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January 27, 2012 11:25 AM

The Ultimate Lateral Hire

Posted by Steven Harper

Among 2011′s "Lateral Partner All-Stars," Tony Angel's symbolic importance seems unrivaled. As I write this, I don't know for sure that Angel will wind up on this year's version of The American Lawyer's annual February listBut when he joined DLA Piper as one of its top leaders, his new firm became the definitive poster child for big law's transformation. Celebrate at your peril.

Whither goest thou?

DLA Piper resulted from the combination of three large firms that were themselves the products of mergers of once-independent enterprises: DLA's three U.K. components were Dibb Lupton Broomhead, Alsop Stevens, and Wilkinson Kimbers; Piper Rudnick's predecessors included Baltimore-based Piper & Marbury and Chicago-based Rudnick & Wolfe; Gray, Cary, Ware & Freidenrich resulted from the union of San Diego-based Gray, Cary, Ames & Frye with Palo Alto's Ware & Freidenrich.

According to the DLA Piper Web site, the firm had 2,700 lawyers at the time of the merger in January 2005 and has 4,200 today. The attorneys it added during the past seven years alone would comprise one of the 20 largest firms in the world—eclipsing Kirkland & Ellis, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

But is DLA really a law firm? K&L Gates chairman Peter Kalis makes the telling point that, as a Swiss verein, it is more like a confederation of different firms that may share a common name, but don't share profit pools. Still, adding 1,500 attorneys in seven years makes any observer wonder about DLA Piper's global partner conferences. The 2010 meeting took place in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World. There's a metaphor in there someplace.

Ascertaining shared values and visions

According to The Am Law Daily, the whirlwind courtship between Angel and DLA Piper began with a May 2011 breakfast meeting that included Frank Burch and other members of the firm's leadership team. The idea of naming him global cochair gained momentum as Angel lined up partner support from the firm's 76 offices. On November 7, he got the top spot. How?

"He's got great values and he believes in what we're trying to do and he shares our view of what's going on in the world," said Burch, who now serves as DLA Piper's global cochair, along with Angel. "So, we didn't hesitate for a second and worry about the fact that the guy was not in the firm."

Didn't hesitate for a second? Didn't worry about the fact that the guy was not in the firm? Why not? What did Burch mean when he said Angel has "great values," "believes in what we're trying to do," and "shares our view"?

The DLA Piper press release announcing Angel's arrival offered a hint:

"Tony will work with the senior leadership on the refinement and execution of DLA Piper's global strategy with a principal focus on improving financial performance and developing capability in key markets."

Translation: Get bigger and make surviving equity partners richer.

Consultant Peter Zeughauser said that Angel is a hot property: "It's hard to get a guy that talented. There just aren't that many people out there who have done what he has done."

Zeughauser was referring to Angel's management of Linklaters from 1998 to 2007, a span that saw it go from being a well-respected U.K. firm to a global presence with average partner profits of $2.4 million. Although DLA Piper's 2010 average partner profits exceeded $1 million, Angel's job is to take them even higher.

Ignored in the financial shorthand are questions no one ever asks:

—Most big firms prospered wildly during big law's go-go years. Does the person at the top deserve all the credit? The partners who bring in clients, orchestrate deals, and win trials don't think so.

—Conversely, according to The American Lawyer's Global 100, by 2010 Linklaters's average profits per partner had slipped to $1.8 million. Does anyone think that happened because Angel left three years earlier? Not likely.

—What gets sacrificed in the myopic quest for growth and short-term profits? That's becoming clearer: things that aren't easily quantified, including a sense of community and a culture that mentors the kind of homegrown talent from which future leaders can emerge.

Rather than consider the heresy implicit in such questions, the spin zone focuses on what legal headhunter Jack Zaremski called a "brave move" that "might very well pay off."

Pay off, indeed. In The American Lawyer's latest Associates Survey, DLA Piper ranked ninety-ninth out of 126 firms. In reviewing their shared values and vision, did Angel and his new DLA Piper partners discuss the rewards that might come with addressing the firm's attorney morale problems?

Probably not. After all, Linklaters ranked 108th.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at www.thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.

 

 

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