David Fennell, CEO of Gowling WLG, on the newly combined firm
David, it's great to speak to you again. We last interviewed you back in 2014 and a lot has happened. How did the combination with Gowlings come about?
Well, as I said back in 2014, the WLG merger was just the beginning for our firm. A major international link-up was always something we were keen to do, and we'd had a close relationship with Gowlings for many years. The two firms had similar cultures and, importantly, similar ambitions. WLG's desire to move into North America was matched by Gowlings' ambition to broaden its European scope. It was an easy decision to make and a popular one with both partnerships.
Were there any particular challenges or issues combining with an international firm?
Our tie-up with Gowlings is a combination rather than a merger, which does simplify international matters somewhat. Gowling WLG UK and Gowling WLG Canada are autonomous and independent entities within Gowling WLG International Limited, an English company limited by guarantee. Profit and turnover remain separate, but our strength in depth has increased significantly, and we've extended our geographic reach, client base and pools of talent.
How long did the merger take from start to finish?
We managed the WLG merger in 2014 in around 12 months; buoyed by that success, we decided we could do it faster – and we did. In the end, once the decision was made, it was all hands to the pumps and we managed the combination, complete with a new website, brand identity and advertising, within about eight months. And yes, it really was hard work. Everyone pitched in and it helped to create a buzz around the new identity and excitement for the future of the firm.
Have you developed a new brand proposition for the new firm?
We have, yes. But our brand is about much more than just a new look and feel. It's centred around our core brand promise of being in tune with our clients' worlds, aligned with their opportunities and genuinely ambitious for their success.
It's about seeing the world through our clients' eyes, being empathetic to their needs and approaching everything we do from their perspective. Our new brand embodies the attributes in a law firm that our clients tell us they're looking for – it's bold, enterprising and ambitious, while still being personal, friendly and approachable.
What have the main benefits been?
Without a doubt, the increase in our client base and our global reach. Before the combination had even taken place, we'd been appointed as sole Intellectual Property advisers to Weetabix, acting for them on their global IP needs. Naturally this is a significant client for us, and one of the most well-known cereal brands in the UK, so it was a definite coup for the two firms prior to combining.
Since combining, we've also seen new clients and increased work in Africa, UAE and the UK in the mining sector as our legacy firms' expertise and global reach work together to win new work.
Being able to offer such an expanded area of operation is very attractive for our larger clients, as is understanding the law in different jurisdictions and being able to negotiate contracts and agreements for our multi-national clients. We've also seen our pool of talent double, of course – and that's always a good thing.
How closely do the offices work with each other?
That really depends on the work being done at any given time. In the same way legacy WLG offices worked together, some weeks we'll be practically in each other's pockets, and other weeks not so much, but we always keep each other abreast of our activities. It helps us share best practice and offer a joined-up service for our clients no matter where in the world they – or we – are. We've always emphasised that our single team ethos stretches across all our offices and that still applies.
What was the reaction like to this particular combination amongst the staff and the wider legal community?
The staff at both organisations were positive about the combination. On this side of the pond, we'd made it clear right from the WLG merger in 2014 that we were looking for an international partner, so while the timing may have been quicker than expected, the combination itself wasn't a huge surprise.
The excitement and positivity were really cemented after our launch announcement celebration. We had several Canadian offices, our Paris and Munich offices, and even Dubai all on video-conference with our UK offices at the same time. It was really exciting for our people to hear what the Gowlings staff had to say and to get a sense of their personalities and ambitions.
It was a great success, and really helped create a sense of anticipation within both legacy firms.
The legal community in the UK expressed some initial doubt about our choice of a Canadian firm, but that dissipated quickly and I think our recent client wins, and the Chambers Global rankings not long released, have proven the wisdom of our choice.
Are there plans for any more mergers in the near future?
As I mentioned, we are looking for further combination members, though I can't say how soon we'll effect another tie-up. Suffice it to say that it's definitely on our radar. We'll be looking for more than just a client base or a profit model, though; a cultural fit is essential to how we see Gowling WLG progressing. If the opportunity arises and it's the right one for us, I'll let you know!
David Fennell is chief executive of international law firm Gowling WLG UK, part of the combined firm created by legacy organisations Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co (WLG) and Gowlings. It has 18 offices in 10 countries, including the UK, Europe, Canada, the Middle East and Asia.