David Morley is at the top of his game – he's chief wizard at Allen & Overy, one of the City's "magic circle" law firms and up there with the world's elite. By most measures, the 56-year-old senior partner leads a charmed life, running a law firm that earned £1.2bn in revenues last year and employs more than 5,000 people advising some of the world's biggest companies and governments.
Yet Morley suggests if he were starting out again now, he would need more than conjuring to break into the circle: "Somebody from a background like mine – a comprehensive school in Chester – might struggle to get into the profession today. I find that unbelievable."
It's why he set up a scheme, the Smart Start Experience, at Allen & Overy to help the more disadvantaged get into law. "The less better off are the ones who find it the most difficult to find meaningful work experience because most internships are unpaid. Those families who can support their children are implicitly favoured."
Each year around 100 teenagers from less-privileged schools across London are invited in for work experience. And they do proper stuff like working out whether cabin-boy-eating sailors are cannibals or not. "We set up a mock courtroom, with judge and jury. They love it, particularly the cannibalism case. One youngster came up with the ingenious example of conjoined twins, where one dies to save the other as a possible defence."
His belief that the law should be open to all – staff are forbidden to hire their sons or daughters as interns – runs deep. Even the 90 graduates, out of 5,000 applications, who are hired each year are recruited from more than 50 universities; not just the top Russell Group. "Talent is not confined to any one group in society," he says. "We want the best and cast the net wide."
He also backs the Government's plans to bring back apprenticeships for school-leavers to train as lawyers as another way of opening up entry. "So long as standards are upheld, there should be multiple ways of getting into law; the more diverse the better as it was 40 years ago.
"Both my brother-in-laws started out as apprentices and had great careers as lawyers."
Morley nearly didn't make it into the profession. He had always dreamt of being a lawyer, a calling he blames on watching too much Perry Mason on TV, but didn't get the grades expected of him at O-level. "I was quite ambitious but a bit cocky and didn't work hard enough. My tutor told me: 'You can forget being a lawyer'. I was devastated for about 24 hours and then decided to prove him wrong. It taught me a good lesson," he says, laughing. He made it to Cambridge to read law, joining A&O as a trainee in 1980. He has never left.
Since he was elected as senior partner in 2008, Morley has taken the view that as well as being the best, going global is the only way for the firm to grow. "You have to take a position and our position is that globalisation is here to stay. It's what our clients want."
Morley doesn't just preach global but is out on the road, spending about half the year touring the A&O empire. He even embeds himself in local offices for up to three months and has done so in Singapore, New York and Frankfurt. "You see so much more if you are not just flying in and then flying out again in a few days. Staff may not like it but I get to see beneath the surface, get a feel for the local culture, talk to our clients and see what's happening on the ground."
If that isn't punishing enough, when Morley does make it to A&O's Bishops Square office near Spitalfields, which is where we meet, he has arrived by bicycle; not one but two. You wouldn't have guessed from his City disguise, slick grey suit and blue tie, but he's already cycled twice today; first the five-and-a-half mile ride from his home in Cobham, Surrey to Esher station and then again from Waterloo to Bishopsgate: he keeps a second bike at Waterloo for the City run. "It wakes me up and keeps me sane," he explains. Cycling is his hobby too and he has cycled several l'etapes of the Tour de France and the London to Brighton ride many times and toured New Zealand by bike.
Morley made his way to the top of A&O specialising in banking and finance during the boom years, working for clients such as Citigroup, HSBC and Goldman Sachs on some of their biggest deals. Financial work is still the firm's big earner although the sort of work has changed. Now there's more litigation and ex-Lehman boss, Richard Fuld, as well as Goldman's disgraced trader Fabrice Tourre, are clients.
Doesn't he miss the buzz? "That's a question I always find hard to answer because, yes, of course I do. I was a deal junky for 25 years and it gets into your blood and your self-esteem. It's amazing. You do the deal, get praised, send in a bill and so the cycle goes on. But I made a conscious decision to get into management, which is the reverse of deal-making as you don't often get thanked.
"You have to be resilient because everyone questions you but that's part of the thrill too."
The firm is now the most international of the UK's big four, and there has been chatter of merging with a United States practice. "That's an old chestnut," he sighs, "but if a merger came along that made sense, then yes, we would look at it. You can't ignore the US."
Going overseas has paid off. More than 60 per cent of revenue comes from abroad while over half of employees work outside the UK. There are 46 offices in 29 countries, including Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Qatar and Turkey, and it was the first in Africa with an office in Casablanca, Morocco. Allen & Overcautious, as it was once nicknamed by City rivals, is no more.
Right now, though, he's preparing for revolution on the home front and predicts the biggest shake-up the law industry has seen in 200 years: "Let's call it the industrialisation of law: our clients want more for less. You're not going to have lawyers working on big M&A deals doing everything from the 'soup to the nuts' any more.
"At the top end we will have more specialised lawyers but otherwise the work is becoming commoditised: technology means documentation can be done by IT experts. Then, you've got firms like Tesco coming in to do the more basic work."
Paradoxically, he says bigger networks mean fewer, but more specialised, lawyers as there's not enough flexibility in the business model to cope with the volatility of workflow. Yet these are positive changes too and should make working life more flexible, easier for women.
"Much City and M&A work doesn't suit women because if there is a deal, it's full on. There's not much between the first stages of working flat out and becoming a partner; which is just when most women start having families and we lose them."
Morley understands this better than most. His wife is a lawyer who gave up law to look after their four children. More than half of his graduates are women but only 16 per cent of partners. The problem should be solved, he hopes, with a new part-time equity structure aimed at enticing more to stay on in senior positions. "Not everyone, not even men, wants to work all hours that God sends, 24/7, 365 days a year. It's what I wanted to do but luckily I had a wife at home."
With that he excuses himself. He's got a conference call with his 500 partners scattered around the world: "I wouldn't have missed it for a heartbeat and would do it all over again." You can see why.
CV of a driven man
1977 Read law at Cambridge
1980 Joined Allen & Overy as a trainee
2003 Made managing partner
2008 Named worldwide senior partner
2012 Listed as one of the UK's 10 most influential lawyers
Married to Sue, also a lawyer, for 30 years and they have four children, none of whom wish to be lawyers.
Outside interests Apart from work and cycling, he's a member of the Mayor of London's International Business Advisory Council and a member of the Best Lawyers Advisory Board. He is chairman of Prime, the UK legal profession-wide initiative of 23 legal firms to provide fair access to quality work experience.
Members of the magic circle
The elite club of the country's law firms pay top dollar and have the sector's most ambitious bosses
David Childs, Clifford Chance
Managing partner of Britain's biggest law firm since 2006, he has worked his whole career at Chance. Prior to getting the top job he served as chief operating officer and was dubbed the "axeman" for cutting £40m to reverse a three-year profit decline. Partners took home an average of £1.1m last year.
Graham White, Slaughter & May
Executive partner of the smallest of the circle firms, which is viewed (or likes to view itself) as the most intellectual. It represents the highest number of FTSE 100 firms of the circle, including GlaxoSmithKline and Unilever. White announced he will retire in April and his successor is yet to be named.
Ted Burke, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
Managing partner of the firm known as the "blues and blondes firm" for its high percentage of attractive or sporty Oxbridge types. It is the oldest of the circle, and has been solicitor to the Bank of England for 250 years. Burke, is an American who attended the same school as George W Bush.
Simon Davies, Linklaters LLP
Aged 39, he became the firm's youngest managing partner in 2008, 18 years after joining as a trainee. The firm has a reputation as a hardnosed profit chaser with a host of corporate clients, including BAE Systems, Glencore and JP Morgan.