DWF is the largest firm to date to float on the London Stock exchange, having done so in March 2019. It is the latest development in the story of a firm that has pushed aggressively forward since the turn of the century. Having started out in 1977 as an insurance litigation practice, DWF, once known as Davies Wallis Foyster, was originally a Liverpool and Manchester firm, though it now has 30 offices across the world including 11 in the UK.
DWF is the largest firm to date to float on the London Stock exchange, having done so in March 2019. It is the latest development in the story of a firm that has pushed aggressively forward since the turn of the century.
Having started out in 1977 as an insurance litigation practice, DWF, once known as Davies Wallis Foyster, was originally a Liverpool and Manchester firm, though it now has 30 offices across the world including 11 in the UK.
Perhaps in an attempt to shake off its image as an unglamorous northern practice, as it has grown DWF has made some decisions that have added the aura of prestige: office moves into landmark buildings such as the Walkie-Talkie in London and the Spinningfields complex in Manchester, for example.
The hire as chairman of former DLA Piper chief and legend of the profession Sir Nigel Knowles would probably also count as a glamour move. It is a logical one, however, as the parallels between DLA Piper and DWF are clear. DLA Piper emerged from the north of the UK to become one of the world’s largest firms; DWF clearly has similar ambitions.
Sir Nigel was the guiding light behind DLA Piper’s rise to prominence; at DWF that role was taken by managing partner Andrew Leaitherland.
Leaitherland took up the role when it was created in 2006. He took the reins aged 36, one of the country’s youngest managing partners. He went on to transform a regional firm with a turnover of £34m into an increasingly international outfit. Four elections in a row (2009, 2012, 2014 and 2017) have all been uncontested. The firm’s CEO of insurance services Paul Berry holds the honour of being the only person ever to have run against Leaitherland, in that very first election.
The bulk of geographic expansion has come in the last decade: as recently as 2011 DWF had just five UK offices while its very first international outpost, in Dubai, opened in 2015.
The firm opened its London office in 2008, but the key growth spurt came in 2012 and 2013 through a series of domestic mergers with Buller Jeffries of Birmingham, Crutes of Newcastle, Biggart Baillie of Glasgow and Edinburgh and Fishburns of London. Also in 2013, DWF acquired the bulk of Cobbetts after its demise in 2013, through a pre-pack administration. This spate of mergers increased the firm’s size dramatically: by way of example, it went from having 16 trainees in 2011 to 95 in 2013.
Internationally, while DWF boasts of having 19 offices outside the UK, they can hardly be described as heavy-hitters and the firm has a long way to go yet. From a revenue generation perspective, more than 90 per cent of turnover is still generated in the UK.
As of 2017, DWF’s turnover was £201.2m, a massive rise on the £34m when Leaitherland took charge, though the fastest period of growth is now more than five years ago. Both the turnover growth and international expansion have required funding, however, and as of 2017 DWF was the firm with the highest level of total borrowings in the UK 200, with debt having increased each year since 2013 to the current level of £36.5m.
Few would argue that DWF isn’t a far more prominent firm than it was in the mid-2000s, but plenty from outside question the clarity of its strategy and direction. One key issue is how the firm’s traditional North West home sits within the masterplan and how it will incorporate each new addition to the business. DWF is moving away from smaller outposts and into bigger markets as its ambition grows. It closed its Preston office 2017 in favour of relocating the 90-strong staff to its Liverpool office. If the London office grows in importance there is the risk it will eclipse its regional base, disrupting a delicate balance.
As for the float, there is no denying it is a bold move but there are still all sorts of questions to be answered. Here are five things from its prospectus that law firm leadership teams will find intriguing.
And Leaitherland? He was ousted in 2020 in a shock development: disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic was cited as a cause. Sir Nigel Knowles has taken over from him as CEO.
|Andrew Leaitherland (role created)
|Sir Nigel Knowles
|Sir Nigel Knowles
What is the trainee salary at DWF?
1st year trainee (London): £38,000; (regional): £26,000
2nd year trainee: N/D
What is the NQ salary at DWF?
NQ solicitor (London and regional): N/D