Dibbs pays the price of its 'kick ass' culture

IF YOU can never think of a witty remark with which to inscribe a leaving card, spare a thought for those left at Dibb Lupton Alsop, whose collective comic inspiration must be running a little low.

Last Friday the drinks were bought in honour of partner Alan Fisher, head of insurance in the London office, who is going to Elbourne Mitchell as an engineering risk specialist after three years with Dibbs.

Managing partner Nigel Knowles' view on Fisher's departure is consistent with his statements on previous leavers. “Alan has left the firm because he feels that he is more suited to working with a smaller organisation.

“As I explained to you last week, if partners do not identify with our vision and the ambitions of the firm, it is better they leave and position themselves where they feel more comfortable.”

Fisher's nameplate has joined many others in the dustbin as the partner exodus continues. Nick Seddon, regional managing partner in the firm's Birmingham office, will follow shortly. In the past six months, at least 18 partners have left, though a source puts the number at 23.

While Fisher was unwilling and unable, due to a secrecy contract, to tell us why he is moving to pastures new, others are more than willing to share their thoughts on what has gone wrong.

The biggest losses have come from the firm's insurance department, which last week lost head of reinsurance Susan Dingwall to Norton Rose, after already waving goodbye to David Simon, head of insurance in the London office, and insurance partner Brian McKendry.

While Dingwall says she wishes the firm well for the future and “has no hard feelings” after her four years there, others believe senior management has not only failed to stop the exodus, but in fact started it.

“David Simon, as far as I understand it, had a problem with the 'top notch' management,” says one knowledgeable onlooker.

“It was not a simple question of a clash of personalities, as David was the ideal partner. He kept the money coming in and never put his head above the parapet.” He says there is a perceived lack of respect from the man agement.

The fact that Simon will soon be surrounded by nine familiar ex-Dibbs faces – including McKendry – in his new position as head of the insurance unit at Hammond Suddards, is perhaps proof enough that something has gone seriously adrift at his former firm.

“There was a perceived lack of enthusiasm for insurance. Whether that is accurate or not I do not know, but there was a feeling that corporate work was top dog,” he says.

“I don't fall out with people and I never become involved in silly arguments. But there are issues of principle that you have to stand up and be counted for that relate to the management of the firm.”

True to his reputation, Simon will not be drawn as to what those issues might be, but those close to him say that Nigel Knowles, managing partner, features in many discussions. “He talks a good game, let's say,” alleges one.

The stream of invective pouring forth from current and former partners has kicked Knowles' spin machine into action. Following the lead article last week in The Lawyer, a terse e-mail was sent out to all partners reportedly describing the story as “yet another example of sensational and inaccurate reporting”.

The missive continued to encourage partners to stay true to Dibbs' “clear vision”.

The annual income of the personal indemnity practice built up by Simon and McKendry is estimated at about £3m, and it is likely that very little of that sum will be left after their respective departures. According to a source, the insurance department as a whole brings in an estimated £10m, of which about £6m is profit – that's going to make a big dent.

It will also be very hard to replace, according to one interested observer. “As of this week, the department is almost non-existent. It has a problem and needs to recruit wholesale. You can't profess expertise in this area and go at it half-heartedly.

“It is an area that needs dedication. Dibbs set out its stall a while ago, stating an intention to be one of the top two firms for every area that it covers. It is failing to get anywhere near.”

Another knowledgeable outsider believes the inner turmoil may be in part due to partners' disillusion with the perceived failure of the firm to play with the big boys. “While Dibbs might be in the top seven in size, it is not up there in terms of quality. Dibbs is never going to be the next Linklaters and with so many public depart ures recruitment becomes difficult.

“Dibbs is trapped in a vicious cycle where the quality of people depends on the quality of work you can attract, but you don't attract the right people without the right work.”

According to another, while Dibbs has certainly grown, it has done so at the expense of workplace relations.

“Dibbs has an outstanding reputation for knives in the back. While it has done a great job in turning itself from a relatively small Leeds firm into a top ten nationwide firm, it has done it by going on lots of US courses on how to kick people's backsides.

“It has achieved a lot, but in doing so has created an atmosphere that not many people can stand for too long. People just don't have the same life expectancy at Dibbs as at other firms.”

A disillusioned insider agrees in somewhat stronger terms: “I won't stay here. I think it's run by megalomaniacs, which creates a big brother atmosphere.”

He says he does not feel personally valued. “It's not the money, nobody would leave here for that reason – in fact, it is why people stay.”

Another department that is holding on by the skin of its teeth is Dibbs' IT practice. Dave Barrett and Alistair Maughan both left last year to join the London offices of US firms.

Barrett, who joined Arn-old & Potter last October, admits the lure of working on international rather than simply national projects lured him over.

“The period during which Nigel Knowles' vision and my vision were the same had come to a natural end. Where I see my practice going, as a technology lawyer, is to international regulatory and commercial practice and, rightly or wrongly, Dibbs is not going in that direction.”

Barrett believes that having concentrated – since the merger that created Dibb Lupton Alsop – so much on growing nationally, it is now too late to make the move internationally.

While Dibbs does have offices in Hong Kong and Brussels, in Barrett's specialist area it remains mainly national.

It seems that for some people the seeds of discontent were sown during the merger of Leeds-based Dibb Lupton Broomhead and Liverpool firm Alsop Wilkinson back in 1996.

“The problem was that before the merger Dibbs had a clear vision to become a City firm. It was difficult to maintain that after the merger because Alsop's was already established in London.

“If you look at the sort of people who left from Dibbs' side, it was people who were unhappy with what the merger did to their role.”

Knowles says a number of high profile partners will be joining the firm over the coming weeks. But it would seem that counselling to stop more partners walking out on the marriage is long overdue.