity to build and lead a polycentric firm that promotes opportunities for women and diverse lawyers, embraces the many cultures in its multiple regions and views its diversity as a source of strength rather than division.
And enjoyed least?
Leading a law firm with locations in more than 50 countries requires a tremendous amount of travel, and that has meant missing more opportunities than I prefer to count to see my children play sports, perform in concerts, and celebrate birthdays and holidays.
What law would you change, abolish or create?
I am enormously frustrated by any law, anywhere, that allows talented people to be victims of discrimination or disadvantage, or in some way prevents them from advancing.
Who is your legal hero?
My real life legal hero is Thurgood Marshall, whose combination of legal acumen, strategic thinking and forceful advocacy made America a better place for all of us. Atticus Finch had been my fictional legal hero until this year when I read Go Set a Watchman – with great disappointment at his portrayal.
"Those law firms that do not embrace change going forward and fail to become business solutions firms may be at risk."
What career would you have in your second life?
I would help run KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now), a not-for-profit I founded to help children with disabilities enjoy recreational opportunities, on a full time basis.
What slogan would you like to be remembered by?
“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished,” a good reminder from Benjamin Franklin.
What advice would you give to students trying to enter the legal profession today?
If you are considering joining a law firm, be absolutely certain that the firm understands how much the practice of law is changing and is committed to providing the training to position you for success. Clients are looking for more than just great lawyers – they want lawyers who are business partners. Those law firms that do not embrace change going forward and fail to become business solutions firms may be at risk.
And secondly, to those who hope to ultimately get into public policy law?
To really understand the intersection of law, politics and business, it is essential to spend material time in government. Studying political science or reading about policy is insufficient. You have to spend some time devoting your intellect and energy to working in the process.
You're the founder and president of KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now). Why is community service of particular importance to you?
Every lawyer will be happier and more successful if you have a passion outside the law. My passion, beyond my family, is helping people with disabilities. At Dentons we encourage lawyers and team members to give back to their communities through pro bono and community service work. Dentons helped me expand KEEN into multiple cities across the US, and the opportunity to help improve the lives of young people with disabilities has been a defining experience for me at Dentons.
And finally, as the CEO of the world's largest law firm, what would you say are the advantages to working in such a huge firm, and how big is Dentons going to grow?
Becoming the world’s largest law firm was never our objective. We listen to our clients and they want us to follow them into the markets in which they conduct business. Now that we are the largest law firm, we find new opportunities every day to serve clients with the most diverse group of talented lawyers imaginable. We haven’t set a target for our size; we just intend to continue to try to be in those places where our clients need us.
"We haven’t set a target for our size."