Jonathan Blair, managing partner of Dickinson Dees, has spent an intense nine months negotiating a major merger, as he explains to Peter Jackson.
DICKINSON DEES, the largest North East law firm, is merging with South West lawyers Bond Pearce to create a Top 20 nationwide firm.
The new firm, Bond Dickinson, will have an income of about £95m, 136 partners and 1,200 staff operating from eight locations around the UK.
Jonathan Blair, Dickinson Dees managing partner, will become managing partner of Bond Dickinson when the merger goes ahead in May, which will conclude an arduous process of negotiation and preparation which began in April.
Little wonder that, when I meet him in Dickinson Dees’ St Anne’s Wharf offices, he looks a little tired and distracted. Not that he isn’t perfectly affable, even if there is an initial reserve. He does tell me later he is nervous of journalists, which is fair enough – journalists are nervous of lawyers, too.
He is a native North Easterner, born in 1964 and brought up in Whitley Bay. He read law at Leicester University and, after law school, joined Birmingham firm Wragge and Co, where he worked for two years before joining Dickinson Dees in 1989. “I guess I was a Geordie with magnets in his boots,” he laughs. “I think it had always been in the back of my mind to come back.”
He joined as a litigator and, a year later, joined the newly-created insolvency team of two people which has now grown to number 45 and been renamed the corporate recovery group. He was made team leader after being made a partner in 1997.
He joined the firm’s board in 2004 and was elected managing partner in September 2007.
Since he joined the firm, it has grown dramatically – opening offices in Yorkshire and London.
The firm then formulated its “20:20 Vision”, which led to the 20 by 2020 goal – to be a Top 20 firm by 2020. This in turn drove the opening of the Leeds office in April 2012, moving operations across from York and transforming London from a base into a fully-fledged office with seconded partners and solicitors, alongside direct recruitment at both levels.
“The third most significant thing is the merger and the merger is not a strategy but a means of meeting the strategy,” says Blair. He explains that the growth strategy has been driven by a rapidly and radically changing market in legal services.
“It has been driven by clients. In the well-worn phrase, clients are increasingly wanting more for less. To do that they are typically reducing the number of firms they have on their panels.”
This started in the public sector, where, previously, clients would go out to tender and appoint perhaps 10 law firms across the UK to their panel.
Now, typically, that client would have no more than three or four firms on its panel. This has now been taken up by banks and other large corporates.
“If you have fewer law firms on your panel, those firms have to have the right level of resource, the right quality of people to do the work across a diverse geographic base,” explains Blair. “That, in turn, then drives consolidation, because to do that you have to make sure you have the resource level to be able to deliver when your client wants you to deliver and where they want you to deliver it. This was all post Lehman Brothers in September 2007 and it started the process of law firms looking carefully at each other.
“The legal sector is incredibly diverse, which has probably been crying out for consolidation for many years.
“The catalyst was the recession. There have been a huge number of consolidations and mergers in the last 18 months to two years and they are continuing apace. As everyone says – you can’t stand still in this market.”