By Christine Kraly
The initial proposal that eventually established the world's largest law firmgot scripted on just two pieces of paper.
But before two law firm leaders penned the concisely powerful plan behind the creation of DLA Piper, they met over breakfast.
One of them, Lee Miller — today's joint CEO of DLA Piper and one of its architects — had been looking in the mid-1990s for a way to revamp and expand what was then the regionally focused Rudnick & Wolfe.
The 64-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native joined Rudnick & Wolfe as a real estate attorney shortly after graduating from Georgetown University Law Center in 1972.
He rose to managing partner in 1991 of what was then a firm largely focused on real estate.
Miller recognized in the 1990s a decline of the real estate market and a need for diversifying the firm's practice areas, said Tina Martini, DLA Piper and vice chairwoman of the Chicago's intellectual property practice group.
"Lee is a tremendous visionary," said Martini, who lists Miller among her mentors. "He's very intuitive."
Miller, who calls Chicago his home base, not only represents one half of the creative genius behind the largest law firm in the world, but his colleagues also describe how his visionary outlook extends to other such areas as pro bono work.
Meeting his match
Miller and Francis "Frank" Burch like to joke they could be twins separated at birth.
"We don't look anything alike," said Burch, co-chairman of DLA Piper's global board. "He's a golfer, and I'm a skier. But we share a bunch of things in common."
What inspires Lee Miller?
Who mentored you early in your career? Jerry Solovy of Jenner & Block, Leo Arnstein of Arnstein & Lehr and Frank Burch.
What music do you listen to for inspiration? Jazz and folk music.
Name a person who inspires you. My father, who was a senior vice president of a toy company, and my wife.
What’s the biggest change to the legal community? The very harsh economy and how law firms have had to determine how best to navigate it.
What’s the biggest challenge in your day-to-day job? The busy schedule.
When they met in 1998, they shared a concern over the limits of each of their regional firms. Many of their clients wanted greater expertise across the country as well as the world. Some started merging with each other or were bought out by larger, national firms, said Burch, then head of Baltimore's Piper & Marbury.
Burch's D.C. Beltway clients wanted the firm to plant a flag in Chicago. Legal recruiter Kay Hoppe set up an introduction between Miller and Burch, who found themselves at a longer breakfast meeting than they anticipated.
It was fate. If it sounds romantic, that's the way Burch describes it.
"We were like two guys wandering around in the desert, not sure what we were looking for," Burch said.
"In two hours, it became apparent that we shared a view of what was going on the world, what the implications were generally and in regional firms like ours in particular. We both came away with the sense that the other was actually willing to do something about it."
Cue the two-page playbook.
"We basically wrote a little two-page plan, almost inane in its simplicity," said Burch, who continues to be based out of Baltimore.
The 1999 merger between Rudnick & Wolfe and Piper & Marbury created Piper Rudnick. The newly joined firm had at least 1,300 attorneys. In merging the two firms, Miller and Burch sought to steadily grow its domestic presence. It focused on the coasts with offices in California and New York and then, eventually, Atlanta.
Key to the pair's proposal was the goal of growth — not necessarily of any one target city or profit margin.
"We said it right in there that the merger was never the end game," Miller said. "It gave us a platform to grow further on."
As the firm broadened its global client base, it became apparent to Miller and others that the firm would benefit from broadening its international presence.
In 2002, the blooming firm began eyeing a large British outfit DLA LLP, already a giant in the profession with at least 1,000 attorneys.
"The principles of globalization, consolidation and convergence applied to our clients and we could follow them across the world," Miller said. "Those same principles apply to the law firm world."
In January 2005, at its official merger, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary boasted about 2,700 lawyers in 18 countries. Today, the firm employs about 4,200 attorneys in 76 offices in 30 countries.
It merged with its Australian partner DLA Phillips Fox last year to form the largest law firm in the world.
"The strength of our firm was we had a plan," Miller said. "We stuck to the plan."
It helped that both men came from entrepreneurial firms willing and eager to take risks, Miller said.
Martini said she is one of the few members of her 1994 graduating class from Northwestern University School of Law who remains at the firm they joined out of law school.
Martini credits a great deal of that to Miller and Burch's ability to navigate a smooth merger, even as firm lawyers worried over a lack of precedent for successful large firm partnerships.
"Lee and Frank knew the necessity of getting people comfortable," she said. "I think … it was tremendous, that (Lee) and Frank together handled it the way they did.
"They understood it was scary for some people."
The project no doubt benefited, too, from the strong bond Miller and Burch formed through the firms' partnership. Building a robust legal team is a whole lot easier when you actually enjoy your co-captain.
"But we were both sort of blue-collar guys," Burch said of their kinship. "We didn't pretend to be white-shoe elites. Our values and our dispositions were quite complementary."
From the start, neither one approached joining their two firms as a competition, Burch said. Egos — if there were any — got checked at the proverbial door.
"When we thought it was to our advantage to do it together, we did it together," he said.
Molding a better lawyer
DLA Piper continued forming partnerships and began expanding its client base and lawyer ranks across the globe.
But it wasn't enough for Miller to build the world's largest law firm. He wants its lawyers to be good people too.
His pro bono advocacy helped DLA Piper earn several awards from groups including the Pro Bono Institute and the American Bar Association.
"I think it's really important for lawyers to be involved," Miller said. "They should be helping out in the community. It gives you a sense of roots, wherever you are."
Miller promoted that stalwart belief in public service to help DLA Piper plant roots all over the world, from Kenya to Kuwait.
"It's all about people and having a sense of humanity, in the manner you deal with people," Miller said. "It broadens your skill set."
Miller and other DLA Piper partners built on an already strong belief in pro bono work from the merger's original firms.
In 2005, Miller and other firm staff helped establish New Perimeter, a nonprofit group aimed at supporting pro bono projects throughout the world. Its many initiatives include fighting for greater legal access in Namibia and giving legal skills to human rights workers in South Africa.
DLA Piper annually provides up to 15,000 hours of work — roughly worth $7 million — to New Perimeter, which operates out of New York and Washington.
"With Lee, he sees in a way that other people don't, a lawyer's role as beyond being technicians and as being sort of problem-solvers and tools to the floor," said Esther Lardent, president and CEO of the Pro Bono Institute and co-chair of New Perimeter's advisory board.
Partly on Lardent's recommendation, Miller was named in August to the pro bono task force of Washington, D.C.-based Legal Services Corp., which provides civil legal aid for poor Americans.
Five working groups — technology, best practices in rural America, best practices in urban America, obstacles of pro bono and big ideas — comprise the task force, said John Levi, chairman of the LSC's board of directors.
Levi, a partner in Sidley Austin's Chicago office, said Miller was instrumental in volunteering DLA Piper to staff each of the working groups.
"That was a magnanimous gesture," Levi said, calling Miller a "wonderful person."
Walking the walk
When DLA Piper became a worldwide legal powerhouse, Lardent didn't necessarily expect the firm to focus its growing resources on charitable work.
A larger firm often means greater expectations for profit and workload, she said. She felt thrilled to be wrong and lauds Miller and DLA Piper's pro bono division not only for supporting the work, but for also being actively engaged in it.
Miller saw the firm's blossoming size differently — as a help, not a hindrance, to do good work.
"Think about the leverage of a law firm, to be able to make a dent and make a difference," he said. "I really believe in it. It brings everybody together."
For Miller, like many of his harried brethren, there's never quite enough time to spend with loved ones or to work on the golf game.
But when it comes to the pro bono work he so fervently espouses, there always seems to be time in the day.
In between traveling for work to places like Australia and Israel, Miller supports several charitable and civic groups, including being a board member for the American Jewish Committee and Primo Center for Women and Children.
Christine Achre, CEO of Chicago-based Primo Center, which provides women and children with housing and other social support services, called Miller "truly a rare board member."
"Oftentimes, you seek board members who can give their time or can provide financial resources or can provide guidance reflective of the special skills they bring to the table," Achre said. "Rarely do you find a board member who can provide more than one. But in Lee's case, he gives 130 percent in all three areas."
For more than a decade, Miller helped raise money for Primo Center projects and infrastructure and helps organize center events.
Achre said either Miller or other DLA Piper staff provide the center with legal advice on numerous situations, from complex human resources issues to real estate and contract cases.
"For a small nonprofit, we could never afford the type of legal representation we receive from his firm," Achre said.
Multiple organizations shower Miller with praise and awards for his philanthropic work. In 2008, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs honored Miller's social work with the "Arthur Goldberg Social Justice Award."
In 2006, Miller received the Jewish Theological Seminary's "Judge Simon H. Rifkind Award," honoring his public service and professional success. At the ceremony, Miller was called a "leader and a visionary, a person of integrity and conviction."
A year later, he received Georgetown University Law Center's "Paul R. Dean Award," given to alumni who demonstrate leadership in the legal profession.
His colleagues say his accolades and legal talent may only be matched by his big-picture ambition and humility in wielding it.
Achre credited Miller for selflessly providing countless hours and DLA Piper resources to the Primo Center. Learning legal skills and observing Miller volunteer his services has helped make her a better leader, she said.
"Our agency is stronger because of his efforts, and the homeless system is better because he has selected to champion this cause," she said.
"Even more stunning is his humility in all that he provides," Achre said.
In fact, Miller is loathe to take all the credit for much of anything, especially DLA Piper's public service.
When touting the firm's pro bono accolades, Miller repeatedly rattles off names including Lisa Dewey, the firm's pro bono partner, and Sheldon Krantz, a former firm litigation partner and New Perimeter board member.
Miller claims no pun intended when he commented, genuinely, "It takes a village."
He's not a braggart, Martini said, so she compensates by providing a list of adjectives: tenacious, passionate, courageous, nimble, resilient.
Which is not to forget his "a ha" moments, Martini said.
"He tends to have a lot of them," she said.
But when he comes down from the euphoria of a new idea or project, he plots with detail, displaying the rarity of being a micro- and macro-thinker, she said.
Burch echoed the praise, commending Miller's "terrific instincts and ability to understand people."
"Lee's great attribute is he's got the guts and he's got the humanity to actually get people to trust him and do hard things," Burch said.
Is it possible to say "no" to Miller?
"It isn't easy, and certainly I've never done it," Lardent said, with a laugh.
Resisting his influence might be easier, were Miller not able to pair his smarts and accomplishments with a down-to-earth attitude, his colleagues said.
"He obviously is really smart, a really canny, really strategic guy," Lardent said. "He's also a man with a very big heart."
"He's a mensch," Levi said.
Once upon a time
Burch eagerly offered a story from a chapter of DLA Piper's global rise. It might be titled "Take Off."
Burch told it with the kind of charming pride of fraternity brothers reminiscing about the good old days.
It was six years ago. Their growing firm employed maybe 1,000 lawyers and made $600 million in revenue, Burch said. He and Miller were constantly traveling, at least 80 percent of their time, trying to build the business.
Burch sat aboard an airplane, waiting for a 7 a.m. flight to depart. As he does so often, he pulled out his cellphone to call Miller.
"There's a bad echo in my phone, it's really distracting," Burch said.
For a moment, he didn't know why so many heads were turning to face him.
The nagging echo was Miller, sitting unbeknownst behind Burch.
"Everybody else in the first-class cabin just started laughing," Burch said. What an absurd moment in their new, hectic reality, he said.
"Every time you start to take yourself too seriously, you think of something like that," Burch said. "We're not saving the world here, we're trying to build and run a business."
If he's not doing it from the first-class cabin, Miller just might be saving the world from the boardroom, the way Lardent tells it. She can't recall a time when he missed a quarterly New Perimeter meeting.
And when he attends, he attends big. He applies the same zeal that built the world's largest firm to the pro bono world, Lardent said.
"(It's) not, 'Let's do a little deal here, a little case here,'" she said. "These are big, audacious projects.
"(He says), 'Let's figure out a model for fixing the justice system in Guinea. Let's create a pro bono culture in Mexico,'" she said of Miller's wide-eyed approach. "'Let's work with Kosovo as it's moving toward a NATO country.'"
So accustomed to days packed with legal aid strategies and overseeing thousands of lawyers, Miller possesses an unorthodox idea of winding down: work. When asked how he enjoys his time outside of work and family, Miller struggles for an answer beyond golf.
"I really like what I do," he said.
"Without being corny about it, it is sort of my hobby."