17 September 2007
As the global community becomes more interdependent, there is increasing scope for international movement in the employment market and the legal sector is no exception. The Lawyer UK 200 Annual Report 2007 (out last week) highlighted that overall income at the top 100 UK firms has grown to £12.39bn, so it is no surprise that demand for quality candidates continues to outstrip supply.
The challenge facing law firms is to ensure that they remain competitive on an international scale, that their lawyers maximise the value for clients and that they themselves are given the opportunities for personal development and migration.
So, what training must firms offer their lawyers?
International law firms are now placing greater importance on lawyers possessing a broad business knowledge, and are offering them the opportunity to gather a greater understanding of financial issues that are becoming fundamental for them to operate within the current legal system.
This shift has been reflected in the LPC, which, in the past few years, has changed its foundation from a broader base of legal information to focus on financial law, which accommodates the necessity of understanding activity in the City.
Similarly, due to the boom in emerging markets the significance of being familiar with domestic business models in foreign countries has become prevalent. For example, the C&I Group, which is supported by the Law Society, manages a number of courses that are hosted by law firms to inform lawyers of foreign markets and systems. They offer courses such as 'Business in Russia', which provides an overview of the market and highlights the numerous discrepancies between the two countries.
For firms to achieve organic international growth it is essential that a certain level of management training be installed. Many firms now offer courses ranging from the basics of accounting, tax and recruitment, to learning how to pitch for new tenders, or training in international negotiations.
Such training is mainly conducted internally in order to allow management trainees to get close to the business. As the majority of firms wish to maintain, and replicate internationally, their existing culture and structure, this allows the firm to ensure that outside forces do not disturb the business model and also provides greater flexibility in terms of when training can occur.
With the dramatic growth in emerging markets, particularly the Far East, foreign languages are becoming essential for international operations. Banks are now offering training and even secondments for personnel to work abroad and learn languages. This is already being replicated in the legal sector and will only become more prominent as the buoyancy in individual domestic markets begins to require more outsourced support from abroad.
Languages such as Chinese Mandarin are particularly coveted at the moment and this trend is likely to continue. However, law firms that are looking to place candidates in international offices must look beyond language skills and become willing to offer language training as part of the package.
It is a similar situation in terms of culture. Knowing how to interact with clients and being aware of religion, politics and customs are all fundamental to successfully operating abroad.
Employers have traditionally sought candidates who are experienced in specific markets. But, as with language skills, as the war for talent increases, firms must become increasingly willing to train people on the job.
The realisation of their responsibility to discuss all matters and nurture personal development rather than simply issue orders without explanation has seen many firms make a concerted effort to set up internal mentoring systems.
This is particularly effective for in-house teams, as the size of the company permits more thought-sharing with employees working in close-knit teams.
On-the-job training and experience
While capitalising on training initiatives is recommended, the most valuable asset in the legal market to any individual and firm is experience. Deal exposure is as important to an individual's development as any qualification, and some would argue it is the most critical element of a lawyer's CV and a firm's team.
In the current market, large firms have the ability to expose junior staff to deals, which is the most effective training a firm can choose to develop in order to enhance the firm's international reach and localised expertise.
The way forward
Business training, language skills, international negotiations and cross-border transactions all equip a firm with the tools necessary to drive international growth. Firms can encourage attendance at international conferences, participation in international secondments and the use of international company meetings to increase an individual's experience of the international climate.
However, to develop a comprehensive strategy that is conducive to international growth, individuals and firms must incorporate the widest level of transferable skills, as it is this transferability that needs to be the focus of a firm's desire to develop training.
By incorporating training at every level, with gaining as much diverse experience and exposure to different fields and markets as possible, the international legal market will continue to be a fertile field.
Stephen Hockey is managing director at Michael Page Legal