The master of the world of law

Tony Angel has the unique job of running the world’s largest law firm – DLA Piper – and talks to the ‘Post’ about why the mega-firm model is the wave of the future.

Tony Angel and Jeremy Lustman. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Tony Angel and Jeremy Lustman.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The idea that a single law firm could have over 4,200 lawyers in over 30 countries would have been unthinkable only a short time ago.
Anthony “Tony” Angel, global co-chairman of the world’s largest law firm, DLA Piper, has the unique job of making such a juggernaut run, improving its coordination and proving to the world that Swiss-style “verein” structured law firms are the wave of the future.
He, and Israel Practice head Jeremy Lustman, recently spoke to The Jerusalem Post about global changes in the profession, DLA Piper’s future in Israel (following around five years of frenetic activity to build an impressive client- base) and their personal journeys.
What is a “verein” – ask those who have not been following one of the hottest debates in the large law firm world in recent years.
There is an internal debate in the law world on that definition and on whether a 4,200 lawyer firm can really be considered one firm.
But vereins are distinguished by many of their profit and cost issues being handled by regional offices in a far more separate manner than was done traditionally (and still is done among many firms).
The debate is particularly intense in rankings where some non-vereins say they are unfairly ranked lower than vereins in lawyer numbers and revenue, but argue that vereins are really multiple law firms trying to inflate their size.
They would find a hard time arguing their case with Angel.
Angel is widely credited for boosting revenues for the English law firm Linklaters, one of the world’s largest and most profitable law firms, during his tenure from 1998 to 2007.
Following Linklaters, he served in a top post at Standard & Poor’s, helping guide the credit rating agency through the global credit crisis and then retired for a couple of years.
The media covered DLA Piper’s November 2011 appointment of Angel as global co-chairman as a steal which could take the firm, which has undergone a dizzying number of mergers of smaller firms since 2005, to a new level.
Explaining his return to law from retirement, Angel said matter of factly, “I found out two things about myself. I am a lousy non-executive and without being able to manage others hands on, I was losing the ability to manage my time. When you are at the top of an organization, others need to fit into your time.”
Another top DLA Piper lawyer who he had known for years, Nigel Knowles, approached Angel asking him to apply some of his previous Linklaters’ successes to DLA.
Responding to critics of vereins, Angel said that DLA is a true innovator and does not represent “scale for the sake of scale,” but that its current size and umbrella of countries it offers services in allows DLA to “wrap itself around the world’s leading multinational companies” to help them reduce the number of law firms they need to rely on from as many as “200 to as few as eight.”
Taking advantage of recent trends in which large corporations become truly global, a verein like DLA helps such large spread-out corporations “manage legal spending more effectively” without a constant need to reteach a new law firm with its own new culture what the corporation expects and how it operates.
He said his recipe for DLA’s success included being “much more focused in defining which clients and which countries we serve and which practices we cover.”
Some have noted the 2012 implosion experienced by the former juggernaut law firm of Dewey & LeBoeuf, which also became large through the “verein” model and numerous rapid combinations as a warning for firms like DLA.
But Angel said that the above strategic considerations, beating out competitors with better customer service would do more than just save it from Dewey’s fate.
Rather, he said DLA’s strategy would also help it seize on new global trends.
Is 4,200 lawyers enough? Angel reiterated that size should be dictated by business considerations and that if in the future other “G-20” countries, like India, become more open to foreign firms, there is still room for expansion.
Where does the Israel practice work into all of this? Interestingly, though DLA worked on deals with an aggregate deal value in excess of $2 billion, nearly evenly split between real estate and mergers/acquisitions/investment, DLA has only an Israel “practice,” but not an Israel office.
Angel said that this has nothing to do with concern from other Middle Eastern clients and relates to that, only recently has Israel officially begun permitting foreign offices to register as well as that no decision had been made that a full infrastructure office was needed.
Another source echoed similar themes on those issues, though was a bit more hesitant in whether the political firm-wide implications of opening a full Israel office listed prominently on the firm’s website in terms of other Middle Eastern clients was not taken into account at all.
In any event, the Israel practice, led by Lustman (the only lawyer permanently “on the ground”), and which also includes England-based lawyer Paul Jayson, who visits frequently, has its hands full with originating and coordinating massive deals for Israeli clients looking to make foreign investments as well as building its portfolio of foreign clients investing in Israel.
Two examples include: China-based Fosun Pharma Group’s $240 million acquisition of Alma Lasers, an Israel-based manufacturer of lasers used in cosmetic surgery, and TowerJazz’s $50m. joint venture with Panasonic Corporation to acquire its three semiconductor factories in Japan.
The Israel practice also does some work in the fields of intellectual property, litigation and general commercial work.
Lustman described his role in most deals as “project manager” or “quarterback.”
In the Fosun deal, Lustman said that various Israeli firms were also involved, but that he “sat in on all the drafting sessions and conference calls, since the clients needed a document up to US standards.”
Lustman said that DLA made sure everything worked from “an international perspective” since businesses in multiple countries were involved and that he personally made sure that “issues for every country implicated were addressed and managed.”
Lustman said that until the Israeli Bar Association’s 2012 rule change for accepting foreign lawyers by registration, an ethics exam and taking out insurance, without having to take the traditional and more cumbersome local Israeli law tests, DLA had been a bit more “under the radar.”
Asked if DLA would take advantage of the new Israeli friendliness to foreign law firms to buy up and combine with a local Israeli firm, he said that currently no such plans were in the cards, but that DLA keeps a constant and watchful eye on changes in the marketplace.
Angel discussed some of DLA’s pro bono or volunteer legal services, which includes servicing the Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland (ZIH Association), which runs the soon-to-open Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw.
He added that DLA has a large and diverse worldwide pro bono program “donating” over 200,000 hours of legal work in 2013, including major projects with UNICEF in advancing children’s rights in countries like Bangladesh.
Angel’s openness and impressive precision discussing DLA masks a slight hesitation to get into personal business. Still, once he got comfortable, he was quite personable and it became clear that he does everything seriously and with a high-level of commitment. Though 61, about a year ago he rode a bicycle from Metulla to Eilat as part of a charity event and has also ridden through the Sinai Desert and between Jerusalem and parts of Jordan.
Angel, who happens to be Jewish and owns a secondary residence in Israel, is also involved with various Jewish organizations in England and a number of foundations to support research, testing for and promoting awareness of cystic fibrosis, which one of his two sons died from eight years ago.
Besides enjoying swimming, Lustman remains a fan of the Baltimore Orioles from his original hometown and also goes on bike rides with his family.
He said he has successfully taught all of his children to remain loyal to the Orioles, taking them to the team’s Camden Yards stadium on family trips, and that while he works very long hours and travels frequently, that when he is home, Israel’s more laidback culture allows him to get home for dinner far more than he did when living in the US.