Global marketing has moved up the agenda of international law firms as they attempt to keep abreast of the accelerating globalisation of business. Up to a fifth of some international law firms' turnover is now accounted for by multinational clients, and they are looking for better ways to sell a wider range of services to more of these companies.

While other professional services providers have been playing the globalisation game for many decades, the internationalisation of legal services is relatively new, and firms are gradually feeling their way in the new territory. They have little direct experience to call on, and some are hiring expertise from outside the profession to spearhead their marketing activities.

Some law firms decline to comment on their international marketing activities, as they feel they might let their trade secrets out of the bag. But most use the usual round of public relations in the international press, seminars trumpeting their expertise in different practice areas, and flashy brochures targeted at key clients and prospects.

The task of international marketing falls into three areas, and first and foremost is telling UK clients that their needs can be fulfilled if they wish to expand overseas. UK businesses looking to ply their trade abroad need knowledge in specific practice areas in different countries. They are likely to look to their local legal advisers for this, and if the firm can offer knowledgeable teams of lawyers in different markets, they will be the first port of call. Some of this work is fuelled by development projects overseas run by UK companies, which are often funded by financial institutions in the City, so using a UK-based law firm is an advantage.

Firms' marketing departments are also focusing their efforts on businesses entering the UK, with all their attendant requirements – help with understanding local employment laws, the taxation system and all the other areas of expertise they will need to establish themselves in the market. With the majority of inward investment coming from the US, firms with a strong foothold in North America are well placed to benefit from this.

But one of the most hotly contested battles lies in capturing international work from multinational corporations requiring advice in different markets on a wide range of cross-border activities, be it transporting goods or making capital transfers. This work is highly prized, as it can involve the complete matrix of the law firm's global network.

The increasing importance of cross-border marketing has led Baker & McKenzie to launch a search for a global marketing director for its Chicago office, a new post which will replace the previous position of global marketing manager. Chief press officer at the firm Judith Green says: "It's recognition that we've been slick in marketing on a regional basis, but on a global level we need a glue to hold us together. We have 61 offices around the world, but the regions are very big. Each has a marketing team, but it's a huge task to coordinate with other regions and we need to stick everyone together."

Baker & McKenzie is holding a partners meeting for the European region in Madrid this year, and Green says the firm will take the opportunity to put together a presentation to the big clients in Spain, presented by partners from the entire region. This process is repeated in other regions, and a global partners meeting will be held in Hong Kong. Key clients will be invited and the partners will attempt to cross-sell services to them. "Each client will have individual needs, and we hope to identify these for each one," she says.

This involves finding clients which, for example, use Baker & McKenzie for tax work in Hong Kong, and then bringing in tax partners from New York and London and trying to persuade the company to expand the tax service into those markets. Or if a company uses the firm on a global basis for tax, then to try to persuade it to make use of the firm's worldwide employment skills.

"True global players are very few, but it is an increasingly competitive marketplace. The way we market ourselves and promote the brand is a way of differentiating ourselves from the rest. It's about deepening the relationships with existing clients and with prospects," says Green.

The task of building legal services brands across borders is made difficult by the fact that every country has different rules on how law firms are allowed to promote themselves – in some countries advertising is strictly prohibited, while in others, such as the UK, it is a new and burgeoning area of development.

The acceleration of mergers and strategic alliances between law firms has presented them with a challenge in terms of marketing, namely an urgent need to tell existing clients about the new range of services offered in different markets. Keeping clients informed about the merger and the reasons behind it is another key marketing task.

Clifford Chance's mergers with Rogers & Wells and Pünder Volhard Weber & Axster has shifted the firm's emphasis on new business. The firm has hired Laurie Robertson, previously an accounts manager at advertising agency J Walter Thompson, where he handled Unilever's business in 45 different markets as head of corporate global business development.

He says one of the most important tasks following the merger has been to communicate the information about the merged firm to clients, rather than to go out and seek new ones. "Since the merger, we've been concentrating on existing business, because the best source of new business is through existing clients," says Robertson.

But in an organisation with such a wide range of services in its 29 offices, keeping abreast of the firm's areas of expertise can be problematic. "The coordination is massive," says Robertson. "It's a massive task trying to organise ourselves to share that information on specific clients, to have a team to gather that information, to analyse it and share it with different offices and practices. Knowledge management is a huge task for us."

The firm recently hired consultant Paul Greenwood as head of knowledge management. According to Robertson, this will "make sure that we stay in the lead in handling those issues".

One way this is done is through internal intranet links between client teams and industry groups, and linking these up with clients through extranets which allow them to see the type of service on offer and the areas of expertise.

But there is no replacement for face-to-face contact. Victor Semmens, head of international at Eversheds, believes that whatever brand-building, advertising or other work is undertaken in the name of international marketing, that marketing is best done by lawyers in the field. He says: "A big part of the effort is making sure that lawyers understand the complexity and capability of the business rather than running away from international work. A portion of UK marketing is directed at making sure that it's clear we have an international capability."

He says that Eversheds has a strategic alliance with Khatter Wong & Partners in Asia, while in Europe the firm aims to provide capabilities to serve clients' legal needs in major jurisdictions. The most important thing is to ensure the teams in different countries are trained to offer advice for cross-border activity. In the case of Eversheds, it has teams in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, all of which are dual-qualified, to offer advice to companies that are crossing from one market to another.

But once these skills are in place, and there are strong teams which can offer specialisations across the range of a company's needs, Semmens says it is important to build up the brand image of the firm by promoting it in the international press, using publications such as The Economist or The Wall Street Journal, and to offer the usual attractions of seminars and conferences promoting expertise in individual practice areas, be it employment law or taxation.

To this end, Eversheds uses an international public relations company to plug the message in the business press, although Semmens declines to say which one. But more important than this, he says, is targeting potential clients and intermediaries who can introduce them to business – accountants, consultants or venture capitalists.

He adds that there are certain sectors that are more likely to require international services than others. "There are industries such as telecommunications where all the main players are international, so if you work for them in the UK, you can work for them in Europe on areas such as transport, product liability, mergers and acquisitions and finance."

He says, though, that the most important thing is to focus on the client – the internationalisation of the legal services has followed on the coat tails of business globalisation.

International marketing is virgin territory for the new breed of global law firm, and a process of trial and error is being employed to find the best ways of persuading businesses to take up legal services worldwide. Law firms have a long way to go before they can match other professional services in targeting clients across borders, and they are bound to borrow heavily from their counterparts' experiences, as well as poaching their staff. The accelerating battle to become global will be won by those most adept at ploughing the fields they have already furrowed, and turning local clients into international ones. n