Go global, but think local

Baker & McKenzie's London managing partner, Russell Lewin, has been wondering why law firms took so long to get on the global trail. Russell Lewin is managing partner of Baker & Mckenzie's London office.

Linklaters should be congratulated on its march into Europe, in alliance with firms from Germany, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands. It has recognised that, as we move towards the new millennium, it is essential for firms to have global reach and depth if they wish to continue to serve their multinational clients.

A high quality, globally integrated service is what is required. Clifford Chance recognised the need several years ago and it now has a highly credible operation throughout much of Europe.

Some of the major Wall Street firms are also making moves, although most have established only a toe-hold in the form of a small London office providing a limited range of services.

At Baker & McKenzie, however, we cannot help wondering what took everyone so long. Since we first opened our doors in 1949, our business strategy has had an international dimension. We began with the objective of following the great outflow of US investment around the globe that occurred immediately after the end of Word War II. Within 20 years we had offices in all the major business centres in Europe and Latin America.

The second phase of our global expansion occurred in the 1970s when we established ourselves throughout Asia. More recently, we have been able to take advantage of the opening up of the former Communist bloc in Central and Eastern Europe.

From the outset, the founding office in Chicago was the hub of our operations. Today we have about 2,500 lawyers spread around the world and a highly diverse client base.

The offices in Chicago, London and Hong Kong are the three largest, but no single office constitutes more than 15 per cent of the whole. This means that neither the flow of our work, nor the nature of our organisation can any longer be described in terms of hubs and spokes.

The vision of firm founder, Russell Baker, was to create a firm without nationality. We are now the one truly multinational law firm. But we try to have the chameleon-like quality of presenting ourselves as a local firm.

We aim to provide a service which both satisfies the exacting standards demanded by our clients and takes full account of local markets and cultures. Other multijurisdictional firms that once preferred “exporting” lawyers from their head offices rather than recruiting locally have increasingly followed our lead.

So successfully do we convey the impression of a local firm in each of the jurisdictions in which we are based, that it is occasionally questioned to what extent we are really one firm at all.

But Baker & McKenzie is a single firm, a partnership of more than 550 individuals from 34 countries, bound together by one partnership agreement.

The Lawyer reported that Linklaters hopes to be able to achieve full integration – to become a single merged firm – within two years. But the firm will not be underestimating the challenges ahead.

One of the benefits of growing organically like Baker & McKenzie, is that the process of integrating culture, language, legal background, and standards of quality and client service, as well as the different ways of practising as lawyers, has occurred gradually over our 50-year existence.

Lawyers know how difficult it is to integrate two UK firms, never mind firms from multiple jurisdictions. Cultural domination is something that Linklaters and the other members of its alliance will be keen to avoid. It may try to achieve this by involving senior partners from the alliance firms in the management of the joint venture.

Baker & McKenzie's international management is conducted by an executive committee comprising representatives of the regions of the firm, under the leadership of a chairman. The chairman is currently an American, although the previous incumbent was an Australian.

Baker & McKenzie is aware that size, in itself, is not the critical issue – what is of key importance is global reach, depth and quality of service. We will watch with interest to see how others react to the Linklaters move and relish rising to the new challenges presented by such developments.

For our part, we must target the provision of “high yield” service and be unceasing in our commitment to ensuring that we add value in everything we do for our clients.