Sir Nigel Knowles: Knight exemplar

As one of the very few practising solicitors ever to be thus honoured, DLA Piper’s Nigel Knowles was a surprise addition to the ranks of the nation’s knights. But don’t worry – he’s not about to let it go to his head.

Sir Nigel Knowles: Knight exemplar
He ;has ;transformed his firm from a virtually unknown Sheffield player into ;a ;truly international heavyweight – and now DLA Piper joint CEO Nigel Knowles is officially a knight of the realm after being named in the Queen’s New Year Honours List. Just don’t call him Sir Nigel.

Speaking shortly after the news of his knighthood broke, The Lawyer asked Knowles whether he would like to be addressed as such.
“No,” he asserts in his characteristically gruff style. “My email ­signature and the web page will change, but nothing else will. I’m not getting seduced by this – there’s too much to do.”

It is an attitude typical of the famously straight-talking 52-year-old, born the son of a grocer in a small Yorkshire town and now head of the world’s largest law firm by lawyer headcount.

The knighthood is all the more remarkable given that it is virtually unprecedented for a practising solicitor to feature in the New Year Honours List. There is some debate as to just how unprecedented, but according to the Cabinet Office this is the first knighthood for a solicitor in private practice for at least 13 years, since detailed records began in 1996.

Certainly, it was unexpected. Many in the City were stunned at the choice.
“It’s such a tremendous honour to be given a knighthood – something I didn’t expect but will treasure for the rest of my life,” Knowles says.

But why was he chosen? Knowles has adopted numerous causes, with Prince Charles speaking of his ­dedication at last month’s launch of the Legal Sector Alliance’s carbon ­footprint scheme.

But this is unlikely to have ­influenced the largely political ­honours process. And besides, Knowles was knighted for “services to the legal profession”.

Within DLA Piper at least, the ­honour is being seen as recognition for the firm’s rapid rise from niche Yorkshire practice to global powerhouse – via a personality cult along the way.

“Back in the early ’90s we’d only just opened an office in London. From a standing start we’re now the first or second-largest law firm in the world. That’s Nigel,” quotes one DLA Piper employee.

To say that Knowles had an unconventional route into law is something of an understatement. His background and education could not be more far removed from those who inhabit the Oxbridge-dominated, white bread world that typically produces the UK’s top lawyers.

By his own admission, Knowles “drifted” into the profession. He failed his 11-plus and was educated at a small private secondary school near his home town of Stocksbridge, just north of Sheffield.

He later took an A-level in law at a local college – his first experience of the subject.

“I didn’t really get inspired for many years. Then I got the opportunity to study law at A-level and I liked it. Because it was the only thing I quite liked, I decided to go to university to study law,” he reveals.

After graduating from Sheffield University, Knowles won a job as an articled clerk at Broomhead & Neals. The year was 1978.

Even then his legal career almost ended in its infancy. The firm only offered a job to one of its five trainees each year, and Knowles was only selected after the firm’s first choice rejected the offer to move to ­London. One can only wonder what became of the top candidate, but it is a safe bet he has not done quite as well as his runner-up.

So what would Knowles have done if he had not remained at Broomhead? “I haven’t got a clue – I didn’t have much of a back-up plan,” he admits.
However, it was soon to become clear ;that Knowles ;had a ;knack ;for ­management and ;dealing with people. He admits he was never interested in the technical side of law.

“I wouldn’t say I was known for my technical knowledge of the law,” he says.

“I always thought like a businessman, which is why I enjoyed ­management.”

As his career gathered pace, Knowles was in 1996 appointed ­managing partner of what was then Dibb Lupton Broomhead – and he has never looked back.

He has, however, remained true to his Sheffield roots. His mentor at Broomhead, Christopher Barker, was one of the first to call Knowles to ­congratulate him on his knighthood.

DLA Piper’s stratospheric rise under Knowles has been well ­documented: its expansion was fuelled by a series of mergers, first in the UK, then in Europe and Asia, and finally in the US and the Middle East.

The first merger was with Alsop Wilkinson, which enabled the firm to gain entry into London in 1996, and the most recent was the tie-up with US firms Piper Rudnick and Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich in 2005, creating the global firm we know today.

In 1996 all this looked a long way off. But Knowles already had a vision of the firm’s three-year growth plans.

“If I’d said in 1996 I wanted to be the leading global law firm, I ­wouldn’t have got anywhere,” he states. “But I did believe we could do something different, and in three-year cycles we did.”

Taking 1998 as the starting point, the vision was to become a top 10 City firm, dominant in the regions and with a credible presence in Europe. Three years later the plan was to be top five in Europe with a presence in Asia, and ;the ;final step was world ­domination.

So ;what ;is Knowles’s vision for 2009?
“We’ve ;still got a lot to do,” he says. “We’ve still got to look carefully at Australasia and parts of Asia. You’ve ;got India and South ­America. In these interesting, if not ;difficult times, there is even more progress to be made.”