New leaders, new styles

Catrin Griffiths

After a decade of phenomenal growth, Chinese law firms are now having to confront the issue of succession. It’s a touchy subject but some of the top firms have been quietly grappling with it, as our Asia editor Yun Kriegler reveals in our cover story this week.

Jun He, best known in the West for being Slaughter and May’s best friend, elected David Liu as its new leader last year. From a London-centric point of view, this is an interesting dynamic because unlike his predecessor Xiao Wei, who was on a placement at Slaughters back in the 1990s, he has fewer historical ties with the UK firm. 

DeHeng has also made the transition from iconic founder to new generation. The firm was set up in 1993 by Wang Li, who led the firm until last year. She is still in the picture but runs the operation as senior partner along with newly elected Gavin Sun and a nine-strong management committee.

This is all looking very familiar so far; Chinese firms are clearly co-opting the US/UK model of senior and managing partner, and executive committee. It seems a lot more straightforward than DLA Piper’s antiphonal model of joint US/UK chairs and CEOs, plus senior partner and managing partner on top. Hardly a streamlined structure – that is, until September when the partners will undoubtedly endorse the proposed management changes.

The shake-up, in case you hadn’t seen the news last week, involves Nigel Knowles becoming global co-chair and UK IP partner Simon Levine stepping into the CEO role on the UK side. Actually, although it’s an eye-catching story, not least because the new structure has no place for Tony Angel, it’s business as usual at DLA Piper. I think we can all stop colluding in the blithe fiction that Knowles had been doing hands-on micro-managing when in fact his role has evolved into that of a chair some time before this announcement. Knowles has set the brand for years, and his role as chair allows him to do that more explicitly. Meanwhile, Levine will have to step out from Knowles’s shadow. It’s a suggestion he pooh-poohs, but the market will be watching to see if there are any differences in tone. 

Scratch the surface of any lawyer and you’ll find a Kremlinologist; a lot of people will be watching DLA Piper’s succession strategy very closely.