Sunday 8 September 2019 6:22 pm

Hell for Leaither: DWF boss on the firm's post-float fortunes

DWF is a firm that lawyers at rival firms love to hate.

Founded in Liverpool 40 years ago, DWF has expanded at a rapid pace, growing from a regional player to an international firm, swallowing rivals along the way.

Over the last decade its revenue grew nearly 350 per cent to £272m, and in March, it became the first law firm to list on the main market of the London Stock Exchange.

Speaking to chief executive Andrew Leaitherland in the firm’s Walkie-talkie offices, he says perceptions of the upstart firm among its longer established rivals lag its rapid rise.

One partner at a rival firm jokes that DWF stands for “Doesn’t Work Financially” because he says it hires underperforming partners and increases their pay, while lawyers at another rival call the firm “The Land of Leaither,” a reference to the sofa company.

Read more: Law firm DWF raises £95m in first-ever main market legal listing

“Lawyers are cynical animals aren’t they?” Leaitherland says.

“Ten years, 11 years [in London], and it’s like ‘who are you?’ Where have you come from? How have you done that? Really?’” He says.

“I refer to it as brand lag which the IPO [initial public offering] helped a lot within terms of raising our profile.”

The firm went public on 15 March, days before the UK’s initial deadline for exiting the EU, the only main market float in an otherwise barren first quarter.

“One of the investors I saw last week said ‘you were very much born in a storm,’ – I think that is absolutely right…it was not the easiest thing to get away and that was reflected in the level of free float and the price that we took at the time,” Leaitherland says.

Read more: Listed law firm DWF riding high on Brexit-related litigation

The firm sold 25.7 per of the shares in the business at 122p, slightly above the 25 per cent required for main market admission, giving it a valuation of £366m, below the £400-600m bandied around the market in the run up to the listing.

“We talked about it as a board, we debated ‘do you postpone? Do you hold fire? What do you do?’ And the conclusion we came to was there is no clarity around Brexit…we are not here for short term growth, so take the IPO now, get the IPO done,” Leaitherland says.

The firm’s share price has been broadly flat since its March float, closing at 120p on Friday.

Leaitherland says the firm has to continue to prove itself to investors, and achieve the goals it set out in its prospectus.

“We’re four months in, it’s still early days, we have done one set of annual results, we have done one acquisition, they want to see us trade, they want to see us deliver on our promises,” he says.

Read more: How would City law fare in another downturn?

The firm’s two key selling points for its IPO were its plans for rapid international expansion and its suite of non-traditional offerings complementary to its core legal business which it calls connected services.

Its connected services business has roots in the firm’s expansion to London a decade ago, when it was a little-known regional player, trying to crack the over-lawyered City market.

“That enabled us to have more positive conversations with clients who definitely suffered from the DW-who brand?” Leaitherland says.

Since IPO the firm has opened in Poland, and it has designs on the US, Canada, Spain and the Netherlands.

Last year DWF struck an exclusive relationship with US firm Wood Smith Henning & Berman – and Leaitherland makes clear that he sees this as a precursor to a potential future merger.

At present, no US state allows non-lawyer ownership of law firms, preventing legal businesses with non-lawyer owners – such as DWF and the Big Four accountants – from entering the market.

“We feel as though we can get there,” Leaitherland says.

If DWF can become the first listed law firm to break into the US market it would mark an existing step forward for the nascent listed-legal sector and another first for the thrusting firm which has come along way since its birth in Liverpool 40 years ago.