It remains extremely rare for law firm leaders to re-emerge at another practice, but then Sir Nigel Knowles has always been one to do things his own way in more than 30 years in the profession.
Knowles today (7 September) announced his return to law after retiring last year from the global giant DLA Piper to become chair of DWF, an ambitious UK player that has long modelled itself on Knowles’ former parish.
Knowles, who spearheaded DLA’s meteoric yet unlikely rise from regional upstart to become one of the world’s largest law firms, assumed the position on 1 September to replace long-serving Alan Benzie as DWF’s chair. Though it remains a part-time appointment, Knowles will sit on DWF’s board.
Knowles told Legal Business: ‘My enthusiasm and desire to contribute to an overall achievement have not diminished. But the strategy of DWF is not the strategy of DLA Piper. I am not here to turn DWF into the next DLA. DWF has a very different view of life, it’s come through the middle of the financial crisis with lots of great people and there’s a lot to achieve.’
DWF chief executive and managing partner Andrew Leaitherland described Knowles’ appointment as ‘the perfect succession’.
‘One of the key attractions with Nigel is his ability to give strategic insight and input,’ Leaitherland added. ‘Not just his 30-plus years’ experience in the legal sector, but also the things he’s been doing since then in terms of legal technology. Having a chairman who can be a mentor and someone you learn from is absolutely valuable. He’s not just had the t-shirt, he’s worn it several times.’
Knowles said that talks with Leaitherland about a return to legal practice began with ‘good constructive discussions’ in the last six months.
A member of the ultra-select club of commercial lawyers to have received a knighthood, Knowles was a key figure in DLA securing a transatlantic tie-up in 2005 with US firms Piper Rudnick and Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich.
In his time the iconoclastic Knowles built a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking and admired law firm leaders in the UK, a reputation that saw him in 2015 handed the outstanding individual achievement award to mark the 25th year anniversary of Legal Business.
Knowles stepped down as head of DLA’s international arm at the end of 2014 with Simon Levine succeeding him as co-chief executive.
DWF, meanwhile, has been in acquisition mode in 2017. In June 2017, the 1,250-lawyer firm picked up legal costs business NeoLaw to add to its 36-strong in-house costs department, and also launched a four-lawyer branch in Singapore.