Network enables regional firms to link up across wide geographic areas and compete internationally
May 26, 2015 12:00 AM
Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette file
Dennis Unkovic rappels over the edge of the 25-story Henry W Oliver Building in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.
In September, Pittsburgh attorney Dennis Unkovic donned a helmet, attached himself to a harness at the top of the Oliver Building in Downtown, and proceeded to rappel down its side. While the rappelling was part of a fundraiser for charity, it reinforced Mr. Unkovic’s image as someone not afraid of adventure. His new role as chairman of nonprofit attorney network Meritas won’t have him jumping off buildings, but Mr. Unkovic is treating it like a challenge nonetheless. For regional law firms, competing in a global arena with giant, well-heeled firms can seem a daunting challenge indeed. “You need to have access,” Mr. Unkovic explained, which firms with offices in numerous countries can provide. His firm, Meyer, Unkovic & Scott, has been part of the Meritas network for more than 10 years, which puts them among 7,000 lawyers at 174 law firms in 228 markets. Minneapolis-based Meritas acts as a kind of guild for regional law firms, allowing them to connect with other firms in order to pursue cases that may span several geographic areas, and make them more attractive to international clients. Meritas itself is a medium-sized network among the two or three dozen legal networks in the U.S. Larger ones include Lex Mundi, which lists more than 21,000 lawyers and 160 member firms, and World Services Group, which has 130 member firms. Both of those networks are based in Houston. “Being a member of Meritas levels the playing field, especially in an age where the legal industry is changing from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market,” said Tanna Moore, Meritas president and CEO. “The pressure for legal services at lower prices is attracting nontraditional services into the industry, making it more competitive than ever.” Law firms are only granted membership to most networks by invitation, and Meritas members have to agree to adhere to its quality assurance guidelines. Mr. Unkovic said Meritas law firms pay annual dues including a per lawyer fee, but the fee is capped to keep dues in a reasonable range, and to avoid penalizing firms with larger numbers of lawyers. Research by Wellesley, Mass.-based BTI Consulting Group shows that over the past five years, many companies have trimmed their use of outside legal counsel in an effort to control costs, particularly during the height of the recession. But Mr. Unkovic said while he thinks companies remain cost-conscious, if the in-house counsel can demonstrate using an outside firm would provide value to a company, it’s likely to take the chance on a regional firm. “A Meritas firm can give you the resources of a big firm without having to pay for a big firm,” he said. “It’s the advantage of a network: The client doesn’t have to absorb the firm’s overhead costs.” Mr. Unkovic said one of the first things he wants to do as chairman is impress upon the members that they need to be better advocates for the organization. “We need to do things besides market to other lawyers,” he said. And, he hopes to hold more member meetings outside the U.S. so that the organization is truly global. “Dennis has served as a leader within Meritas over the last 10 years as a board and executive committee member and in building Meritas’ Asian membership,” Ms. Moore said. “He understands firsthand the dramatic changes in the legal industry.”