Making tough love

DLA Piper develops brisk management style to help it through growing pains

DLA Piper is a good example of a firm moving towards a more corporate style of governance. That should come as no surprise, given its history and stated trajectory, and the fact that its speedy rise has been almost solely orchestrated by joint CEO and managing partner Nigel Knowles.

The gulf between the top and bottom of equity is the largest of any firm in The Lawyer UK 200, at £1.47m, but according to sources close to the firm, the move towards a more corporate management has accelerated in the past two years. A spokesperson said all changes were voted through by partners and represent a natural progression as the firm grows, but some sources add they have affected collegiality.

Examples given are changes to the members’ agreement that have seen the powers of partners to vote-in equity partners disappear in favour of a system whereby more than 10 per cent of the partnership must vocally oppose a hire before it is dropped.

Similarly, in 2011 the firm formed an executive management team that, according to some at the firm, was about moving decision-making powers away from department heads and vesting them in a central coterie comprised of Knowles, chief financial officer Paul Edwards and four regional managing partners: Andrew Darwin, David Bradley, Alastair Da Costa and Ulrich Jüngst. This line-up was changed less than a year later when Bradley and Da Costa were removed from management roles. DLA Piper attributed the changes to seeking a “fresh perspective”.

The changes come as DLA Piper’s International LLP (comprising the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Asia) moves full-tilt into its latest phase of development. According to a source, the firm has done the bulk of its expansion and is now making strides to focus on high-end work. And it has done so with success.

Its investment in LawVest has been interpreted as a way for the firm to eventually jettison clients that are minor branches in the firm’s billing tree. What this means for partners that service those clients is not clear. But for DLA Piper to get where it wants to be – a top-tier global business adviser – is likely to mean painful changes that are easier to implement with a corporate style of governance.