Life in a global law firm
24 July 2014 | By Becky Waller-Davies
4 November 2013
24 June 2014
29 October 2013
9 October 2013
31 March 2014
Many law firms bill themselves as global, but does a firm’s international footprint really make a difference to the lives of its most junior lawyers?
To find out, Lawyer 2B assembled a panel of lawyers at international firms and asked about their attitudes to globe-trotting, how far your language skills might take you and exactly how they choose who gets to go to Hawaii on secondment…
Lots of firms have completed global mergers over last five years. Why now?
Sanja Udovicic, project finance partner, Shearman & Sterling: We’re seeing that our clients are becoming more and more global. Clients who have done very well in a certain market realise that although they have built incredible expertise, the market does not have many more opportunities and they begin to look elsewhere. I think the banks and law firms that are responding to that trend know that they need people on the ground in that client’s home jurisdiction.
Simon Branigan, graduate recruitment partner, Linklaters: There are very few companies nowadays who only have a domestic presence or domestic customers. Even the smallest companies can be pan-European or global. I think it is increasingly difficult to go to a client pitch and say that you do not have a presence in the key financial centres around the world. Slaughter and May is probably the exception but I am not sure how long that model will last.
Although mergers are time consuming and might cause issues with cultural fit or client crossover, they do allow you immediate scale, whereas building up an office from the ground up takes years and years. Some European and UK firms have really suffered during the financial crisis and I suspect it is the case that firms do not want to have all their eggs in one basket. They want that office in Beijing or Sao Paulo.
Has a two-tier system been created or will smaller firms catch up with global elite?
Branigan: I think that has happened. You are seeing a whole gaggle of firms breaking away and getting those cross-border deals. Those other firms are a halfway house – not fully global but not wholly domestic. Saying you have one office in Paris or Brussels is not going to cut the mustard.
Julian Copeman, Greater China managing partner, Herbert Smith Freehills: I think we are moving towards a point where there’ll be a definite tier – with the global elite at the top. In the US, firms are catching up with this. In China, we are seeing the US firms piling in quite late. UK firms have been here for years. An elite has been created and it is hard for firms to break into it. The big question is whether we will ever see the big UK and the big US firms merge. It has to happen eventually – it seems to me to be the endgame.
Udovicic: There are a limited number of deals and there are quite a few international firms already, whether they have grown organically, like us, or through a merger. It is already a competitive market. Although I cannot know their strategy, I think that as long as national firms are doing domestic work, I can’t see them wanting to being able to transform into international firms.
How did you end up working overseas?
Copeman: I spent most of my career in London but I was a trainee in Hong Kong 20 years ago and I always had a hankering to return, I loved it. After a couple of six-month secondments I have somehow found myself as managing partner of Greater China. This time last year I did not expect to be living in Hong Kong and running the region but that is all part of being flexible in a big, global firm. The opportunity arose and it’s changed the course of my life.
Branigan: I was seconded to Madrid for six months when I was a trainee. If you come to Linklaters as a trainee you really ought to try to spend some time abroad. It really is the most amazing experience – not only professionally but personally too. I speak Spanish fluently and so for me Madrid was an obvious choice because I could go to clients and meetings and be of use. The office was in its infancy at that time. It started off with one partner and a senior associate. When I was there, there were around six partners and now it’s one of our largest offices.
Overall, though, isn’t the idea of a jet-setting lawyer – hopping from one country to another over the course of their career – a myth?
Duncan Batchelor, graduate recruitment partner, Norton Rose Fulbright: It certainly can be a reality but it is also true that some people are based almost exclusively in one office for most of their career. Some people travel a great deal; others stay in one country. Some people spend their whole careers in offices overseas and settle down in another region of the world. Some people go away for a few years – perhaps to build up a business or to gain experience – and then return to their “home”.
Branigan: It is the exception rather than the rule to spend two years here, two years there but people often do five-year stints in another office then return to their home jurisdiction. Doing short stints in multiple jurisdictions tends to happen when you’re more senior. As an associate it depends where your clients are. It is great to build up an international network but I think that if people move around too much it becomes more of a challenge to embed yourself in a client relationship.
Will Holder, corporate partner, King & Wood Malleson SJ Berwin: We are in the people and services business and very few clients are now solely domestic players. With that comes the need to do two things – one is being able to follow your client to where they go and the second is to understand the local business environment in which they operate as soon as possible. All this leads to the need for lawyers to be mobile and for them to be able to adapt to the requirements of their clients on an international basis.
Udovicic: I know lawyers who have worked in Sydney, then London, then Singapore and New York. It very much depends on an individual’s intended career trajectory. It does take a while to establish a practice and build relationships with clients. It doesn’t happen overnight, it doesn’t happen in six or 12 months. You need to invest a lot of time and effort in getting to know those new markets while maintaining links with the markets you’ve worked in previously.
Copeman: It’s not a myth. There are definitely lawyers who spend time in different jurisdictions. I am currently working with one of our partners who has spent time in Tokyo, in London and is now in Paris. Having said that, a lot of lawyers will be domestic. It depends on your practice area. If you are a real estate lawyer you will probably never work abroad. Some practices are more prone to be international than others: if you do arbitration you can be based anywhere. The same goes for English or New York-qualified corporate lawyers as most of the world uses either of those systems for their deals.
How do trainees experience the global nature of a firm?
Batchelor: Trainees will experience this day to day even if they are normally based in London. This could take the form of a research task on the laws in various jurisdictions, dealing with conflicts of laws issues, participating in conference calls or video conference with clients overseas or our colleagues in our international offices, or flying to Hamburg or Toulouse to take delivery of an aircraft for a client.
Copeman: One of the reasons we send people around the network is to connect with people. I worked with our head of Asia as a trainee 20 years ago and I am working with him now. When you arrive somewhere there will be trainees from other London firms working there too. Now, with email, you can email your friends in London at any time. So you maintain the connection with London and learn about the rest of network.
Alexis Namdar, newly-qualified lawyer, King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin: I think the experience of the international nature of the firm changes from seat to seat, to be honest. I can only speak from my experience but all my seats were very internationally-focused. I would say to applicants is that the benefits of an international firm is that you can try to tailor your training contracts to your specific interests. I’m very interested in international arbitration went to Dubai for my final seat, where there’s are lots of opportunities to do that kind of work because a greater proportion of the work is arbitration-focused. The benefit of an international secondment means that you can double the amount of time spent on a particular area of law. For me, being able to spend half my training contact doing contentious work is a by-product of my international secondment.
What is the chance of going on secondment and how do you choose who goes where (presumably not everybody gets to go to Hawaii)?
Copeman: The chance of going on secondment is pretty high as most of our offices offer training contract seats. And there is also sometimes the option of client secondments elsewhere. It is a balancing act. We take into account people’s wishes and their backgrounds and skills. Some seats are less popular than others. For example, you might say to someone, you can’t go to Hong Kong, but you can go to Abu Dhabi. Also, some people will not want to travel. It is amazing how many trainees seem excited about the prospect of travelling at first, but then when it comes to it are just not willing to uproot themselves.
Branigan: Around 90 per cent of our trainees are seconded internationally. It is really high but I think that’s right. We are constantly telling people we are a global firm and so to not second people would not make sense. The secondment list will go around, trainees will list their three choices, and then if there is a specific language requirement you will shoot up the priority list. If you speak Mandarin or Cantonese you are at a real advantage when it comes to going to Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. You would also probably leapfrog people if you spoke Arabic or Japanese, because those languages are so rarely spoken. The other criteria are your assessment from your previous seats and your real desire to qualify into that area.
Batchelor: We expect you to travel as part of your training contract with us, whether that is to one of our international offices or to one of our clients. The way that the numbers work out, it is highly likely. Our offices are generally in the principal financial and business centres around the world; we are not a travel agent. Having said that, our recently opened seats in Australia have proved to be popular for some reason.
Do language skills put applicants to the firm at a significant advantage?
Copeman: Languages are nice to have. They are definitely a good selling point but it’s not as important as academics and people skills. Some languages are more in demand than others. For example, in Hong Kong we are always looking for people who we term trilingual: they speak English, Mandarin and Cantonese. If you can speak those three languages you are gold dust. If you can speak fluent French that is lovely and it increases the likelihood of getting a Paris seat, but people won’t be falling over themselves.
Branigan: My honest answer is that it is usually a good thing to have, a bonus. It depends on what language it is but it is not going to put you at a huge advantage because to be really useful you have to have such a high level of that language. If you have a language A level then it helps you to live in a country and make chit chat in the office but to go in to a meeting or to draft documents it has to be such a high level. If you have that high level then it puts you at a huge advantage. An ’okay’ level of French or German is nice but business level Mandarin does really distinguish you.
Namdar: I think having a language is part and parcel of having an international mindset, either in the sense that you have a multicultural background and it comes naturally to you or in that you have sought it out, actively going out of your way to learn one. Having said that, I don’t think it is necessary to have a second language when applying to the firm. There is a difference between being able to get by and being able to practice in a second language and I think a significant proportion of my cohort, over half, would fall into the latter camp.
Even if you don’t go overseas, is there greater satisfaction to be had from working on a deal with cross-border elements? Is it intrinsically more interesting or complex?
Holder: Cross-border deals invariably add some complexities that you would not see on a domestic deal. The main reasons being that you are dealing with different legal environments, even within Europe, and also different business cultures. So for example, labour laws in France and Germany, particularly within the context of an M&A deal, vary significantly from those in the UK and the structures you might see in the UK can be different from those in the US.
Batchelor: From a personal point of view, I would say yes. Some people may be more cautious in outlook but it is the variety of the international work which interests me. I would say that candidates need to be honest about what they are looking for when making training contract applications and ensure their own interests match the long-term strategy of the firms they are applying to.
Branigan: It is just more interesting when you are wrestling with jurisdictions where you have no idea what the law is and are reliant on your colleagues. You have to explain concepts to overseas which you would probably not have to explain to English clients so you have to think about the way in which you present information. There are almost invariably more issues that come up on a cross-border deal.
Copeman: The minute you get another jurisdiction involved, particularly on the litigation side, you get more interesting challenges. Obtaining evidence and dealing with witnesses and other lawyers becomes more complex. Even when I was a trainee, my first piece of litigation was a fraud case involving multiple European jurisdictions.
Sponsor’s comment: Caroline Lindner, Trainee recruitment manager, Norton Rose Fulbright
We are in a time of great change for the legal sector as a whole. We have seen multiple law firm mergers in recent years, a significant proportion of which have been driven by clients’ growing requirement for legal services in every jurisdiction in which they operate. Globalisation is a key issue – for our clients’ businesses, for the provision of legal services worldwide, for international law firms, and for those weighing up a legal career. Ultimately, it is driven by the globalisation of business in general. But it is easy to forget that there have been significant mergers in the previous two decades as well, and that many of the large international firms are themselves the products of previous mergers.
Those joining our practice can expect to work with international clients and colleagues and to travel overseas – not only as a trainee but throughout their career. Secondments give a trainee the opportunity to take on a variety of stimulating work and gain invaluable commercial experience in areas that will further enhance their training contract. The chance to work in other countries and with clients in different regions gives our people wider exposure to global business and also to different cultures; it is important to recognise that this can be very rewarding and fulfilling personally, as well as professionally.
While language skills are certainly notable and useful, they are not required or a prerequisite for getting a place on a vacation scheme or a training contract. However, it is important to be interested in different cultures and global business issues, and to be open to international work.
The majority of the work we do has an international element and trainees will experience this day to day even if they are normally based in London. As a result, candidates need to consider carefully the type of firm they wish to work for and where that firm is heading. Think beyond the two years of your training contract. Have an open mind as to where a career in law can lead. If you work on international deals, you will need to be flexible as you will be dealing with different time zones. You should also be prepared to travel or relocate; there are often great opportunities that can arise as a result. That is the reality of working for a global legal practice.