Why DWF is nothing like DLA

Catrin Griffiths

Crutes, Buller Jeffries, Biggart Baillie, Fishburns, Cobbetts: Since January 2012 DWF has bolted on six firms and £87m of revenue. At this rate Andrew Leaitherland will be reversing into DLA Piper.

If that sounds absurd, then so did Nigel Knowles’s assertion back in 1994 that what was then Dibb Lupton Broomhead should take over Clifford Chance and impose its management on them. Knowles didn’t quite pull that off, but he did end up getting the market to take him seriously and creating the largest law firm in the world. DWF’s tiny equity partnership and dirigiste management culture suggest that Leaitherland has been aping Knowles’s big beast. But however neat it may be to see DWF as DLA’s mini-me, there are crucial differences.

First, DLA expanded through fewer but bigger mergers to create a full-service proposition. The logic of DWF’s rapid trajectory is based on insurance market consolidation, as the clients require ever-bigger legal service providers that can cope with pure volume. Indeed, insurers have historically driven more change in the legal sector than any other clients. Of the big four – DAC Beachcroft, Kennedys, Clyde & Co and RPC – only RPC has not expanded via merger.

The second difference is market conditions. DLA Piper’s ascent took place when most other law firms had not modernised. In those years, when ABSs were unimaginable, DLA did not have the sort of competition now faced by DWF, when insurance behemoths such as Parabis and Minster Law loom and outside investment is becoming the norm. It would be wrong to see DWF as purely a volume business – its employment practice is a class act, for example – but its strategy has to be based on the competitive dynamic in the insurance market.

So can an organisation undergoing such rapid expansion actually consolidate those acquisitions into anything resembling a coherent whole? It took Eversheds a decade to knit together its nationwide businesses, but DWF doesn’t have the relative luxury of time that painstaking approach towards integration requires. When a firm’s success is so much predicated on dramatic forward movement, you need to put all your trust in your leader. Leaitherland has delivered the deals; can he create something bigger than the sum of its parts?