Legal Business Blogs

Comment: American without tears – succession planning at the increasingly transatlantic DLA Piper

So the experiment ends as a qualified success. News of the early-timed succession planning at DLA Piper confirmed that well-regarded IP and technology partner Simon Levine is to assume Nigel Knowles’ role as co-chief executive, with Knowles next year taking on the role of co-chair in place of Tony Angel.

Angel, of course, had been recruited two and a half years ago to sharpen up DLA Piper’s governance, financial management and improve links with its US business. Recruiting the former Linklaters managing partner was pretty much unprecedented in the profession in terms of hiring a c-suite executive from one major firm to another, and very different institutions at that. The official message was that Knowles had spontaneously pressed his old mate to join Team DLA. There was a degree of spin in that. While the pair had long been friendly, there was pressure from the US – which had grown weary over a series of missteps in Europe and the Middle East – for Angel’s appointment.

Having been perhaps the most upwardly mobile major law firm in Europe from the mid-1990s under Knowles (pictured) in his vision thing prime, post-Lehman DLA Piper had lacked the old magic. Even Knowles’ charisma couldn’t disguise there was no longer the grasp of detail a firm that size badly needed.

In many regards Angel’s hire proved a success but still underlined the formidable challenges of trying to help run a law firm when you haven’t practised there. At Linklaters, Angel had a proven record as a highly successful tax partner, cultural common ground and lieutenants to help him twist a few arms. But as a technocrat, he comes across better in smaller groups or one-on-one, and was never naturally suited to charming his way into the hearts of DLA’s partners. Even having been out of Linklaters for years, the culture shock lingered.

There are mixed views about how well his approach worked, with DLA’s northern partners at times chaffing at the insistence that the firm needed to strip down its client base to focus on larger plcs. Set against that, last year’s UK restructuring and closure of Glasgow made sense and was certainly better handled than the botched 2009 equivalent. Governance was also improved to not only boost links between the US and European businesses but also bring in stronger checks and balances on management.

The firm has also looked on more confident form, and has seen an improved showing in London as well as robust performances in France, Germany and Spain. Angel’s presence also contributed to a wider mood music about the firm edging upmarket and helped usher in a few notable laterals in the UK. The London office has looked a little sharper too but there is certainly room for improvement; in the round, London hasn’t kept pace with the global elevation of brand DLA over the last decade and that hasn’t changed over the last two years.

Though there have been some comments about Angel standing down early, this was always a one-term deal that focused on a specific project. And in truth, it looks the right time for succession, with DLA Piper partners ready for the next generation and a different style.

Much of that changing style will be about a shift towards renewed focus on implementation and Levine certainly fits that bill. A widely admired performer who attracts plaudits inside and outside the firm, he was a major force in making DLA Piper’s IP and IT practice arguably its most potent force in the City (notable as DLA’s rep was historically built on mid-market banking and disputes).

It also represents a steady but unmistakable Americanisation of the firm in recent years, with Levine in the mould of the producer-manager style seen in DLA Piper’s US partnership. Americas leaders Jay Rains and Roger Meltzer have been conspicuously building bridges in Europe with some success.

There will be welcome moves to further integrate the US and European sides of the business at practice and management levels – though still little sign of full financial union. Overall, that’s an acceptable compromise for now if the touted operational unity can actually be achieved.

Plenty of challenges remain. The firm looks unsettled in Asia, both in its wider network and in assimilating Phillips Fox, its sizeable Australian acquisition, and still has a large number of northern partners feeling (with some justification) unloved. It’s debatable whether the approach of slimming the regional network in an evolutionary crawl is preferable to sending out a clear signal now about how many northern offices DLA needs for the medium to long term. So much for Axe-man Angel. The 2013 financial year was one of slowing growth and rationalisation – with revenues up 1.7% to $2.48bn – coming after two expansive years. 2013 was a period of laying important groundwork, not DLA in full flight. But consider the sheer range of that globe-spanning groundwork.

Our Law Firm of the Year 2014 remains better placed than ever to join Latham & Watkins as a new kind of professional services giant that is increasingly able to both play the old elites in London and New York at their own game while making up a few new rules along the way.