In-house lawyers reject globalism as too costly

Globalisation of law firms merely pushes up costs and offers no guarantee of quality, a straw poll of in-house lawyers has concluded.

At The Lawyer's in-house forum the 70 counsel present were asked if they favoured mass expansion and only one said yes.

The thumbs-down may indicate future snubs to many of the City's largest law firms, which have already publicly committed themselves to globalisation.

But while some conference delegates argue that it shunts up costs and offers no guarantee of quality, others say globalisation is inevitable and a reflection of the way clients have expanded their business.

Sally Shorthose, head of legal at Novartis, sitting on the forum panel, said: “Law firms are just following their clients in going global. Everyone has to keep up.”

But she added: “Fees are high with global firms and we are all under enormous pressure to keep expenses down.”

Aileen Leventon, panel member and PricewaterhouseCoopers partner, says: “The philosophy behind a global law firm is that there's a narrow sliver of work that requires a multi-jurisdictional presence. Some work is highly specialised, while other work will be routine. The most effective firm to complete all these transactions could be a global one.”

From the audience, Stephen Walsh, British Airways' head of legal, voiced his concerns: “I feel concerned that as a result of globalisation our freedom of choice is restricted and I do not see any great benefit here for BA.”

He added that there was an opportunity for middle-tier firms to distinguish themselves from the global giants and win outsourced work.

Louise Woodhead, a partner at Wragge & Co, said: “It's enough of a challenge for one office to grow without the risk of dropping standards and diluting investment in things like IT. A global structure puts up overheads and prices.”

Neil Francis, legal director of UK-based house builder Persimmon, said: “If we were going abroad we would make the decision about experts at that time. We deal with lawyers rather than with companies.”

But head of legal at bank Coutts & Co, Chalmers Carr, said: “Globalised firms are a source of comfort to people who don't have the relevant knowledge of firms in other jurisdictions.”