‘He's not a Brit and he's not from Yorkshire’ - why Juan Picon got the nod as DLA Piper co-chair

“He is Spanish, he has a strong European practice, he works out of America too; he ticks a lot of boxes,” one former partner says of Juan Picon, DLA Piper’s newly appointed senior partner and global co-chair.

Picon was appointed as the co-chairman and senior partner of DLA Piper’s international arm earlier this month following Sir Nigel Knowles surprise announcement that he is to step down. He was appointed to the role without a leadership contest after the only other candidate pulled out at the 11th hour.

His elevation marks the end of Knowles’ leadership of the international arm of the firm which began in 1996, and means that, one year on from Simon Levine stepping into the role of co-chief executive, there is a new team at the top of DLA’s international partnership.

He has a very good grasp of the international business, he is the right man for the job

While Knowles himself has acknowledged it is time for a fresh perspective at the top of the international partnership, Picon has some big shoes to fill. How did he convince the firm he was up to the task?

Ticking all the boxes

Picon certainly has a number of the desirable attributes needed to take on the co-chair role of the global firm alongside his US counterpart Roger Meltzer.

“Juan has been with the firm for a while, he is experienced, he has a very good grasp of the international business, he is the right man for the job,” one DLA partner comments.

Another partner highlights his geographical and cultural distance from the firm’s Sheffield roots as a positive. While the firm has undoubtedly come a long way from its north of England routes, straight-talking Yorkshireman Knowles has remained strongly associated with the brand. And Levine [pictured below], the firm’s relatively young and fresh faced co-CEO, went to school in Hull.simon-levine-web

“He’s not a Brit and he’s not from Yorkshire, having someone who is not from the common law world is very important, it’s a good decision,” the partner says.

Secondly, he is a respected partner with an active corporate practice, advising clients such as Spanish multinational Abengoa and US private equity firm KKR.

While the firm’s outgoing leadership came of age in a firm that was resolutely domestic, in contrast Levine and Picon both have a real understanding of top-tier international legal work.

There has been some criticism of Picon’s appointment from former partners, one, who describes Picon as “relentlessly political”, doubts that he has the credentials to step into Knowles’ shoes, while another says that he lacks Knowles’ “charisma, vision and strategy”. DLA Piper and Picon declined to respond to the criticism.

However, within the firm, the feeling has been more positive. One DLA partner said: “It’s a good appointment, I haven’t heard a single negative comment within the firm.”

Well-positioned

Picon was clearly a favourite for the role from the moment Knowles announced his intention to step down. He has a great deal of management experience, having held senior management roles at the firm since joining from legacy Squire Sanders & Dempsey in 2006, and he was one of the front runners for the chief executive job when Knowles relinquished the role in 2014.

Federico Sutti, now at Dentons, but formerly managing director for Europe and Africa at DLA, said that Picon was one of four partners in the running for the chief executive role in 2014 alongside chief operating officer Andrew Darwin, eventual winner Levine and himself.

Having someone who is not from the common law world is very important

He adds: “My understanding was that the senior partner at that time Tony Angel was given the mandate by the board to select the best candidate for the succession, and after some consultation, I don’t know with whom, we were told in February 2014 that Simon was the designated candidate.”

Real estate specialist Sutti left the firm, launching Dentons’ Italian practice in October 2015.

With Sutti gone and Levine already in post, Picon was clearly a prime candidate for the vacancy.

On the announcement that he was to take up the co-chair role, Picon was keen to dispel any suggestions of rivalry with Levine, describing his relationship with him as “very tight,” and citing their closeness as a key reason for his successful appointment.

There is a very strong desire throughout the firm for complete and total integration

While Picon appears to enjoy the goodwill and backing of many of the partners, with neither him nor Levine winning an open election for their roles they will have to be mindful to ensure that the partnership remains behind them in the coming years.

The next step

Picon’s appointment is unlikely to have a radical impact on the strategy of the firm which has largely already been set in train by Levine.

In Levine’s year in charge he has undertaken major reforms including a redesign of the international partnerships remuneration system and a review of its sector strategy. Picon’s role will be to assist with the delivery of Levine’s strategy.

Two key goals for the pair are increasing the profitability of the international partnership and more closely integrating the international partnership with the US partnership.

This has been on the agenda for some time. One partner says: “There is a very strong desire throughout the firm for complete and total integration.”

A former partner adds: “US integration is the real thing, at the moment. It is currently two firms with sniping across the fence, particularly from the US side.”

While Knowles will remain a consultant at the firm when he steps down, Picon’s election does signal a real break with the past. With Picon and Levine seen by former partners as close to the US management and both having respected international practices there is certainly a feeling the pair could be the ones to further drive the desired integration.