Despite big clients expressing doubts about the rise of the global law firm (see page 3 and The Lawyer, 17 January) Clifford Chance continues its seemingly unstoppable bid to become the world's biggest law firm, in number of offices as well as number of partners. This week it's Jakarta that welcomes the giant.
Regional managing partner John East admits that Indonesia is not the most stable market to enter. "Around the fringes, there are issues of separatism and so on," he says.
There are very good business reasons for law firms to get involved in developing countries, particularly those with developing political as well as economic structures. Clifford Chance may well be wise to get in now in preparation for the new Indonesia. As The Lawyer reported last week, other firms are getting in to less developed countries early with pro bono work, expecting to ride the tide of new business as the economies of these nations develop.
However the tightrope that all of these firms must walk rests on how close they should get to the existing regime and its business allies.
It makes sense for a firm to work for change from within and establish a name and a reputation in the country, but the danger is that the forces of change – the future government – may see the firm as too closely allied to the existing regime.
Indonesia has an appalling record on human rights, an increasingly powerful opposition, and armed forces that are either out of control or being used by the government to systematically oppress the East Timorese. This turmoil has led the world community to increase pressure on the Jakarta government to rein in its military and move towards a more open and democratic regime.
What might happen is that when the new country and market is being built, it is not just the previous cabinet that is swept away but also those who were seen as part of it.