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Comment: Life after Sir Nigel – They built it, now what?

DLA Piper’s new head Simon Levine jokes about avoiding becoming the David Moyes to his high-profile predecessor’s Alex Ferguson, but you could make a stronger case that Sir Nigel Knowles’ (pictured) transformative track record at DLA Piper is closer to making him the firm’s Tony Blair.

Knowles took over an institution amid a period of upheaval and had to fight to establish his authority, which he duly did with a mix of flair, charisma and vision. Because those qualities – not in abundance in the legal profession at executive level during the 1990s – were supported by astute operational point-men like Andrew Darwin, it proved an incredibly potent formula.

DLA Piper remains the most upwardly mobile UK-bred law firm over the last generation by some distance. In our recent 25-year anniversary edition, Knowles was cited more than any other individual as a defining figure for the legal industry over that period, a striking endorsement for a man once far outside the profession’s elite club.

But, despite having delivered huge success, as with Blair and the Labour Party, the firm wearied somewhat of the huge profile and globe-trotting that accompanied Knowles, especially as DLA’s meteoric rise was severely challenged by the banking crisis and its operational weaknesses exposed. Vision is fantastic – its abundance helped DLA defy the pundits for 20 years – but you never escape the hard graft of implementation. The ground-breaking 2005 US tie-up is Knowles’ defining achievement but still a work in progress.

The candid view from the firm’s partners is that quality, consistency and discipline need to improve if the firm is to fulfil its ambitions. More than that, DLA Piper has a way to go before it operates as a truly integrated, cohesive professional services giant.

All in, it’s time for a changing of the guard and the good news is that Levine looks a promising fit for a very particular skill set. While Tony Angel had famously been brought in to supply the rigour the firm needed, there is a limit to what his technocratic style could achieve at DLA, a hugely different institution to his former firm Linklaters.

By all accounts, Levine brings much of the humour and down-to-earth qualities associated with the firm along with a greater attention to detail than his predecessor. He also has the credibility of being a highly successful practitioner and practice leader, a notable tilt towards the US preference for owner-managers.

It is just as well that Levine looks safe from any Ed Miliband comparisons because the organisational challenges that face DLA Piper remain huge. Judged over the last ten years, the firm has yet to entirely live up to its own billing. The firm is just as much in contention to be a different kind of world beater, but with a little bit more of the old magic and momentum it could achieve more. A lot more. Whether it ultimately cracks some of these operational challenges will be as much a defining factor in the evolution of the global legal market in the years ahead as DLA’s rise was in the previous 20.

For more Legal Business analysis of DLA Piper’s succession see: Simon says – DLA Piper gears up for a life after Nigel