DWF's chief executive Andrew Leaitherland has been booted out by the board after 20 years at the firm.
Leaitherland had been DWF's CEO and managing partner since 2006. Leaitherland grew DWF from a provincial outfit of two offices to a business with 33 offices around the world. It was under his stewardship that the firm floated in March 2019, making it the UK's largest listed law firm. It has come as a surprise to many in the legal market that he was knifed in the back so unceremoniously.
RollOnFriday understands that his departure was effectively a coup d'etat following poorer than expected financial results. Although a worldwide plague will do that to a business...
However any CEO is at risk when their business doesn’t hit its targets for a year. It's one of the reasons that firms are nervous to float, knowing that they will have to battle with the competing demands of keeping shareholders happy and staff well paid and motivated. DWF announced Leaitherland's departure last Friday in a trading statement where it also stated that it had been hit harder by Covid-19 than anticipated. The firm has had to downgrade its revenue and profit expectations considerably for the 2020 financial year.
On the day of the announcement, the market was clear in its disapproval of the board’s decision. The share price plunged around 15% to 66p.
"In responding to the challenges created by COVID-19, the Board believes that strong and experienced leadership is essential," said the firm (not that tactfully) about Leaitherland's departure, announcing that the firm's chairman, Sir Nigel Knowles, would now "provide this leadership".
"Et tu Sir Nigel?"
Knowles is well-known in the City and highly experienced. He's an obvious choice for the new role but he will have his work cut out for him. The firm will now have to find a way to reinvent itself outside the shadow of Leaitherland, who moulded DWF very much in his own image. Clearly a number of staff who bought into his vision will not be happy.
Knowles was one of the main architects behind DLA Piper's growth. However, the legal landscape has changed since he has been at the helm. He retired from DLA in 2016 before joining DWF as chairman the following year. He said he was "honoured" to be asked to lead the company as CEO, and that "Andrew helped build a great business for which we are very grateful and we wish him the very best."
Leaitherland said: "it has been a privilege to be group CEO of DWF for nearly 14 years and I am incredibly proud of the progress we have made in that time." He added "I wish Sir Nigel every success in taking the business forward."