Simon Davies has come from nowhere to lead Linklaters. How much is he tied to the old regime?

Linklaters” />As Linklaters’ crown prince addresses yet another group of managing associates – his sixteenth in three weeks – he tells the forum that he has three “unusual characteristics”.

“First, I’m Welsh,” says managing partner-elect Simon Davies. “Second, I’m both a corporate and finance partner, which is something pretty out of the ordinary these days, and third, I’ve spent 12 years outside the London jurisdiction.”

Unusual attributes indeed. It is the last quality that is the most intriguing. Because Tony Angel’s anointed successor as leader of the global firm is a man of mystery. As one Linklaters partner at the more junior end of the lockstep points out, his generation did not know Davies from Adam until he became managing partner-elect this year.

“It’s the older partners who are of Simon’s vintage and knew him more as an associate while he was here in London that know him well,” says the partner. “But for my generation, because he was already in Asia, we didn’t even know of him.”

And yet there is the same feeling in Asia, which has been Davies’s manor for more than a decade and where he became regional managing partner in 2003.

Lindsay Esler, Hong Kong managing partner of Deacons, says that Davies was not the most well-known legal player in Asia – a comment echoed by numerous others in Hong Kong. Esler worked in the same building as Davies while he was based in the region from 2003, but he did not know him well.

“Simon was a very affable chap, who I used to bump into in the taxi queue quite often,” says Esler. “He was always really friendly and agreeable.”

Even those who completed their articles and worked side-by-side with Davies as an associate for his short one-year stint in London are not overly clued up on what makes him tick.

“Do people know Simon? Well, until recently I would have been surprised if more than 50 partners knew him as he was out of London from such an early time in his career,” says one of Davies’s contemporaries. “Even in Asia he wasn’t that well known, but again it’s probably down to the fact that he was such a young managing partner.”

Davies has appeared almost without trace to run one of the world’s most successful global law firms. It is a situation without parallel in the City’s legal scene.

Guardian Angel

With no recognisable power base – either in London or in the UK corporate department – Davies’s nomination came out of the blue. But one insider glosses this differently. “Simon doesn’t have the allegiances within the firm, which means that he has the power to be as ruthless as he wants,” he points out.

Ruthless? That word is more obviously associated with current managing partner Tony Angel – the man hailed as Linklaters’ saviour. He turned the firm into a global power in the space of four years, and revived the languishing profit.

Angel is also the man who made Davies. Davies is seen as Angel’s protégé, with more than one partner confirming that Angel has groomed Davies, with their relationship resembling more that of father and son than of colleagues.

Angel himself is open about his support and respect for Davies. “Simon is a tremendous choice for a managing partner,” he said. “He did a fantastic job in Asia and really helped the firm become what some say is the leading firm in the region.

Davies’s tenure as Asia chief was critical. He was brought in at a time when the firm’s Asia practice was in turmoil. Not only was there the Sars crisis in the region, but the firm was also haemorrhaging lawyers.

One source, who knows Davies well, says that the high attrition rate came as a result of Linklaters not having enough work coming through from its clients. Davies turned round the fortunes of the firm by being willing to play a risky game.

“During Linklaters’ darker days in Asia when they were losing lawyers left, right and centre Simon took a brave stance by going to the firm’s clients and saying that Linklaters wants to stay in Asia but would have to close if they didn’t help him out,” he explains. “The gamble paid off in a big way – now making Linklaters one of the players within the region and making it easier for the firm to keep hold of its staff.”

The willingness to take a risk parallels Angel’s own bold move of realigning the entire partnership around more profitable areas of work – and mass de-equitisations into the bargain – to revive Linklaters’ financial performance.

“Simon learnt a lot from Tony and they’re really cut from the same cloth,” one partner says. “I mean this in the sense that Tony had the ability to be a CEO and run a business plan and budget – often attributes not associated with lawyers – and Simon has this too.

“Tony had a set strategy and ran with it. Simon has a vision and he will do the same.”

And he has Angel’s unequivocal support in doing so. “Being managing partner of Linklaters is not an easy job. You need to have a clear vision and the determination to follow it through and at the same time with a partnership you need the ability to have people to come with you,” says Angel. “Simon has these aspects in spades.”

Suave and sophisticated

Yet even before Davies’s Asia tour, he was marked out by those in the know as a potential leader. “Putting my Simon Cowell hat on, even I as an associate spotted that he was going to be a star,” remarks one of Davies’s contemporaries.

“Simon knows how to deal with the big politicians in the firm and knows how to play the game,” he adds. “He’s a smooth operator, getting on easily with everyone while being adaptable, as he can walk the line of both capital market and corporate and do it well.”

Indeed Davies, whether on the telephone or in person, comes across as extremely suave, polished and sophisticated.

Although Angel and Davies think the same way, there are some major differences. Angel has hit some dark times in his professional life, with his radical sacking of partners leaving him with more than one critic within the legal profession.

Davies, on the other hand, has shot to the top with what appears to be no struggle whatsoever. Having studied at Cambridge University, casting his initial choice of family law aside after finding the cut and thrust of corporate finance more appealing, Davies was on a fast track to the top.

Davies wanted to go to Asia early on: he got it. He wanted clients in Asia to help him keep Linklaters in the region: he got it.

Davies tried for the firmwide managing partner role: and – with a little help from Angel’s recommendation to the international board and through support from senior partner David Cheyne – he got it.

What is quite telling is an answer Davies gave in a recent interview in The Times to the question: “What was your worst day as a lawyer?”For Angel, there would no doubt be a flurry of choices. Davies, however, answered: “Having missed a two-hour flight from Tokyo to Seoul, I spent a sleepless eight-hour overnight flight to Seoul via Guam to attend an all-day negotiation.”

Vive la différence

Davies has already differentiated himself from the previous regime. His vision to put “people” at the heart of the firm’s strategy means plenty of staff interaction for the managing partner-elect.

Much of his thinking is rooted in his practical experience of running the Asia operation.

Davies adds that putting people at the heart of the firm’s strategy in Asia paid off and it will be key to reaching his ultimate goal for Linklaters – to become “the premier global law firm”. Cynics see this emphasis on people as an implicit distancing from Angel’s management-heavy regime, although Davies is quick to argue that his vision is merely an extension of his predecessor’s.

In addition to training and development, work-life balance is as important to the success of the firm. “People want more balance in their lives, and as a result we need to understand and make more of flexible working arrangements for all staff,” explains Davies.

He has also brought in three new posts to Linklaters’ executive committee, Excom, to address internal working concerns, as well as client matters, which otherwise could have flown under the radar.

Chief operating officer Simon Thompson, client relationship partner Richard Godden and HR director Jill King took up their places last month, when Angel handed over the Excom chairmanship to Davies. All three have been given voting rights.

“It was essential to me that we had on Excom the people who are ultimately responsible on a daily basis for our business services and our staff, as well as having Richard on board as the voice of the clients,” Davies says.

To understand what his people want for the future of the firm, Davies is canvassing opinions from the top partners to the rawest trainees, as well as staff on the business development side.

When you are a relative unknown, it is certainly one way to meet people.

To hear more from Simon Davies, listen to the October edition of The Lawyer Podcast.

Simon Davies
Firm: Linklaters
Title: Managing partner-elect
Firm turnover: £1.12bn Total number of lawyers: 2,400
Simon Davies’s CV
Education: Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, BA Law
Work history:
1990-92: Trainee, Linklaters London
1992-95: Assistant, Linklaters London
1995-99: Assistant, Linklaters Hong Kong
1999: Partner, Linklaters Hong Kong
1999-2003: Partner, Linklaters Tokyo
2003-07: Asia managing partner, Linklaters
2007-present: Managing partner-elect, Linklaters