The land of the freebie?

The annual American Bar Association conference is the world's largest legal gathering. But, asks Chris Fogarty, do the Americans care that the British are there and can we really make an impact? High above the shaky ground of San Francisco 12 months ago, a convivial cocktail party was in full swing.

In one of the city's plushest hotels, the Bar Council of England and Wales was hosting a reception for its US colleagues attending the American Bar Association annual conference.

The view of San Francisco bathed in a west coast sunset was unbeatable and the then-Bar Council president, Robert Owen, was the most convivial of hosts. But there was a problem.

For although the room was full, it was full of Europeans.

In fact, unearthing an American accent among the buzz of conversation and the mingling of guests was almost impossible. The Americans had simply stayed away.

Senior Bar Council member and prominent QC Nigel Pascoe, who attended the San Francisco conference, says that on reflection holding a large social reception was not the best idea to entice America's legal eagles.

Pascoe argues that foreign Bar associations like the Bar Council have to present something dramatic and special to capture the attention of the US legal world.

“We have to organise something that is attractive and that is practically based, that will make an impact on the conference. It's got to be sexy,” states Pascoe.

Yet the Bar was not the only organisation having problems getting the Yanks to look at our side of the pond. A Law Society of Scotland breakfast at the San Francisco conference attracted no more than ten or 20 US lawyers, while representatives from the Law Society of England and Wales got lost among the crowd.

Despite this, year after year, foreign Bar associations rub shoulders with the good ol' boys from Texas and sharply dressed New Yorkers, in a desperate bid to get the Americans to stop looking at their own back yard and discuss the wider legal world.

The world's largest legal market is lucrative for foreign firms looking to build relationships with lawyers, be they acting for the financiers and bankers of the East Coast, the manufactures of the Mid-West or the media moguls of the West Coast.

Yet questions remain as to whether US lawyers are really interested in their foreign counterparts who turn up to their conference.

American Bar Association (ABA) spokeswoman Nancy Slonim argues that many of the ABA policies have international implications and that some of the delegates are looking to develop business relationships.

Slonim cites the fact that 47 leaders from Bar associations in 18 countries, ranging from Austria to Australia, will attend the 1998 ABA conference in Toronto from 30 July to 5 August as evidence that the international community find the conference worthwhile.

Yet Finers partner Michael Simmons, a regular speaker for the last decade at ABA conferences and co-chair of the ABA's international practice management interest group, is not so sure about the level of American interest in their guests.

“I think in a way we are treated as being a bit quaint,” says Simmons.

The Americans also appear bemused at the concept of a spilt-profession in the UK – or even totally unaware of it.

“For a lot of American lawyers, practising international law means practising in the next state,” says Simmons.

“There's no doubt there are networking opportunities,” he says. But then finding the right person to network with among a crowd of 12,000 US conference delegates is tricky.

“It's very easy to get lost in the crowd. A lot of people go to the ABA conference, get daunted on the first day, and then go off and see the sights,” says Simmons.

Indeed, foreign delegates are presented on arrival at the ABA with a conference programme the size of a small phone book and a bewildering list of different meetings held at various locations.

In addition, many Americans seem to view the ABA as a holiday with the family – or away from them. The 1996 conference held at Disneyland in Florida did little to dispel this image.

In San Francisco, about half of the hundreds of meetings half-involved food or drink, with Simmons suggesting cirrhosis of the liver is the price you pay for building up business relationships.

But the ABA's Slonim denies the conference is little more than a well disguised junket for American lawyers who have no intention of trying to meet their international colleagues.

“We have had meetings in places like Hawaii, where the local news media has chastised us for spending so much time on business and not enough time focusing on local non-business activities,” she says.

While they are not adverse to packing the suntan lotion themselves, the British Bar associations do work hard at making the Americans take notice.

This year in Toronto, incoming president of the Law Society of England and Wales, Michael Mathews, and council member Jane Whittaker will address an anti-trust session, with Mathews also addressing a session on global law.

The Law Society has worked hard in recent years to cosy up to the ABA sections that decide what is on the conference agenda.

The aim has been to get British speakers to talk to the conference, rather than just attend it, and to create a more businesslike environment where ideas are exchanged.

“We don't really see that a reception is going to enhance contact for solicitors,” says Law Society international promotions officer Ann Frazer.

Frazer says the society will be holding a meeting on the opening day of the conference to ensure English delegates are “not just wandering around like headless chickens”.

The society has also organised meetings for English solicitors with several Toronto firms, and will be running a hospitality suite which all conference delegates from English and Welsh firms will be able to use to promote their services.

Frazer says US interest in the British is on the increase this year – because London will host the ABA conference in 2000.

Already, about 2,000 ABA delegates have pre-registered for London and have been invited to an English “tea” during the Toronto conference.

The US-organised tea party suggests that Simmons' viewpoint that the British are viewed as quaint is correct. Either that, or the Americans still enjoy rubbing it in about Boston.

For their part, the Bar Council has scaled back its big reception to a series of invitation-only functions that are set to be “co-ordinated” from chairman Heather Hallett QC's Toronto hotel suite.

The Bar Council is also heavily publicising a meeting entitled “Foreign Courts and Foreign Claims” being chaired by Hallett at the conference on 1 August. Attendance at this meeting will be a useful gauge as to just how much US interest there is in international matters.

For his part, the Bar Council's Pascoe believes that British participation in the conference is worthwhile. “We have something to sell,” he says. “I think we can hold our own in advocacy terms with the best of them.”

At the Law Society, Frazer says the benefits of the conference are felt by big and small firms alike. He says: “We hear a lot from lawyers at smaller firms that it is great for networking.”

And Finers' Michael Simmons happily admits that while it is not always easy, his practice has been sweetly rewarded by a commitment to the ABA stretching back ten years.

Meanwhile, both the Law Society of Scotland and Scottish solicitors who have attended conferences have told The Lawyer that they are convinced the ABA enhances their business – although they admit it is a long hard road to generate US interest.

Yet despite definite glimmers of success, winning the attention of the US legal profession continues to prove a difficult and demanding task.

And no doubt this year, as in every other, some British delegates put off by thousands of unfamiliar faces and hundreds of often weird and strange meetings will decide instead to undertake an in-depth study of the local tourist attractions.