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David Morley, senior partner at Allen & Overy, exudes youthfulness and enthusiasm — rare traits in an individual who has headed an international law firm for 12 years.

His tenure at the firm has not been easy. He has seen the firm through the financial crisis and ensuing recession, and has met the challenges of what many in the profession called the “new normal” — a world where premium law firms can no longer dictate to their clients.

Allen & Overy, where he has worked since joining as an articled clerk in 1980, has gone through many incarnations. Once considered the late-comer to the “magic circle” of top UK firms, it has in recent years reinvented itself as a member of an elite group of global firms.

Of note have been the decisions to invest in growth during the recession, when peers were cutting back. The firm has opened 18 offices in the past five years, taking its total to 45 globally. Its commitment to expansion has paid off: its rate of growth in that period in revenue terms has been double that of other magic circle firms. Over the past 10 years revenues have almost doubled, from £666m to £1,281m.

Having won the FT’s most innovative law firm in Europe award four times in the past 10 years, Allen & Overy is clearly intent on leading the way. But the position of first mover is not always coveted in the legal profession. Being second is far more comfortable for lawyers brought up following precedent. “When you try something novel, you never know if it will work,” Mr Morley admits. “In fact, people are lining up to tell you it won’t work.”

One of the more controversial moves of recent years has been to offer an integrated delivery of different types of service. The firm now has a low-cost centre in Belfast, its own contract-lawyer business, Peerpoint, and various online and legal technology offerings that it combines for clients as an alternative to the traditional single model based on an hourly rate and expensive lawyers at fixed locations. In the past, top law firms have resisted any standardisation of their legal services and have wanted to retain a bespoke approach to all their work, at their high hourly rate. Many have felt — and some still do — that to offer alternative delivery models can mean a dilution of a premium brand.

Allen & Overy, however, is showing this is not the case. Profits are up 133 per cent over the past 10 years, from £245m to £579m.

The firm, under Mr Morley’s leadership, has been bolder than most of its peer group. His legacy — he steps down in March — will not be confined to Allen & Overy, however.

One of his significant achievements is Prime, his idea for tackling the lack of social mobility in the profession by encouraging law firms and in-house legal departments to give schoolchildren from disadvantaged backgrounds quality work experience. Some 88 firms are involved, and more than 2,875 students have passed through the programme.

Mr Morley was told by a teacher at his Chester comprehensive school that he would never become a lawyer. But he went on to read law at Cambridge, and headed Allen & Overy’s ­banking practice on his way to becoming managing and then senior partner. On the way he has dispelled many fervently held assumptions about how the business of law should be conducted.

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