Law firm networks: Distance learning

Networks play a vital role in the internationalisation of the legal market, and an innovative approach to training helps keep them competitive with the major global firms

Law firm networks and member associations have managed to retain their popularity as a way for independent firms around the world to compete with the increasing number of international behemoths. Networks are not just a way of picking up referral work from countries where a firm may not have a presence; they also play a role in improving the knowledge and experience levels of lawyers in each member firm.


The sort of professional development offered by networks varies widely, but it is something all are now offering – and keen to promote.

“In a much more global and competitive market a well-operated global network has a key role to play in professional development,” says Globalaw president and Davenport Lyons partner Michael Hatchwell.


Hatchwell believes professional development has moved on from its origins. 

“It used to be seen as getting your lawyers to be the most expert possible in their practice field,” he says, adding that these days it is more about adding value, developing contacts and business knowledge to help clients.

“It’s an added value as the profession comes under more competitive pressure,” agrees Meritas president and CEO Tanna Moore. “They’re wanting to learn about and figure out how to deal with an uncertain world.” 

Lesson is more

Although all networks tend to offer some sort of professional development opportunities their scope and scale varies widely depending on the type and size of the association and its members. At the most developed end Lex Mundi employs a team of professional development experts, while other networks use the expertise of their staff to support training activities.

Suzanne Fine joined Lex Mundi as director of professional development last summer after several years in a similar role at Linklaters. She says she has found it quite different from managing professional development in a law firm.

“It’s an interesting organisation – completely different from a global law firm,” Fine says. “If you’re in a global firm you try to deliver the same thing to every part of that organisation. Here, it’s back-to-front. We’re trying to put together programmes that will be relevant to people in every part of the world.”

Lex Mundi’s centrepiece of professional development is its ‘Lex Mundi Institute’, a summer programme held every year for the past decade in Monterey, California. The institute features four elements – a foundation management programme aimed at new partners; an advanced leadership programme designed for managing and more senior partners; and two “technical” legal courses, one on cross-border transactions and one on cross-border dispute resolution, both for mid- to senior-level associates.

Member firms nominate lawyers to attend the institute, with around 100 delegates spread across the four programmes each year. The week-long course also has a heavy networking element, with evening events designed to get delegates talking to each other.

Fine says she and her team at the network advise on the professional consultants who teach many of the programmes, but partners at member firms also get involved, particularly for the two technical courses.

“The faculty really enjoy it,” she adds, explaining that this year’s team of partners who stepped up included people from Australia, Europe and the US.

Delegates are from all over the world, with no particular bias towards the US or Europe.

The success of the institute is leading to an offshoot programme. Set to be launched in January at Cambridge University’s Judge Business School and taught by Cambridge lecturers, the business management programme will be aimed at those who have been partners for at least four years and is designed to help them better understand client needs.

“I think it’s going to be the most impressive programme,” says Fine, enthusiastically. “Even very large firms don’t often run programmes of this type.” 

Aside from the institute and its regular regional or practice group meetings, Lex Mundi’s professional development team co-ordinates the production of best practice guides. Available as PDFs online, these cover a range of areas, written by sector experts. Recent guides have covered bribery and anti-corruption, and social media.

Meanwhile, the network is introducing interactive elements online and filming some of its live events to make them more widely available to members. Fine describes a recent roundtable event on knowledge management that was videoed.

“We aim to do more of that,” says Fine of video presentations. “We combine them with PowerPoint and make them available online.”

A key consideration for Lex Mundi is the cost of its professional development. The network is a not-for-profit organisation so charges to members only cover costs. According to Fine, there is always a balance to be struck to reach the widest possible audience.

“We have to design programmes that have global interest,” she says. “They have to be accessible and have relevance to lawyers all over the world. We have to choose topics that transcend jurisdictional differences.”

World pool

Increasing globalisation is very much a feature of other networks’ professional development activities. At Meritas, this is manifested in several ways.

For young lawyers the network runs a leadership institute for a group of around 15 from all over the world. The group undertakes a one-year project, working mainly virtually, and presents it at Meritas’s annual meeting. Past projects include the creation of a guide to social media, for example.

“From a development standpoint it’s about how to work together globally,” explains Moore.

For a larger number of young lawyers the network also offers a client development-focused ‘boot camp’. 

Although Moore concedes that the training offered at the camp is “soft stuff”, she adds: “Our objective is really to bring everybody together. This is for them to be able to go back and articulate a lot of the things they learn in their firms.”

In a similar way, managing partners come together regularly to receive training on issues such as management, leadership and partnership. This often happens on a regional basis, providing a chance for managing partners to get to know each other.

“The objective is really to provide a platform for them to have conversations and share best practice,” says Moore. “It’s professional development but not in an academic sense.” 

Meritas practice groups come together in a similar way, with similar benefits. 

“Our philosophy is that learning together is a way of networking,” Moore comments.

The network’s professional development initiatives are driven by members as well as staff, with the Meritas central office taking more of a lead on the young lawyer projects.

Much of what Meritas offers is virtual, with regular webinars for members and their clients attracting as many as 200 viewers. Topics for the webinars are usually suggested by members and the network provides the infrastructure and marketing, with the caveat that presentations must be educational and cannot be promotional.

The network is also using technology to share best practice. Moore explains that it is piloting a “drop box” in Australia, whereby member firms can share examples of best practice, for example in contracts. According to Moore, persuading lawyers to make a change and begin sharing their work has been difficult but the initiative is starting to gain traction.

“It’s a philosophical change in law firms that are willing to do that,” she says.

New tricks

Globalaw has a similar approach to its professional development, offering a young lawyers’ leadership programme, webinars and best practice guides.

“We’re trying to provide something we suspect is in short supply generally,” says Hatchwell. “We’re trying to bring in a different way to come together, practise law and deliver services to clients.”

Like Meritas, each year a group of young lawyers at Globalaw comes together on a project that is presented at the network’s annual meeting. They choose similar topics to their Meritas peers, with social media being an example of a recent topic. Indeed, in social media and other areas relating to technology young lawyers are leading the way, says Hatchwell.

“That’s another angle where some of the younger lawyers are teaching older lawyers modern tricks,” he notes.

Member firms are also encouraged to write guides on topics in their jurisdiction, which are then shared around the network.

“We’ve developed them so firms can personalise them,” Hatchwell explains. “A number of firms are using them to show clients they are truly international.” 

He says Globalaw is keen to promote the possibilities of getting to know lawyers in other member firms better through its networking opportunities.

“We work hard to create a collegiate and friendly atmosphere within the network,” he adds.

Employment exchange

While Globalaw, Lex Mundi and Meritas are seeking to offer professional development that is relevant to as many members as possible, other networks have a harder time on this front. At employment law association Ius Laboris many topics are really only applicable within a jurisdiction, as labour law is rarely cross-border.

Chris Engels

“In the EU there’s some common background but we try to give people a common approach,” says chairman Chris Engels. “We do deal with international projects.” 

However, Ius Laboris is making efforts to bring its members as close together as possible. Its academy focuses on legal and project management subjects to build a unified approach to client management.

“Even though you think that you’re talking about the same thing, quite often you’re not, so having the same approach makes it a lot easier for clients to understand,” says Engels.

He believes that such training has become key for small and mid-sized independent firms, whose similar-sized clients are also now operating in a more globalised world.

Like other networks, Ius Laboris offers a mixture of online and real-life training sessions. Much of the training is led by partners, but Engels says associates are encouraged to get involved as much as possible. Ius Laboris also wants to increase what it does in providing legal updates, and is keen to get smaller member firms more involved.

“The most important thing is to create a community among your lawyers,” Engels adds. “It’s something you need to invest in. It sounds corny, but it’s important.”

Call to accountants

Developing that community and finding common themes is perhaps easier for networks solely aimed at the legal market. For multi-disciplinary associations whose members are both accountants and lawyers it is a bit trickier.

Nevertheless, multi-disciplinary networks such as MSI and Geneva Group International (GGI) put just as much emphasis on professional development as their purely legal counterparts. Training aimed at all members tends to be focused on issues such as management, leadership and the development of the business.

“A lot of the conversations we have about succession planning, lean management or business development are fairly generic,” says MSI chief executive Donal Watkin.

Watkin adds that having conversations between accountants and lawyers can bring a different perspective to a debate.

At GGI, the level of interaction between the professions varies according to the type of professional development or networking that is taking place.

“We do have a series of practice groups composed of individuals from our member firms – some have a strong legal focus,” says chief executive Michael Reiss von Filski. “These practice groups are basically special interest groups where people from all over the world can sit together and exchange views, ideas and information.

“The aim is that they exchange business at a certain stage too, but it also has an interesting training component designed by the individual members of these practice groups.”

On enrol

MSI and GGI also have programmes aimed at their younger members. At GGI, the network sponsors a leadership programme at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania that attracts around 100 applications each year. Reiss von Filski sees the programme as a recruitment and retention tool.

“Our member firms, particularly law firms, need to find good, positive, motivated young people and keep them on board,” he comments.

Watkin has observed the same thing. MSI is trying to develop its secondment programme between members, both to improve the firms’ international outlook and to give them an extra recruitment tool.

“Medium-sized firms probably don’t have the culture of conveying people around the globe,” Watkin observes, comparing MSI members with international firms. “What’s important to international networks is that there’s a high degree of connectivity.”

Ultimately, all networks’ professional development efforts help connections between members. Comments about the benefits of having met counterparts are common, with the belief being that this should go on to help the referral process. 

But training can also make a real difference to the quality of services provided, and in a world where networks are in constant competition for work with single-brand firms of a similar size the effort and investment can pay off.