It’s the brand, stupid

Nigel Knowles took DLA Piper from a Northern upstart to a global player. Can Tony Angel push the firm to the next level?

What’s the best bit you’ve found about DLA?Senior partner, national firm
What impresses me – and this came through even before I joined the firm – is the sense of purpose and clarity of vision. All firms face challenges, especially in the present environment, but it is the willingness to face up to them and do what is required that is important.

Is DLA capable of competing with the magic circle? Managing partner, national firm
We’re not trying to be a magic circle firm. We have a clear and distinct strategy.

What metrics are you going to use to measure other people in the business? CEO, City/international firm
Under any performance management and remuneration process – and ours is no exception – partners, from the most junior to the most senior, are entitled to clarity on what is expected of them. Performance is about how well partners do against those objectives and needs to be assessed differently for different partners, depending on their roles and responsibilities. DLA has a reputation for being meritocratic, with reward tied to performance, and that will continue. In the current economic environment that is more important than ever.

How confident are you of the model of DLA, and how does it relate to Linklaters? Managing partner, silver circle firm
Every day we see examples of the way our ability to use our sector expertise to meet the needs of
global and other clients across a range of jurisdictions and practices is increasingly compelling. Elite firms such as Linklaters have a similar approach, of course, but in relation to a different market segment.

In terms of brand positioning, how do you see yourselves? Senior partner, large City firm
Our aim is clear: to be the leading global business law firm. We’ve made great progress – for example, last year we were the world’s leading M&A firm by volume, we have market-leading practices in litigation, IPT, real estate, and so on, but we accept that the challenge is tocontinue to build on the foundations we have laid.

DLA Piper: M&A data

DLA Piper’s UK M&A record is pretty clear: it advises on an astonishing number of deals but is way off the leading pack for transaction value.

For example, it won roles on 105 deals with UK involvement in 2010 and hit the exact same figure in 2011, according to data provided by Thomson Reuters. This put it far ahead of any rivals by deal count in 2011, with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in second place on 77 mandates. In 2010,Freshfields pipped it to the post with 115 deals, but that was in a market where overall deal volume was slightly higher.

But deal value gives a wholly different picture. It lagged in 16th place in 2011 behind the likes of US firm Morgan Lewis & Bockius and Australian firm Blake Dawson, clocking up a total of $20.3bn (£12.8bn), sandwiched between Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Weil Gotshal & Manges. Freshfields and Linklaters, by contrast, each advised on UK deals valuing over $60bn. DLA’s figure was 21 per cent down on its 2010 total of $16bn, but it only dropped one place in the rankings.

However, there’s clear water between DLA and its obvious peers, such as Baker & McKenzie and Jones Day, a distinction underlined by DLA’s stronger record on the very biggest deals. It has advised on eleven deals exceeding $1bn in value going back to 2007 where the target was a UKcompany, with three of these coming in 2011. Bakers, meanwhile, acted on only four $1bn-plus transactions, of which one was in 2011. Linklaters, by contrast, scored 77 in this respect, including ix in 2011.

DLA’s deal portfolio ranges from the $10.3bn takeover of software company Autonomy by US giant Hewlett-Packard in 2011, where it had a minor role for the buyer, to the reverse merger of Rotherham meat retailer Crawshaw Group and retail kiosk maker Felix Group in 2008, which Thomson Reuters values at $301,000.

Overall, DLA has advised on 163 UK deals valuing less than $100m since 2007, compared with Linklaters’ 24. Indeed, DLA has advised on nine deals worth less than $1m since 2007, and two in 2011.It’s almost the definition of a volume business.

Joshua Freedman

Knowles and Angel: the personal relationship

It’s quite something to see Knowles and Angel together selling the same story for the first time. Also quite something to hear Angel say “we” and mean DLA Piper. It takes some getting used to.

“Back in May it wasn’t on the agenda,” says Angel. “I’d left Linklaters, joined Standard & Poor’s and had two very interesting years at the centre of the financial world credit storm, meeting central bankers and so on, and effectively getting it through to being regulated.

“By September 2010 my job effectively disappeared. So then a range of things opened up. Vantage Diagnostics [where Angel was chief executive] was one and also I was asked by [senior partner] Jonathan Blake to be a non-exec at SJ Berwin.”

Angel has known Blake since they were at school together aged 11 and, as he puts it, “he’s to blame”.

“He reminded me that I thoroughly enjoy being in a law firm and had an interesting perspective from having run a non-legal firm,” adds Angel. “I’d also found out that I was a lousy non-exec because I wanted to be involved in everything.

“So joining DLA Piper had never occurred to me. If I hadn’t gone to SJ Berwin I wouldn’t have known what I was missing.”

No one would doubt that there are few, if any, more experienced law firm leaders in the global market. As for the dynamic between the pair, they share the talking duties more or less evenly, with the naturally more garrulous Knowles only once being stopped from interrupting Angel with a raised hand and a gentle but firm, “if I can just finish this point”.

The former Linklaters man’s arrival has generally been seen by the market, and even former DLA Piper partners, as a positive step for the firm.
“When I heard that Tony Angel was coming in I thought it was a very good story for DLA Piper,” says one former partner. “He’s a big name.”

Knowles and Angel have known each other for more than 10 years. Last May, at a breakfast meeting at The Wolseley that lasted two hours, Knowles – who insists that there had been nothing “premeditated” – asked Angel to join the firm.

“I hadn’t thought it was on the agenda but I said I’d give it some thought,” admits Angel. “I met [co-global chair] Frank Burch and [joint CEO] Lee Miller, went to the US and kicked the tyres.”

“There was unanimous support everywhere,” adds Knowles. “We want to be the leading business law firm in the world and there’s so much still to do [around the world] in improving delivery, best practice and integration.

“We need the best possible squad at the top to advance that [agenda], and we really need to hit the accelerator.”