Darwin's theory of legal evolution

DLA Piper managing partner and global chief operating officer Andrew Darwin talks survival strategies, responding to an influx of international firms and the British take on the local market

Andrew DarwinDLA Piper managing partner and global chief operating officer Andrew Darwin talks survival strategies, responding to an influx of international firms and the British take on the local market 

It is 7 o’clock on a frosty Monday morning when Andrew Darwin jokes about becoming something he used to loathe.

The managing partner of DLA Piper-Australia is behind the wheel of his car, cruising down England’s M1 motorway. It’s a timely visit to his home country, marking a year to the day that Darwin first moved from London to take up management duties in Sydney. The air outside is cold and the Brit admits that he isn’t accustomed to the spring chill after living in Sydney. He then lets slip a surprising confession. His voice straining over the highway traffic, he tells Australasian Lawyer that he used to hate managers.

“I used to despise management,” he says. “As a young corporate lawyer, I could never understand why these older guys had given up all the challenges of being a deal-doer to get involved in management.”

It’s an ironic statement for sure, and one that isn’t lost on Darwin. The DLA Piper chief operating officer (outside the US) and former managing partner of the firm’s UK office is the epitome of a law firm management figure. DLA Piper, after all, isn’t just a big legal brand – it’s the world’s largest law firm.

Part of the irony is that Darwin has accomplished big things through his DLA management roles. The lawyer has watched what was essentially a British-only firm morph into a truly global player, one that straddles 77 offices in more than 30 countries.

“I guess what got me over the line, from practice to management, is the opportunity. If you had drawn a pie chart of DLA’s operations in 2002, about 98% of that would have been in the UK... since then we’ve grown to what we are now.”

Despite this position, the firm isn’t resting on its laurels and Darwin says that recognising how the global legal industry is changing was part of what prompted his move from London to Sydney. DLA Piper’s leadership had long stressed that the firm needed to operate on a ‘truly global’ scale and Australia was a strategic market.

Darwin’s original mandate in becoming the firm’s Australia managing partner was to get the local practice in line with its international operations. The Australian practice had been moving closer to the global firm's way of doing things since 2006, when a partnership with Phillips Fox paved the way for a full financial merger in 2011. To accomplish the integration, the firm needed someone with DLA blood in their veins. Having joined the firm in 1981 as a trainee, Darwin fit the criteria to a tee.

“My boss Nigel Knowles came to me in December 2012 and asked if I was interested in going to Australia for two or three years. At that stage we had merged the processes of the Australia business, but we’re a long way from getting the client synergies to the level we wanted. I thought ‘why not?’ It would be a great job to complete the integration. It was also an exciting time in the legal market generally and in Australia.”

International pressures
Darwin says that the reality of operating in Australia has been a lot different to how he and the firm had imagined. “When we started our relationship with Phillips Fox in 2006, we saw ourselves as a pretty early mover to Australia. We didn’t think a lot of international firms would move in and thought our global reach would be a differentiator for a greater period.”

Darwin adds with the influx of a number of other international firms into Australia, along with the succession of mergers and integrations that have taken place among local firms, has put pressure on the firm to up its game in its attempt to grow the scale of the Australian practice.

“Clients now have a broader range of choices for international firms than we thought there would be four or five years ago… I think there is some way to go before clients can work out exactly what the market looks like. Right now my impression is that clients are defaulting to relationships that they know with individuals. They are less certain about what the brands represent.”

The corporate push
Another key imperative of Darwin’s tenure as managing partner of DLA Piper-Australia is to rebalance the practice. His vision is for more of an emphasis on transactional practice areas. The traditional emphasis in Australia, he says, has been around litigation and regulation but he wants to see the firm reach a point where its corporate and finance work represents close to 40% of activity.

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It’s a big ask. Right now he says that corporate and finance work combine to account for roughly 30% of the firm’s local work. To grow these functions he adds that the firm will have to give particular focus to growing its corporate practice. The magic number is to make corporate work account for 25% of the practice three years from now.

“Talking to a lot of other firms, we recognise that they [also] have that at the top of their priorities. It’s a long-term play.”

The way DLA Piper plans to accomplish this is by growing its own internal people, supported by selective lateral hiring. Another growth driver will be leveraging off of its global network.

 “We’ve got to encourage other key markets to actually open up their clients to the Australian practice. You can actually build a pretty good commercial practice on the back of your existing clients.”

In a similar way, Darwin says that DLA Piper will be looking to take advantage of its size and larger budget to make inroads into markets. In this regard, he says the firm has the benefit of being bigger than its rivals, but not so big that it makes the firm cumbersome and slow footed.

“We are large in legal terms, but we are still quite small relative to the size of big accounting firms, for example. We are still pretty agile, but the one thing bigger scale gives us is the ability to make changes and investments. We’ve got the budget and the balance sheet to take some risks.”

Aussie opportunities
Considering that Darwin’s tenure as managing partner in Australia was never going to be a permanent basing and that the plan had always been to eventually pass MP duties to a home grown successor, he says that there will be a lot of things he will miss about working in Aussie law.

He points out that there are a lot of similarities in the British and Australian legal markets, but he also believes Australia is at a critical point, one where a new order is being set. He says it has been exciting being at the front line of this evolution.

“There used to be an old pecking order in Australia and it has been shaken up. That’s good for us because we are trying to establish a different and stronger brand in the market and there is an opportunity to do that.”

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