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‘We need to harness the best of our people to really drive profitability’: DLA Piper appoints its first UK managing partner from the regions

Birmingham-based Sandra Wallace (pictured) has been appointed DLA Piper’s next UK managing partner, the first time that the position has gone to a partner outside the City.

Wallace, who became UK employment head in 2012, was approached about the position at the firm’s annual partners conference in Orlando in May and is set to become one of the most senior female lawyers in the UK. She will take up the role as UK managing partner on 1 August for a three-year term, replacing intellectual property partner Mark O’Conor, who took over from the influential Andrew Darwin just two years ago.

The promotion comes as part of a fast rise for Wallace, who held no management position just three years ago, but was handed the reins as UK employment partner to reposition the practice internationally given her work for cosmetics company Avon, hotels group Hilton and Malaysian gambling giant Genting.

Her time in charge of the firm’s UK employment group is viewed as a success by senior management at DLA Piper, having repositioned the team away from its reliance on local litigation towards more strategic business advice spanning multiple jurisdictions. This was in part motivated by UK reform of the employment tribunal system which saw litigation now account for 30% of the practice, down from the 60% share it held a decade ago. Wallace told Legal Business: ‘This repositioning has given the team work they would never have had exposure to in the past and they are now working internationally on programmes I would have never thought would have been required when I was first starting out 20 years ago.’

The appointment of Wallace to UK managing partner is symbolic in many ways, as not only is she the first partner from DLA Piper’s regional offices to take the position since the firm’s transformative three-way merger in 2005, but she also works flexibly. Wallace, who has three children, said: ‘A lot of people said ‘we didn’t even know you did’. My clients know I work flexibly and they don’t see that as a problem. It can be a challenge but it works for me. Everybody automatically thinks you’re part time, and originally I started working fewer days a week, but that didn’t really work for me as I didn’t feel I was making the connections I needed to. Instead I now take periods of time off when I know the business is quieter, for example, in August.’

‘It’s very important to have buy in from your team. This was about finding what worked for me and what would actually make a difference and having a great team who want to grow and develop. The result is that people snap you’re hand off when you offer them opportunities to take responsibility.’

With Simon Levine having replaced Sir Nigel Knowles as chief executive of the firm’s international arm at the start of the year, Wallace’s remit as UK managing partner will not be too dissimilar to what she inherited as UK head of employment. As the firm is now firmly fixed on integrating its 4,000 lawyer network, pushing profitability over revenue growth and looking to leverage its big corporate relationships across more offices, Wallace seems a good fit for the task in hand.

She concludes: ‘I’m working through the manifesto at the moment with the rest of the UK management team but for us, it’s about saying the UK is a critical part of the business, the UK employs some amazing individuals and we need to harness the best of our people to really drive profitability across the international business. We have to ensure we’re setting the standard internationally for quality, consistency, and the drive to make sure the client is at the heart of everything we do.’

For analysis of DLA Piper’s shifting strategy see: Simon says – DLA Piper gears up for a life after Nigel