Cheap and easy global practices do not exist

Few would deny the extent to which business has globalised over the past decade.

Opportunities for law-yers have appeared as a result of an increasing appetite for international expertise, a harmonisation of commercial practice and demand for skills in finance, corporatisation, privatisation and deregulation.

This has led to law firms, particularly from London and to a lesser extent New York, expanding overseas to exploit these opportunities.

But to my mind, law firms need to be very clear about what it is they are offering their clients.

The globalisation of law firms is not like the process started by the accountants in the 1960s. In that case, there were obvious advantages for clients. The ability of the global accounting firms to offer a one-stop shop audit service to their multinational clients was both financially beneficial and helped preserve confidentiality.

With the globalisation of law firms, the benefits are less transparent.

There are those who believe that globalisation is about the ability to handle an ever-increasing flow of cross-border transactions thereby supplanting, or at least diminishing, the role of the general counsel by providing a one-stop shop for these transactions.

I think this view is mistaken. The general counsels of most multinationals have long been able to choose different law firms in different jurisdictions and ensure a well co-ordinated service.

Furthermore, although the flow of multi-jurisdiction work is increasing, it will be a long time before it represents the majority of any client’s or law firm’s portfolio.

The drivers for globalisation of law firms are more subtle.

One is the coalescing of commercial practice worldwide. This leads to the need for a lawyer to be able to provide both knowledge and understanding of the particular issues of domestic law relevant to a transaction combined with a wide knowledge of international practice.

Another is that the opportunities for exploiting globalisation are attracting the best lawyers from trainee up.

But for these lawyers not to be frustrated and for clients not to be disappointed considerable resources need to be applied.

It is in part this resource constraint which is prompting the consolidation of the profession.

To substantiate their credibility, global firms will have to ensure that their brand becomes synonymous with the best people, with the widest experienced and the most effective infrastructure.

But on top of that, a global firm has to create for all its staff a sense of unity and purpose, notwithstanding national boundaries, time zones and cultural divides.

Anyone who thinks that creating a global firm is either going to be cheap or easy is living in a fool’s paradise: give me a niche domestic practice to run any day.

But firms prepared to make such an investment will surely reap a rich reward.

James Dallas is chairman of Denton Wilde Sapte.