DWS left shellshocked as eleven media/IP partners defect to DLA

DWS’s TMT practice left with skeleton crew; defectors cite lack of investment as reason for exodus. By Joanne O’Connor

Denton Wilde Sapte (DWS) is facing the loss of up to £11m in revenue after the mass defection to DLA of 11 media and IP partners and a team of around 30 assistants.

In an astonishing blow, the firm’s media practice, once the beating heart of Denton Hall, has been decimated, leaving the technology, media and telecoms (TMT) department with just a handful of partners.

The partners known to be departing are Simon Levine (IP litigation), Bonella Ramsay (IP/IT projects), Neville Cordell (IP litigation), Ken Dearsley (media finance), Christopher Hanson (media finance), Askander Samad (telecoms), Nicholas West (television), Nicholas Fitzpatrick (media/IP), Michael Ridley (television), Simon Gough (tax) and Mark Gay (sport). Levine, the partner leading the exodus, resigned last Thursday. It is understood that a flurry of resignations ensued.

The move, the biggest mass recruit in the history of the UK legal sector – first revealed on www.thelawyer. com (28 September) – is a major coup for DLA, gifting the firm a ready-made, high-profile media team to complement its already established IT, large-scale outsourcing and telecoms practices. Last Wednesday evening (29 September), the DLA partnership voted through the hires. It is understood that five of the 11 partners will join DLA’s tightly-held equity.

However, the IT and telecommunications practice at DWS looks likely to be spared, for the moment at least, with partners John Hull, John Worthy, Catherine Bingham and Dan Burge remaining at the firm. Board member Adrian Barr-Smith is also staying with DWS.

The exodus follows the departure of department head Tony Grant to set up his own boutique and the exit of IP litigation specialist Clive Thorne, who quit for Arnold & Porter in early September. Media litigation partner Suzanne Garben also left the firm, in August.

Sources within DWS claim the exits have damaged Virginia Glastonbury’s chances of being re-elected to the chief executive post later this year. One DWS partner noted: “Her ship is now holed below the Plimsoll line.”

However, speaking to The Lawyer, Glastonbury dismissed the claims, insisting the exits and the elections were two distinct issues.
Partners within the departing group insisted that disaffection with Glastonbury’s management style was not the key reason behind their exit. Instead, concerns over investment in the media group and the increasing marginalisation of media and IP as a practice area in favour of banking and transactional work are understood to be key drivers behind the move.

According to one partner, DLA, with its unashamedly commercial focus, its growing international network and the soon to be finalised tie-up with Piper Rudnick, offered an “ideal garden bed to plant the seeds of our practice”.

And the partner has a point. While media work formed the heart of Denton Hall, DWS is a firm increasingly focused on the City and on transactional work, not least because of pricing issues.

“The orientation of the firm has changed. We’ve moved much more towards the City in focus in terms of real estate, energy and financial institutions and banking work,” said Glastonbury, adding: “The media practice operates in different markets and with different rates.”

Historically, though, TMT formed one of the four foundations of the firm’s new sector strategy, implemented only last year. The departure of so many media partners has left this strategy looking decidedly lopsided.

Rumours have been circling around the DWS partnership for some time, and Levine has been in discussions with DWS management about the media practice for a number of months, but the exodus has nevertheless left the board reeling. One partner commented: “The biggest shock is not that we lost them, but that we didn’t see it coming.”

Glastonbury said the firm would now take stock of
its media practice. “The telecoms practice will remain a key part of our practice and we still expect to do corporate work in the media sector,” she said.

DWS partners are on a nine-month notice period. However, it is understood that the departing partners will be permitted to leave by the end of the year.

Since The Lawyerbroke the news of the exits last Tuesday (28 September), the vultures have been circling the DWS partnership, and phones at Fleet Place are ringing off the hook with calls from headhunters.

After all, an exodus of this scale begs the question of whether it is simply the media group that feels disenfranchised and disillusioned. According to one source, “this is not a consensual partnership”.
Irrespective of their importance to DWS’s future strategy, the departure of 11 media partners is a devastating blow both symbolically and on a morale level. And the news will not help a partnership still stinging from the firm’s abandonment of its Asian offices, the ditching of the Denton International network and last year’s redundancies.

Meanwhile, the DLA juggernaut rolls ever on.