Sir Nigel Knowles, 55, is the joint CEO of DLA Piper, the world's biggest law firm. When he joined Sheffield firm Broomheads in 1978 as an articled clerk, it employed 90 lawyers and had revenues of around £600,000. Today, his empire has 76 offices in 30 countries, employs 8,000 people — 4,200 of them lawyers — and had a turnover of £1.3bn last year.
business:life: Which sectors does DLA Piper specialise in?
Nigel Knowles: Some firms concentrate on the once-in-a-lifetime big-ticket work in corporate finance and capital markets but we want to be more of the trusted business advisor across a whole range of business services. Our vision is to be the leading global business law firm. That is why we're different. We want to provide a whole range of business services that governments or sovereign entities or corporates around the world need every day of the week. We want to act for our clients wherever they are, whatever they want doing, whenever they
want it doing on a day-by-day basis, including capital markets, corporate finance, arbitration, litigation, regulation, restructuring, real estate and employment: the whole gamut of services.
bl: Your father was a greengrocer in Sheffield. Which lessons did he teach you?
NK: My father used to get up at quarter past five in the morning and go to the wholesale fruit and vegetable market and buy cauliflowers for, let's say, 20p and come back and sell them for, what? 30p, 35p? And the customers came, bought, smiled and everybody was happy. The week after they came back again. And that's all we're doing. If my father had charged too much or the product he had sold was dreadful, they wouldn't have come back. It was just about giving people what they want. People always appreciate you taking a keen interest in them and what their strategic ambitions might be and how you might help them. It's very collaborative. You've got to be in partnership with your clients, not distant. And you've also got to be nice. There's no substitute for being nice and getting along with people because clients have got a real choice of which law firm to use and they're going to go with the firm that's most like them. If they're successful, they want you to be successful, if they're businesslike, they want you to be businesslike and if they're caring about their customers and workforce, they want you to be caring about your customers and workforce.
bl: We're increasingly living in a two-speed world, with OECD capitalism in crisis but high growth rates continuing in Southeast Asia, South America and places such as Turkey. Does this mean your global expansion plans are ongoing?
NK: Absolutely. We need to be where clients are investing their money. We opened in Turkey in June 2010. We chose Turkey for all sorts of reasons. First of all, we found an exceptionally good firm to merge with but we also knew that 2,500 global businesses had established a presence in Turkey in the previous three years. Our experience of Turkey has been outstanding.The same goes for China and for most of the Asia-Pac companies, including Australia itself. There's no doubt that where GDP growth is strong or where you've got an emerging and developing country you've got a market for legal services that's growing.
Contrast that with the UK where GDP growth was recently downgraded to 0.9 per cent. In the UK we continue to do well but only at the expense of other firms. We take market share because we've got differentiation in the market place. We can offer more broadly based services over a greater geography in all sorts of sectors and make that general counsel or buyer of legal services more effective and more efficient and save them money. The global financial crisis in many ways helped DLA Piper demonstrate to the market that our vision and reason for being here to serve them as their trusted advisor is absolutely right. I would say that we are here at a really good point in time either because of outstanding leadership or lots of luck. Obviously, I would say the former!
bl: Every time you negotiate a merger you have to take your partners with you in that they have to vote on each deal. Which qualities do you have that help you to pull off these deals?
NK: First of all, the vast majority of the decisions we've taken have proved to be the right ones and the firm has benefited so I think it's true to say that I would not have the following I have from my partners if every time I came up with an idea it had been a bad one and fallen flat on its face. I think you do build a trust and confidence on the part of your partners over a period of time. We run this law firm as a business. We see that we need a vision, a plan, and core values. We see that we need to embrace local culture so that we don't lose people. We have to have good financial discipline.
Life actually is very, very simple and this is where I think a lot of people can get very confused. We've got to sell many hundreds of thousands of hours a month at a price that people want to pay. We've then got to pay all our expenses and have something left over to pay all our people and if any bit of that goes wrong we're bust. I think it's all about being relevant and keeping
it relatively simple and taking people with you. That's one answer to that question but there is another one. If you present to your partners a vision and a strategic plan where you say you want to be the leading global business law firm, which we do, then by virtue of agreeing that upfront all the decisions that you take should be a consequence of agreeing the vision and plan.
bl: Do you tweet?
NK: No, but communication is a very important component of my life. We have people responsible for internal and external communication and they do great jobs. Without them we would suffer and, in order that people understand from me what's on my agenda, I record a video blog that goes on to everybody's screen. We have a fairly substantial four-figure viewing audience every week and that's good. You can never communicate enough but we
do try our best to communicate effectively.
bl: Are you a businessman or a lawyer?
NK: Businessman. I've not practised the law since I became managing partner on 1 January 1996 — much to the pleasure probably of our professional indemnity insurers!
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