No, Nigel, no. Where’s the hurry? What’s this obsession with being big?
As the world has known for months, DLA fundamentalist Nigel Knowles is about to merge his firm with Chicago-Baltimore giant Piper Rudnick. According to The American Lawyer, this will see former US Senate leader and Piper partner George Mitchell become non-executive chairman. Piper joint heads Frank Burch and Lee Miller will be joined by Knowles as the third chief executive officer – who for the first time will be outnumbered. And the key driver for all of this? Size, size, size.
In many ways, there’s a good fit between the two firms: a fair amount of lower-end corporate, a strong real estate business, a big regulatory practice, and both are themselves products of mergers.
The business case looks good – if you want to be a global mid-market firm, that is – but the strategy looks lousy. Indeed, an increasing number of DLA partners are privately asking each other why a US merger has to happen right now, when there’s European integration to be bedded down and when there’s still serious work to be done in London. It’s not a rebellion as such, but there’s growing disquiet.
Like most other UK firms with international aspirations, DLA has been making the usual contacts with a number of US practices. It has talked in the vaguest way to the likes of Akin Gump, Pillsbury Winthrop, Sonnenschein and Heller Ehrman, for example. Most people would agree that the more referral links the better, but the speed of the Piper talks has gone way beyond original expectations.
I remember interviewing Knowles for the first time back in 1993, when he was a Sheffield corporate partner at Dibb Lupton – then a coarse-grained Yorkshire firm with a nascent London office. With no trace of irony (for irony doesn’t sit well with evangelism), he startlingly declared: “I think we should reverse into Clifford Chance and impose our management on them.” Oh, how we laughed.
You all know the story since then: merger with Alsops, European expansion, tight management, high profits, getting up the client food chain. It’s all impressive stuff, but you get a sneaking feeling that there was more truth to that chance remark than meets the eye.
Because it seems that Knowles really does want to be a Clifford Chance. It all adds up: the flamboyant gesture, the constant forward movement, the size – and now a misconceived transatlantic merger on top.