Paul Nicholls:The man to gift-wrap Dibbs

Dibb Lupton Alsop is hoping that Paul Nicholls will do for its London office what he did for its Manchester outfit. But, writes Tim Watkin, Nicholls must first persuade an already disgruntled staff that his appointment is a good idea.

Paul Nicholls leans forward, folds his arms, and moves to the left as the photographer dictates. He is happy to co-operate. He is happy to do this interview. But he is not happy about the shirt he is wearing.

"I would've worn another shirt if I'd known you'd wanted photos today," he frets, staring into the mirror of the lift taking us to the 17th floor of Dibb Lupton Alsop's London Wall offices.

This is Nicholls' new home, the firm's North West managing partner is moving from Manchester into London.

Presentation is important to Nicholls. He collects Armstrong Sidley cars and drives a romantically named 1959 Star Sapphire. From his shirt up, he is concerned about how Dibbs is seen by the legal world and he is unhappy with the firm's current profile.

"Presentation is something we need to work on. People just aren't aware how big and how good we are."

As we talk, it is clear he is working on the image already. He pauses before he answers questions, carefully choosing the impression he wants to make and scatters the interview with advertisements for his firm.

As I am leaving he even asks me to take out my notebook again so he is sure I have written down what he sees as Dibbs' greatest strength – that its City presence, combined with its regional offices, means quality representation can be delivered nationally, in what he calls "an interdependence of excellence".

He has the grace to laugh at the grandeur of his own phrase. There's one anecdote of a meeting in London when he "probably became the first partner ever" to thank the unpopular board for their hard work, eliciting loud groans from other partners.

He's clearly a marketer as much as a lawyer these days. His language is peppered with commercial buzzwords like "branding" and "adding value".

He sees the firm's commercial outlook as one of Dibbs' strengths, with lawyers who do not just sit around analysing legal problems, but who provide a service and find solutions for their clients.

"What are we? A fancy consultancy with a protected corner of the market. We get success because we behave like a business."

Nicholls compares the firm, at which he has worked since 1992, to a box of chocolates in a high street store. If the packaging is poor you will choose another brand. If the chocolates themselves are no good, you might try them once and move on.

The goal, of course, is to have a top quality product in attractive wrapping. "What I do is provide the wrapping."

This Forrest Gump view of his business ties in with a missionary-type zeal.

He began his career in student politics, going on to work for the Community Relations Council in Hillingdon, West London and for the Commission for Racial Equality before "an element of burnout" and the big money and opportunities of corporate law tempted him.

"I had a mission and I retain that quite strongly. I believe in the equality of opportunity."

If that sounds Blairish, you'd be wrong, as Nicholls stood unsuccessfully for the Liberal Democrats in Norwich in 1987.

He started at Dibbs' London office in 1992 when he was lured from Paisner & Co to set up a national employment team. Originally a barrister, he retrained as a solicitor during his four years at Paisners and became a partner.

But he laughs at his own skills as a solicitor, saying he cost himself a small fortune when he tried to do the conveyancing on his own home. His claim to fame, he adds, is that he is the author of Tolley's Discrimination Law Handbook.

In 1994, he was sent to Manchester where, to use his analogy, good chocolate was being made in the dark. "We had an excellent team in Manchester. But I added the profile."

Former colleagues agree. He earned a reputation for being good at getting people through the door.

He continued as an employment lawyer, but his job was more managerial. He says the improved profile translated into cash, with turnover up from u4m to u17m in four years.

But he also acknowledges what others believe – that the growth was just as much down to luck and timing.

He arrived at a time when Manchester was taking off, and the merger of Dibb Lupton Broomhead and Alsop Wilkinson in 1996 was a significant boost. "My timing's always been good."

Now this 45-year-old hopes his luck will continue, as he takes on the bigger job of trying to win over the City. But the City is sceptical. As one former staff member said: "Dibbs does not understand the City."

Or more directly: "If you want to act like the sharp operators of the legal world that's fine. But if you want to be professional lawyers operating in a straightforward manner, that's another thing."

Dibbs is seen by many as an aggressive firm but it has yet to prove it can grow from new business rather than through acquisitions and mergers. Nicholls describes the firm as "impatient".

He acknowledges the criticisms with a grin and a suitably cocky retort. "We are a firm that people love to bad mouth.

"It's because we are a threat to our competitors. I think the internal reality is that this is the place to be working."

The recent loss of staff shows that not all agree. Nicholls dismisses this as a common problem for big firms, but former staff say there have been "cultural" problems bedding down the merger between Dibbs and Alsops, especially in the London office.

As a result, Nicholls himself is seen as a troubleshooter, brought south to sort out the "tensions" in the London office. One of his successes in Manchester was to unite a fragmented team.

"He's well regarded for having pulled the ship together. It's a shame he's leaving the Manchester scene," says Hammond Suddards partner Sue Nickson.

But London could be a tougher ship to steady. Just this month litigation head Neil Micklethwaite and corporate recovery head Simon Neilson-Clark were involved in either a public slanging match, or a private spat – depending on who you listen to – in a City pub.

Nicholls denies any in-fighting. "I'm not aware of that, but I'm confident everyone will be getting on in the future. I don't accept that everyone isn't getting on now though."

Nicholls sees his four-year mission in three stages: convince the staff in Dibbs'

London office that his appointment is a good idea; establish a clear brand and raise awareness of the firm; then move the four London offices into one building.

"Part of my role is to say 'thank you' more," he says. "It's to provide cohesion and build the team."