“Some leaders think: ‘Why set myself up for a fall? Let’s just keep the status quo’”

David Morley, senior partner at Allen & Overy, talks to the BDLN about leadership, fear of failure and the danger of ignoring emails…

BDLN: Where is professional services headed?

DM: We think about this a lot. To answer, you need to consider how the world is changing, how clients are changing and what that means.

Looking to the future, we’re now recruiting people with skills we believe will be valuable in 2020 and beyond. Financial literacy – being able to interpret the story behind a balance sheet – is growing in importance. So is understanding IT – not just being able to use certain computer packages, but grasping how technology shapes almost everything we do.

Business acumen is also becoming ever more crucial. Having the intellectual curiosity to find out what’s driving clients and going on in the wider business world is critical. If you don’t have that curiosity, it’s unlikely you’ll succeed in this sector.

We want professionals who are willing to expose themselves to many different experiences and a wide variety of people. The best advice I can give to younger professionals is to gain as big a breadth of experience as possible. To get out of your comfort zone and learn from those experiences.

BDLN: What happens if you fail while seeking out new experiences?

DM: There’s a famous quote that goes along the lines of: you only succeed when you stop fearing failure. Many professionals, particularly lawyers, have had sparkling academic careers. They’ve never failed at anything. And the more that continues, the more they fear failing. Taking any risk becomes increasingly painful. But that means you reach a plateau quickly and don’t reach your full potential.

Failing is not the disaster people think it is, particularly when you’re younger. If fear of failure stops you chasing new experiences, it becomes damaging.

BDLN: Many firms are held back because they try to manage by committee. As a leader you’ve taken some bold decisions, including investing heavily in your firm’s global network after the last recession. What drove you to take bold decisions at a time when caution must have been tempting?

DM: As a leader, you’re very aware that your decisions can go wrong. If you’re proposing something different, you don’t know it’s going to work. However, everyone wants certainty, particularly lawyers. They ask: “What’s the evidence?” “Has it worked before?” “Why should I vote for that?” They want security. So as a leader you have to say: “This will work.” Otherwise you won’t persuade anybody.

You’ve got to be prepared to commit 100% to your decision. But by doing that you set yourself up because if it doesn’t work, people say: “You promised it was going to work – it hasn’t. You’ve failed.”

As a result, some leaders think: “OK, I’ve got a few years left. Why set myself up for a fall? Let’s keep the status quo because it feels safer.” So they sit tight and for three, four, maybe five years, and people feel comfortable because change is uncomfortable. But then something happens, you wake up and you’ve lost five years. Suddenly all your competitors have steamed ahead and you’re in the slow lane. And then the change you have to make is much more radical, much more painful.

BDLN: As a senior/managing partner at a top firm today, do you have to be a visionary? 

DM: You need, broadly speaking, a sense of where you think the world is going and a sense of where your firm will sit in that world. And you must take a firm position.

For example, our decision to invest heavily post-recession in creating the biggest global network of any of our competitors was founded on a vision that globalisation was irreversible and going in one direction. That seems obvious now but 10 years ago not everyone believed it.

As a leader you must have a point of view on how the world is changing and what that means for the future. The reality is you don’t know if you’re right or wrong, but having no view means you will drift.

BDLN: There always seem to be a lot of reasons not to do something at a professional services firm. Is that sense of cautious pessimism something you’ve tried to stamp out?

DM: No, you can’t stamp it out. And sometimes it’s not a bad thing. You need a balance between the forces of skepticism, pessimism, risk and worry (many professionals are very good at those!), and the forces of optimism, desire for progress, and change. They need to be in balance. If you’re over-optimistic and not analytical enough, you’ll make bad mistakes. If you’re over-pessimistic then you find yourself drifting and going backwards. Today you’re either going backwards or forwards. There’s no happy medium of being in neutral – that’s an illusion.

BDLN: What are your thoughts on the ‘magic circle’?

DM: The media coined the term ‘magic circle’. In the US it means nothing. In fact, it doesn’t really have any cachet outside London. And crucially, ‘magic circle’ doesn’t mean anything to our clients.

As a result we have never seen or marketed ourselves as a ‘magic circle’ firm. What we did do around 10 years ago is set out to be a ‘global elite law firm’ because we believed the world was developing in such a way for that positioning to make sense. That was the space we needed to be in. We also needed to be different to our global competitors.

BDLN: How did you differentiate?

DM: We wanted to be the leading global elite law firm and build our brand around that image. We also came up with the idea of being ‘the most advanced law firm in the world’. That’s not something you’ll find in our literature because we wanted it to be an underlying theme.

The consultants wanted us to put on baseball caps and t-shirts saying: “The world’s most advanced law firm”. But we said, no, that’s not something we want to say about ourselves; we want other people to conclude that about us from how we behave. It has to come from client experience, not slogans.

BDLN: Moving on to a pet hate of ours: replying to emails. Or rather not replying to emails. We think there’s some very flaky behaviour from professionals these days: countless emails are being ignored and it creates a bad impression. Yet you have built up a reputation for being brilliant at getting back to people. Is that something you’ve deliberately focused on?

DM: Yes, it’s something I’ve worked on. Not answering emails gives the impression you either don’t care or you’re disorganised.

The problem with email now is that it’s become overwhelming. Everyone has their own coping strategy. A common approach is to ignore messages unless they’re directly relevant to you. The problem with that is the sender gets the impression you’re not interested or you don’t care, which ultimately is bad for business and reputation.

If you’re in a management role and adopt a strategy of ignoring emails or dealing with them later, the firm would grind to a halt. And the last thing you want to cause is a bottleneck.

When you get into a senior position it’s also easy to see yourself as quite grand and to think ‘the less important stuff’ is for others to deal with. That’s a personal leadership decision but personally I believe it’s a mistake because that approach makes it harder to get things done in the long run.

BDLN: Has anyone ever given you brilliant advice that’s always stuck with you?

DM: When I was standing for election as senior partner, somebody said: “It helps to understand that each leader has their own individual style and you have to be yourself.”

That piece of advice completely changed my opinion on what I should be doing and what I could achieve as a leader. I’d got it into my mind that you had to behave in a certain way.

What that piece of advice highlighted is that being yourself is the key to being a good leader. If you’re trying to model yourself on someone else, people see through it instantly. It’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make.

There are as many leadership styles as there are leaders.

BDLN: What are your thoughts on Brexit?

DM: As a firm we’ve debated it. We strongly believe (and I personally believe it, too) that we should stay within the EU. I’m a passionate European. It’s right for this firm and right for the UK.

David Morley was talking to BDLN founder John Maffioli.


David Morley is global senior partner at Allen & Overy. He joined A&O as a trainee in 1980 – when the firm was run by just 35 partners – and was made partner himself in 1988. He has remained there ever since. In 2012, The Times listed David as one of the UK’s 10 most influential lawyers, and in 2013 The American Lawyer magazine recognised him as one of The Top 50 Big Law Innovators of the Last 50 Years. David is due to retire from Allen & Overy at the end of April 2016.


Written and edited by the BDLN