The proud father

DLA managing partner Nigel Knowles is still shouting about his firm’s ambitions to conquer London and Europe. City firms – sneer at your peril

Nigel Knowles and I did not start off on the best of terms. In fact, the second time I ever spoke to him, he yelled at me for about a quarter of an hour without pausing for breath.

It was not a good time for either of us. Knowles was trying to steer Dibb Lupton Alsop (as it was then) through choppy waters, in which several partners bailed out. As for me, I had just joined The Lawyer and was trying to work out what on earth lockstep was.

The shouting match – although when I say match I mean of the Mike Tyson v Wayne Sleep-type pairing – was provoked by an article on the partner departures, accompanied by an illustration of a roll of film showing silhouettes for each one that had gone. While the article was soon forgotten, the illustration still grates in DLA.

Looking back, terrifying though the experience was at the time, the incident was probably a fairly good introduction to Knowles. Not that he still shouts at me, thank goodness, but he is still fiercely protective of his firm.

Let’s face it, he is not just protective of DLA, but utterly evangelical about it. While his business card might say that he is managing partner, when speaking to Knowles about DLA he comes across more like a proud parent, with some of the tunnel vision that such unconditional love entails, but also a protective streak that always wants to know how others perceive the firm. You get the feeling that if Knowles felt walking around naked apart from a sandwich board proclaiming that ‘DLA is the best firm in the world’ would help, he would do it.

All of which might be utterly cringeworthy and embarrassing if it was not for the fact that Knowles has kept the troops marching close behind him, and in doing so has managed to overturn the City’s image of the firm. Three years ago, DLA was still viewed as a bunch of aggressive Northern oiks who had no idea how things were done in the hallowed streets of the City. Many of the partners have regional accents, for God’s sake, and I think it is fair to say that they were viewed by the City bluebloods as ‘trade’.

But then DLA started to surprise the same people that had scoffed at its stated 1999 vision of being in the top 10 in the City within three years. While DLA is not quite there – Knowles believes the firm to be somewhere between 9 and 12 – it is nevertheless not doing badly, and if rumours of one of the big investment banks being prepared to give them a go on a big deal are correct, then the firm could be encroaching even further into blueblood territory.

Another of ‘Nigel’s visions’, as they are known within DLA, is to become top five in Europe, where it has rapidly formed the D&P alliance with nine members. And he says he is working on yet another vision, which he will communicate to every member of staff (no matter how bewildered) in May. That is the only way he believes the firm can advance. “How can you wake up in the morning and go to work thinking all you have to do is on your desk but you don’t know how that fits into the end goal?” he asks.

“I’m leading DLA to do what I think is absolutely right for DLA,” says Knowles. “What will make them absolutely the best and to live forever. This isn’t a personal indulgence.”

In this cynical world it would be very easy to dismiss Knowles as a PT Barnum-type figure, but Des O’Connell, who was formerly with Barclays Bank, a key client for DLA, is greatly impressed with Knowles. And I guess when the clients believe what you are saying, that counts for something.

“I certainly believe that he’ll achieve his vision of becoming top 10. I’ve been fantastically impressed by DLA’s focus and how they set themselves goals and then achieve them,” O’Connell says. He adds that, in working with Knowles, who is client relationship partner for Barclays as well as Virgin, NatWest and the Royal Bank of Scotland, he has been impressed with Knowles’s grasp of client care.

“He understands the importance of perception over reality,” states O’Connell, who explains that he has had dealings with other firms that have told him he has been wrong in his perception that a deal was badly handled, rather than listening to his complaints.

This is all turning a little bit gushing, isn’t it? But still, I have a lot of time for Knowles. Yes, sometimes he does not know where the dividing line between pride and hype is to be found and he may lack the smooth charm of some of the other senior lawyers, but Knowles’s enthusiasm is infectious.

What is certain is that he loves being managing partner of DLA. “I’ve got the best job in the law, of that I’m in no doubt,” he proclaims. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve only just started to get to where I think we can end up; and I think I know the process to get there.”

His passion means a minimum of 12 hours a day working, more often 14, he says, with family life reserving his weekends and the whole of August. Setting up the D&P European alliance took around 100 meetings, he estimates, including talks with 22 different German firms. Helping him share the burden are the other two sides of the DLA power trinity, Neil Micklethwaite, who heads the contentious side of the business, and Andrew Darwin, Knowles’s first trainee, who heads the transactions side.

Also in a supporting role is Andrew Holt, head of private equity in the Manchester office, who is Knowles’s oldest friend. “We’re very close so he pulls my leg without mercy.” No doubt this article will provide some ammunition for Holt.

He knows nothing of life outside DLA, having joined Sheffield firm Broomheads & Neals in 1978, which became a component part of today’s firm, and Knowles is quite paternalistic in his relationship with the rest of the firm. He talks about people much more than profit and says that he regards DLA’s people and clients as equally important, which surprisingly is not something I hear very often from lawyers in management.

“Quite a lot of people’s livelihood and wellbeing depends on the success of DLA,” says Knowles, frowning slightly. “That doesn’t give me power, just quite a lot of responsibility. You owe it to them to get it right and not to do anything silly.

“We need to create something that our people can be proud of. I don’t want them to be here to pay the mortgage; I want them to really be here because they want to be.” Knowles reminds me of the Department of Trade and Industry-sponsored survey that named the firm as sixteenth in the top 50 best companies to work for.

So he adds that, if it seems as if DLA is taking on too much at the same time, the firm is never “betting the ranch” on a strategy. Knowles cites GE’s former chief executive officer Jack Welch and Microsoft’s Bill Gates, both of whom have triumphed over low expectations, as the businessmen he admires most. In the legal market, Knowles voices admiration for what Clifford Chance has done and believes that DLA contains some of the same potential to turn the bluebloods’ world upside down.

Knowles is, as anyone who has met him would probably guess, not from a blueblood background. His parents were a grocer and a greengrocer, although he stiffens slightly when I teasingly compare him with another famous child of grocers, Margaret Thatcher. On Saturdays and holidays, young Knowles would be behind the counter, and he says that he cannot remember a time when he did not understand the basics of business.

“Every morning at 5.30 my father bought a lorryload of produce and bought it at one price and sold it at another, and that’s what we do,” says Knowles. “We’ve signed up 1.4 million hours and we’ve got to sell 1.4 million hours and have some profit left, or we have a product that people don’t want to buy.”

A couple of years ago, when the US firms started flooding back into the market, Knowles says that he received several approaches to head up new London offices. But to no avail.

“It’s absolutely inconceivable that I could work anywhere else,” he says. “You can never have the same level of passion and commitment to two things. There is no conceivable basis on which I could leave DLA.”

Now come on Knowles, spit it out. Tell us how you really feel.
Nigel Knowles
Managing partner