DLA Piper’s new CEO Simon Levine: not the new Sir Nigel

Who is Simon Levine? The man taking over from Sir Nigel Knowles as DLA Piper co-CEO might not have the same level of entrepreneurial bombast as his predecessor, at least according to some sources, but word is he is the right man to take DLA Piper onto the next stage of its development.

“He’s not the next Branson but he’s an able bloke and will make a reasonable job of it,” says one source familiar with DLA Piper.

Another is more effusive.

“Right from the get go when I first met Simon I though ‘this was a guy who seems to be really switched on’, says DLA Piper’s global co-head of technology Kit Burden. “And my opinion has never wavered.”

Most famously Levine, the current managing director for groups and sectors, the former head of the firm’s intellectual property and technology practice group and who this week was unveiled as DLA Piper’s next co-CEO, led what is still the largest-ever mass lateral hire move in the London market when he took 11 TMT partners away from legacy Denton Wilde Sapte to DLA (4 October 2004). Anyone who can do that probably knows a thing or two about management.

While at Dentons Levine also proved his mettle by effectively shutting down the flagship music practice brought over from legacy firm Frere Cholmeley Bischoff, whose clients included The Beatles, despite the fact that much of his own billings came from it. It was, as one former partners recalls, “a controversial move but a necessary one”.

More recently Levine was posted to Dubai to troubleshoot the office when things for DLA Piper in the regions “went horribly wrong”.

“I think he has a very good business brain,” says a former partner. “I suspect he’s been put in charge of a number of managerial projects over the years and completed them with distinction.”

Soon he will have considerably larger issues to deal with, but numerous sources suggest he’s up to the job.

“Levine is very highly regarded as a business generator,” claims one external recruitment consultant, who incidentally was not responsible for the Dentons move. “He’s been on the board at DLA for years and as head of technology ran what was a £30m business in 2012. He’s one of the best practitioners in the business and also one of the top earners at the firm [sources suggest Levine took home £1.25m in 2011]. He’s also very personable but I don’t think that means he’ll be bossed around by Knowles.”

That, of course, is the $64m question. Whither Knowles, the man who built DLA?

The man himself is making no secret of the fact that he’s planning on staying on as managing partner long enough to make it 20 years in the job. Then the role will disappear once DLA Piper’s new “streamlined” management structure comes online on 1 January next year (4 February 2014) .

As part of the move Knowles will replace Tony Angel as global co-chairman with current Americas co-chair Roger Meltzer stepping up on the US side in the mirror role. Meltzer’s colleague as Americas co-chair Jay Rains will become joint global CEO alongside Levine.

All the moves, which are subject to a partner consultation this year and a vote in September, will be effective from 1 May 2015 (“Nobody’s in any doubt of the way we’re supposed to vote,” quips one partner).

Angel, who is thought to have earned £6m for his three-year stint, said this week he intends to stay with the firm in a yet-to-be-determined role after his single term ends on 30 April 2015.

DLA Piper’s entire new management team to be was in London at the Landmark Hotel this week to unveil the new streamlined management structure and, in particular for UK eyes, Levine as the new Knowles.

Levine was on suitably complimentary form on Tues –“Nigel was the reason I joined nine years ago” – but once the dust settles all eyes will be on him for tips on his future performance.

While DLA Piper won’t say who, Knowles confirmed that there were other names in the frame for the CEO role.

‘There were some great candidates,” he says.

Several sources suggest that Juan Picón, managing director groups and sectors and senior partner of DLA Piper in Spain, was a front runner. Other Continental-based names have been mentioned although a London-partner scotches those ideas.

“The firm obviously wanted a UK-based person. Why? Maybe because there would be more UK votes collectively than elsewhere? Or because a UK regional partner wouldn’t want to be led by some bloody German.”

UK names that appear to have fallen out of favour in recent years include Alastair Da Costa, who for a long time looked to be heir apparent, and also David Bradley and Andrew Darwin, now based in Australia. Picon, in contrast, looked to be in with a decent shout until this week.

“Juan is a great guy but he doesn’t quite have the breadth of reach of Simon or quite the same charisma,” says one individual familiar with both lawyers. “He’s a great guy and a very savvy lawyer and businessman but his core strengths are corporate and banking. While these are very important areas that the firm is trying to grow, globally the number one practices at DLA are real estate, litigation and regulatory, and IPT. Simon is global head of the latter department and is clearly very influential.”

Levine also doesn’t seem to polarise opinion in the way some people – naming no names that may or may not start with a ‘Sir’ – do.

“I don’t think you could find anyone within DLA who has a bad thing to say about Simon,” says one current DLA Piper partner. “He’s a good guy you can have a pint with.”

Levine, say his partners, operates through self-deprecating humour and is less prone to a spot of Knowles-style chest-thumping, effective though that may be. He has also kept his practice going and has never been just a manager, a recurring theme among the new streamlined DLA Piper.

“He’s a hard-working lawyer, has got a good practice and that’s a good thing,” says head of international trade Mike Pullen. “It’s good news for the firm.”