Law Soc’s A&O man Denyer: Silver Bullet or panic move?

 Allen & Overy partner Stephen Denyer is taking up a management role at the Law Society, but why has the solicitors’ representative body made such an appointment?

The solicitors’ representative body has for years faced accusations that it doesn’t give the Square Mile a square deal. 

City solicitors view the Law Society with ambivalence at best, and at worst outright contempt. There’s a strong whiff of, “what have the Romans ever done for us?” from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”, but without a long list of impressive achievements following the question. 

Now Chancery Lane is on the verge of its biggest effort in recent memory to put paid to that woeful reputation by bringing in one of the City’s own magic circle heavy hitters. Stephen Denyer, a long-standing partner at Allen & Overy (A&O), will on 1 May move from the front line of global legal practice to what many view as the sedate, cloistered world of Chancery Lane bureaucracy (24 October 2013).

Some view the move as little more than a soft retirement sinecure. However, the Law Society’s hierarchy is doubtless banking on Denyer being the silver bullet that, once blasted, into the bosom of global practice will make City lawyers love Chancery Lane. 

But as is so often the case with the accident prone body, there are already grumblings about the method and terms of Denyer’s appointment, as well as concern as to whether the move will only further alienate arguably the society’s core constituency – what is left of high street practice. 

If nothing else, the Law Society is good at throwing money about when it wants to buy a new toy. Rumours abound Chancery Lane that Denyer’s deal to become head of City and international involves a salary of between £150,000 and £200,000.

Modest, perhaps, in the City and global powerhouse circles to which he is accustomed. But eye-watering to middle management worker bees at Chancery Lane, not to mention the tens of thousands of high street and legal aid solicitors struggling to keep afloat. 

What will the society and by extension the profession get for its money?

There is no arguing that Denyer is a highly respected lawyer, who has built a connection of contacts at the top end of the global profession over the last two decades, not least through a long history of positions at the International Bar Association (IBA). 

However, for the time being, he is keeping his own counsel regarding exactly what the Chancery Lane role entails.

“Over the last 35 years at A&O,” Denyer told The Lawyer, “I have always made it a rule not to speculate about what I was going to achieve and focus on in each new role I have taken on until sometime after I have started performing it. That way I can ensure my description of my plans is much better focused, altercated and aligned with wider strategy objectives. I intend to take the same approach in this case … and plan to give myself at least a month before I start making public pronouncements about what I am hoping to achieve.” 

So bated breath is the order of the day for those taking an interest in the Law Society’s reputation in the City. But the soon-to-be-former A&O man has some cheerleaders.

“Stephen Denyer knows the City back to front and knows how important international law issues are for English solicitors,” says Alasdair Douglas, chairman of the City of London Law Society, the body many in the Square Mile see view having its finger much closer to the pulse of practice than its national counterpart. 

“He’s one of the most impressive lawyers I’ve met during my 13-year tenure at the IBA,” says that body’s executive director, Mark Ellis. “He’s absolutely the right person to get the City on board. He has a broad reach of interests – he knows bar associations, corporate lawyers, pro bono specialists. I’d be extraordinarily surprised if there weren’t a real transformation at the Law Society as a result.” 

Chancery Lane council members are also enthusiastically awaiting Denyer’s arrival.

“He understands the significance of the work undertaken within the City,” comments Robert Bourns, one of five members representing the City. “And the need to protect and promote its reputation and competitiveness internationally and the important and complementary roles that the City of London Law Society and the Law Society have in achieving this.” 

But not all council members are so gushing.

“It seems like a panic move by the Law Society,” growls one longstanding member, who asked not to be identified.

It is understood that several of that member’s colleagues are unhappy that despite Denyer’s role being a full-time senior staff position, it was not obviously advertised and there was little if any consultation of the council in advance of recruitment. 

“It’s a trophy appointment,” says another senior legal sector figure and long-term Chancery Lane observer. “The question is, will he add value for the Law Society on the internal issues key to it, which are governance and management? He hasn’t got a record in those areas at A&O. He’s not a manager, he’s a networker. So the society is buying a network. But will that network be seen as valuable by those vast numbers of domestic solicitors who are struggling with cuts to legal aid and a restructuring profession?” 

Sources inside Chancery Lane suggest the biggest proponent of Denyer’s appointment was Patricia Greer, the society’s chief of corporate affairs, who herself came to that newly-created post two years ago. Before joining, Greer had a background with big four accountancy firm KPMG, before spending four years in a senior role in former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s strategy unit and then moving on to the National School of Government. 

Perhaps in her mind was the thought that if top City solicitors won’t volunteer their time by joining the council, the Law Society had better go to market and buy one. Currently, only one of the five City council seats is occupied by a true City/global firm practitioner: Simon Davis, a litigation partner at Clifford Chance

Indeed, City lawyers are sparse across the rest of the 100-member council. Philip Kim, a commercial litigator at the London office of US firm Reed Smith holds the seat for ethnic minorities; Davina Garrod, a competition partner at fellow US firm Bingham McCutchen, has the seat for EU matters, while Kat Gibson, an employment law senior associate at DLA Piper, takes the Junior Lawyers Division seat. 

Not since 2011/12 has a City lawyer been in the upper echelons at Chancery Lane, when A&O consultant John Wotton sat in the president’s chair. The current top-three team very much reflects the high street: president Nicholas Fluck is one of two partners at Lincolnshire firm Stapleton & Son, vice-president Andrew Caplan is a consultant at six-lawyer Hampshire firm Heppenstalls, and deputy vice-president Jonathan Smithers is managing partner of 12-lawyer Tunbridge Wells outfit Cooper Burnett. 

The IBA’s Mark Ellis speculates there may be a more “existential” reason for Chancery Lane bringing Denyer on board. Sources suggest the society’s hierarchy is increasingly twitchy over prospects that the Government will pull the plug on its practising fee subsidy. Having to raise its own funding will be a tall order, and City firm corporate membership would be vital. 

“Group membership was a major transformation for the IBA about five years ago,” points out Ellis. “Stephen Denyer was very much involved with that.” 

In the meantime, Clifford Chance’s Simon Davis has some immediate advice for Chancery Lane’s new City boy.

“He needs to treat his constituents in the same way as he would if they were his clients at A&O,” says Davis. ”Get to know the client and understand what the client’s needs are, rather than imagining what those needs are. And then deliver tailored solutions to those needs – and make sure you tell the clients during and after a matter what you’re doing, what has been done on the client’s behalf. 

“Too often the problem with the Law Society is that it does things, but doesn’t tell people what it has done, and then gets flayed for having done nothing.” 

Denyer will be well advised not to keep his own council for long if the Law Society is to make any progress with that truculent City constituency.