Roger Meltzer
Roger Meltzer ()

A little more than two years after DLA Piper hired former Linklaters managing partner Anthony “Tony” Angel out of retirement, the onetime Magic Circle maestro is poised to step down as global cochair of DLA to make way for new leaders Sir Nigel Knowles and Roger Meltzer.

DLA, the world’s largest firm by both gross revenue and head count, announced the management shake-up in a press release Tuesday afternoon in the United Kingdom. The firm said that as of Jan. 1, 2015, DLA’s top leadership posts will be shared by Knowles, a global co–CEO of the legal giant and head of DLA Piper International LLP, and Meltzer, the cochair of DLA Piper’s U.S. LLP.

Meltzer, a former Cahill Gordon & Reindel partner who joined DLA’s New York office in a high-profile lateral move in 2007, also serves as head of the firm’s global corporate and finance practice. The Am Law Daily reported in January 2012 on the election of Meltzer and corporate partner Cameron “Jay” Rains in San Diego to four-year terms as cohead of DLA’s Americas arm, a move that came less than two years after both partners were promoted to top management positions.

The U.S. and international units of DLA both have their own separate leadership apparatus and partner profit pools, as mandated by the firm’s Swiss verein structure, an increasingly popular—and controversial—method of arranging large international legal operations.

Speaking with The Am Law Daily by phone from London on Tuesday, Meltzer says that DLA has “no near-term” plans to abandon the Swiss verein structure, adding that the firm’s financial performance over the past few years has proven that the model can be successful. According to the most recent Am Law 100 data, the more than 4,000-lawyer DLA—a number that takes into account its U.S. and international units—saw gross revenue rise nearly 9 percent in 2012, to $2.4 billion.

“We’ve made so much progress over the past few years, and I believe that our position as a well-run, commercially viable and truly global firm has been validated,” says Meltzer, who serves as a member of the board of directors for ALM Media LLC, parent company and publisher of The Am Law Daily. “In a flat market for legal services you’ve got to be able to take [work] away from someone else, and by being in a lot of different places we’re in a position to cross-sell and grab market share.”

In the United States, Meltzer says he helps oversee lawyers that make up about one-third of the firm’s total head count. Anastasia Kelly, a former general counsel for global insurance giant AIG who joined DLA in 2010, will continue to serve as co–managing partner of its Americas arm alongside litigation partner Michael Poulos in Chicago. The international arm is structured like many U.K. firms, led by a senior partner and managing partner, with Knowles filling the latter role. (Click here for a breakdown of DLA’s global leadership.)

Meltzer says it is the partners in Asia, Europe and the Middle East who make up DLA’s international LLP that will vote later this year—mostly likely early September—on the leadership changes announced Tuesday. If approved, London-based intellectual property partner Simon Levine will take over from Knowles as DLA’s next co–CEO, while Knowles ascends the leadership ladder to run the global firm with Meltzer. Rains will succeed J. Terence “Terry” O’Malley, his corporate partner colleague in San Diego, as DLA’s co–CEO alongside Levine.

“I never believe in having a plan that will fail,” jokes Meltzer, when asked if he expects the leadership transition to be approved. He notes that Angel and Chicago-based real estate partner Lee Miller—DLA’s two current global cochairs who will be succeeded by Meltzer and Knowles—will remain with the firm in a senior advisory capacity, the details of which will be worked out later this year. Miller led Chicago’s Rudnick & Wolfe in its 1999 merger with Baltimore’s Piper & Marbury, whose former leader Francis “Frank” Burch Jr. remains chairman emeritus of DLA’s U.S. LLP. (Fellow chairman emeritus Sen. George Mitchell was named an American Lawyer Lifetime Achiever in 2012.)

In 2004 DLA took a major step on its path toward becoming a global powerhouse by merging with California’s Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich and legacy British firm DLA. “We will be the vanguard of change,” Knowles told sibling publication the New York Law Journal at the time.

Integrating those various components was a complex task that became the primary impetus behind DLA’s decision to hire Angel in late 2011. During his time at the top of DLA, Angel helped the legal services giant restructure its U.K. operations—including the closure of a Glasgow office and adoption of an all-equity partnership model—and absorb a debt-saddled Australian alliance partner.

In December, DLA overhauled its management structure in Asia in order to bolster ties with partners in the U.S., and the firm also revealed this month that its U.K. restructuring efforts had resulted in 69 support staffers losing their jobs. A review of a list of partners that have left DLA over the past year reveals that most departures occurred from the firm’s offices in the U.K. and Australia as Angel focused on implementing cost-cutting measures—such as the shedding of certain practice areas—designed to whip the international arm into financial shape. (Filings with the U.K.’s Companies House show that net debt for DLA’s international arm dropped 32 percent during its 2012–13 fiscal year.)

Angel’s prowess as a numbers-cruncher is no secret. In a 2007 feature story by The American Lawyer, senior international correspondent Michael D. Goldhaber wrote about Angel’s nine years leading Linklaters, a tenure that saw the Magic Circle firm adopt changes that allowed it to better compete with its Am Law 100 rivals. (Angel, a British citizen who owns a second home in Israel, spoke with The Jerusalem Post last month about why the DLA model is the way of the future for large firms.)

While reiterating that “Tony is not retiring,” Meltzer praises Angel’s recruitment of new talent to DLA and his “redefining structural aspects of the firm.” Meltzer says that like many large firms today, DLA is faced with tough choices about where it wants to grow and how best to integrate its operations.

“We have a compelling platform [for lateral hires]—our lawyers can still be entrepreneurial but in a greater institutional setting where they can better serve their clients,” Meltzer says. “Naturally, given the state of the market and a firm of our size, there are always going to be speed bumps.”

DLA’s management shuffle came a day after sibling publication The National Law Journal reported on the firm’s loss of its managing partner in Washington, D.C., Frank “Rusty” Conner III, as well as fellow corporate and M&A partner Michael Reed, to Covington & Burling. Conner calls the timing of his lateral move purely a coincidence, and Meltzer wishes both him and Reed well at Covington.

Perkins Coie also poached from DLA’s Beltway base last week, picking up securities litigation partner Luis Mejia, a former chief litigation counsel with the SEC enforcement division. But DLA has been equally acquisitive, adding K&L Gates corporate and finance partner Christina Houston in Delaware and former U.S. Transportation secretary and ex-Illinois congressman Ray LaHood as a senior policy adviser in Washington, D.C. DLA also hired O’Melveny & Myers partner Mark Fairbairn to head its Asian restructuring group in Hong Kong, according to sibling publication The Asian Lawyer.

As DLA moves into an era of new leadership, the firm is also eyeing new horizons. The Am Law Daily reported last month on DLA’s opening of an outpost in the Algerian capital of Algiers by forging an alliance with a newly formed local shop. DLA recently expanded its Africa network by adding affiliate firms in Burundi and Namibia.

DLA has also been mulling a potential expansion into Canada—where it does not currently have a presence—by opening offices in Calgary and Toronto, two sources knowledgeable of the country’s legal market tell The Am Law Daily.

Last week Canada’s Financial Post linked DLA to struggling Canadian firm Heenan Blaikie, which has been hemorrhaging partners and announced Monday a major restructuring that could involve spinning off or closing certain offices. In the past, DLA has reportedly held merger talks with other top Canadian firms like Fasken Martineau DuMoulin and Fraser Milner Casgrain, the latter of which was absorbed last year by Dentons, another Swiss verein.

“Given the speed that the [legal] market moves today, we always want to be on the cutting edge,” says Meltzer, artfully avoiding the Canada question. “We’re not afraid to take chances.”