David Fennell, chief executive at Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co
David, thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for The Brief. Firstly, can you give us a quick rundown of your own career to date?
My legal career began at Herbert Smith, where I trained until qualifying in 1995. I joined legacy Wragge & Co in 1996, working my way to partnership in 2002. Before being appointed Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co's chief executive on 1st May this year, I headed Wragge & Co's projects and infrastructure practice. I specialised in Public Private Partnership projects. I also worked on major infrastructure projects and understand the rail sector very well, having been seconded to one of the rolling-stock owners at the time of rail privatisation and subsequently devoted much of my career to practising railway law.
The last year has been a busy one for you including your appointment as global managing partner. How has your day to day role changed?
It's become all-encompassing. Luckily, I've got an excellent team around me – a great set of partners and support directors – to help keep me on the straight and narrow! Today's legal market is incredibly competitive and fast moving so it is important not to become complacent. As a new, bigger and better firm, we have opportunities that wouldn't have been available to either of the legacy firms. My job is to set our strategic direction so that we capitalise on these opportunities and invest in the people, practices and processes that will take our business to the next level.
The culture of a firm is integral to its success. I aim to lead by example, treating people fairly, being open and honest, and maintaining my client relationships so that I am plugged in to what clients want from us.
You also led the recent merger with Lawrence Graham. How long did the merger take from start to finish?
Although the merger was officially announced in December 2013, it was more than 12 months in the making. However, this merger is not an end in itself. This is only the first step to building an even bigger and stronger international business, which will open other doors and give us choices for our future.
What was the process like?
Complex! However, we'd obviously done our homework as well as a great deal of planning. Both legacy firms shared similar cultures, locations and practice groups so the process was made much easier because of this. Staff from both legacy firms also embraced the merger for a number of reasons; it was and is viewed as a very positive move by both sides. When you go through a merger, there is always going to be some bedding in to do, you're dealing with people after all so you need to remain focused but flexible. I'm a strong believer in never resting on your laurels but, so far so good!
What was the reaction to the merger amongst the staff and the wider legal community?
Overwhelmingly receptive. Any change is always a little unnerving, but generally speaking this merger has been embraced by our people, our clients and the wider legal community. I think they appreciate that it captured the best aspects of both firms and made a lot of commercial sense. I am very pleased to see the number of new opportunities which have come about as a result of our merger, some even before we had officially become one firm.
Can you tell us a bit about the firm's future growth strategy and what the aims/ ambitions are for the next couple of years?
Our immediate priorities are to retain and grow our client relationships, fully integrate effectively our two businesses and improve profitability and business efficiency. These steps will create a platform for future profitable growth.
Our merger has created one of the UK's largest real estate practices, with more than 240 lawyers. Currently 30% of turnover at both firms is from real estate. We'll also be focusing on equity capital markets, investment funds, private capital, IP, pensions and construction. We have a stronger platform in London and the UK from which to pursue growth and meet the needs of a diverse client base.
Where would you like the firm to be in 10 years' time?
I'd like our firm to be synonymous with outstanding client service and sector knowledge - providing advice and solutions based on genuinely understanding the commercial issues, challenges and opportunities faced by our clients. I'd also like the firm to be known for its commitment to innovation - in client service, in pricing and in delivery models.
In order for any of this to happen, we need to continue to remain a relationship firm - working as a single team, supporting each other to deliver the right results for our clients and to create a positive working environment for all staff.
The legal landscape has changed hugely over the past five years with new entrants to the market. What’s your view on the rise of ABSs and their impact?
I think one thing we would all agree on is that the legal landscape will continue to change rapidly over the next five years as well. New entrants like ABSs will play a part in that, as will the more established legal players. As a new, bigger and better firm we remain confident we will continue to offer an attractive proposition to our clients.
In your opinion, what makes a good lawyer?
Someone who actively listens to their clients and takes the time to really understand their business. Competition within the legal profession has always been fierce, that's why you need a differentiator.
More often than not, understanding clients better is about being genuinely interested and taking any opportunity to find out about their business, whether through reading about them in the press or just taking the opportunities as they arise to chat to them about what they are up to.
You also need to be pragmatic and understand how to solve the problems necessary to make projects or deals happen. Clients are under more and more pressure to meet targets and cut budget costs; the more you can do to alleviate some of their pressures, the more invaluable you become.
Finally, what are your own career goals that you still want to achieve?
For the moment I am focussed on the next 12 months - retaining and growing our client relationships, fully integrating effectively our two businesses and improving profitability and business efficiency. That's plenty to be getting on with for now!