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Leslie Perrin is managing partner at Osborne Clarke.
The force is still with the City
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away a band of rebels set out on a mission to end the Empire's domination of the universe... at least, that's how it seemed at the time. If the theme sounds familiar, it is hardly surprising. As themes go, the "Do we stay in the regions or open in the City?" debate was probably one of the greats.
I use the past tense advisedly. It seems to me that like Star Wars' original cast, this particular debate moved on some time ago, though readers of this column could be forgiven for thinking that it still has legs. It doesn't. For many regional firms the question of whether they should open in London was answered years ago with a resounding: "You bet!"
The most persuasive argument for a City base has little to do with the familiar pros and cons of charge-out rates and overheads. The real reason is that the debate has moved beyond the regions and the City (or any other part of the UK, come to that), because - and this is the crucial bit - so have our clients. Business is going global and so are they. And if clients insist on taking their business elsewhere, it strikes me that the only thing to do is to make sure you go with them.
There is now little doubt that internationalisation is one of the great emergent themes of business, and in this climate the question is not, "Can I serve my national clients from a single base outside the City?", but rather, "Can I serve my clients' international aspirations?". If you are devoutly regional, the answer is probably no. Although the idea of serving clients from one's rural idyll sounds appealing, it is no longer viable. Regional firms cannot aspire to international practice without a City base. If you stay regional, then, like local governments, you think and act local.
Not that anyone should believe that opening in London is easy. Opening in any new location demands focus, the belief that you are the best at what you do and strong support from your regional teams. Opening in the world's largest and most challenging legal services market is not for the weak hearted. And if you really do like your odds long, you should bet on opening as a full-service firm in London and on being there 12 months later.
As those still there after 12 years have found, it is not so much making an entrance that matters, but finding your niche. And if you cannot find a niche in a market this size, you are either not trying or you are past caring. On the plus side, if you stay the distance you will emerge a more muscular firm, fitter than you have been during any regional encounter.
If global practice is the way forward - and it looks as if it is - then it is not losing your regional accent that counts but gaining an international perspective. Like it or loathe it, the global village is not just here to stay, it has moved its stuff in. Internationalism is not science fiction, it is fact. La vie, Jim, just not quite as we know it.