Osborne Clarke, Law Firm of the Year: Living the digital dream

This year’s Law Firm of the Year is one that over the past decade has transformed itself to such an extent that it is no stretch to describe it as a Silicon Valley firm in the UK. Stand up, Osborne Clarke.

Since 2000, Osborne Clarke has advised more than 400 US businesses on their expansion into Europe. They include the likes of Facebook, Airbnb and Beats.

But how has a firm that up until the millennium had just three offices in the UK, built this impressive client base and rejigged its DNA to such an extent that it now borders on being an anomaly? This is the story of how one UK firm took on the Silicon Valley and won. 

Ray Berg

Growing its sectors

The Silicon Valley area in the southern half of California is home to a host of multinational corporations, as well as thousands of tech start-up companies. Hewlett Packard has offices there, as does Apple and Intel.

It is a world away from Osborne Clarke’s 18th century Bristol roots. And on the face of it, it would also appear to be a world away from a firm that only made its mark in London in 1987.

But this would be to ignore one of Osborne Clarke’s strongest suits. For years the firm has had a sharp sector focus on digital business, making it a clear contender to pick up the world’s most innovative and hi-tech clients.

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And with the number of technology companies ever increasing on a global scale, Osborne Clarke has been perfectly positioned to build on its reputation as a top-class digital firm and broaden its reach both sector-wise and geographically. 

No wonder it scooped the top prize of Law Firm of the Year at The Lawyer Awards, in association with Travelers, last month.

Osborne Clarke has long been a digitally-savvy firm. In the late 1990s it was among those that made the most of the internet boom, adding a third UK office in the technology heartland of Thames Valley. 

But the downturn in the early millennium raised question marks for the leadership team, which began to question its approach and heavy reliance on the digital sector.

“Being specialised in one sector left us exposed to the economic cycle,” admits Simon Beswick, the firm’s current international CEO. “There was a downturn between 2001 and 2003, because the internet boom in the 1990s had led to inflated asset prices in technology stock that effectively resulted in a stock market crash. We knew we needed to broaden our sector focus to give the firm more balance.”

Cue a swift change. The firm began to build out its litigation practice, which at the time contributed just 8 per cent of Osborne Clarke’s total revenue. 

Head of litigation Leona Briggs says a strategy was developed “to focus on our sectors and build on the legal disciplines within them”, the result being that the firm now owes an impressive 20 per cent of its overall turnover to the litigation team.

However, the rest of the turnover undoubtedly belongs to Osborne Clarke’s other main areas of focus, which have come to define the firm as much as digital business did in the 1990s.

Partners have represented clients in the retail, energy, financial services, real estate and transport sectors, with the highlights of last year being Carphone Warehouse’s £3.6bn merger with Dixons Retail and the investment by Google Ventures into Kobalt Music.

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International

But how do you go about attracting big-name multinationals such as Google? The answer is you expand. Osborne Clarke has done this in style.

The plan started to come to fruition just after the millennium with doors opening in Cologne and Palo Alto. Having a base in both Europe and the US has enabled Osborne Clarke to advise American tech-nology companies on their growth into and across Europe, establishing a pool of new and influential clients that have inevitably returned to the firm for advice as they continue to expand.

Facebook is just one of these businesses, with Osborne Clarke helping the social media giant to set up its first European subsidiary. Now one of the most talked-about brands of modern times, Facebook has since gone back to Osborne Clarke for advice on regulatory compliance as it enters new jurisdictions.

“Being an international firm has been a big attraction not just for lawyers and business services, but also our clients who want to act across the globe,” says the firm’s UK managing partner Ray Berg. “It was our intention to act for the leaders in our particular sectors.”

Not content with a base in Germany, the UK and Silicon Valley, the firm pushed forward with its international plan by merging with its Spanish and Italian Alliance partners, Osborne Clarke Spain and SLA Studio Legale Associato.

That netted it divisions in Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Milan, Padova and Brescia, and by the end of 2013 it had also opened up shop in Hamburg, Brussels, Paris and New York.

There was more to come a year later, with an office launched in Amsterdam and a third US base in San Francisco, right at the heart of Silicon Valley territory.

“Essentially the economic crisis lost us four years, but things stabilised in 2010 so we set about getting on with our plan to grow across the world” – Simon Beswick

Challenges

Yet it has not all been plain sailing. There have been problems that Osborne Clarke has had to master in order to stay on top. Like many law firms, the recession wreaked havoc with the firm’s growth strategy, which had been intended to progress soon after the Munich office launch in 2005. 

“During the recession, no-one knew quite where the end was going so we couldn’t expand during this time as we had hoped,” remembers Beswick. “Essentially the economic crisis lost us four years, but things seemed to stabilise a bit in 2010 so we set about getting on with what we had planned to do and grow across the world.”

It was all about waiting for the right time to go big, especially as the years’ worth of international investment was also having a detrimental effect on Osborne Clarke’s financials. The firm posted a 12 per cent dip in revenue between 2008 and 2010 and it additionally saw a 36 per cent decrease in average profit per equity partner (PEP) from £554,000 to £352,000 – a particular shock to the system after Osborne Clarke recorded its best year to date in 2006/07.

“The downturn at this time obviously affected the transactional market,” says Berg. “However, our international expansion also led us to do a lot of investing during the period which ultimately had an effect too. We just wanted to make sure we would be in a better position later on, as it was where we wanted to get to that was more important.”

The firm certainly knew what it was trying to be when it called off merger talks with Field Fisher Waterhouse (now Fieldfisher ) in late 2012, citing differences in approach between the two firms. Both seemed to place great stock in their media capabilities as well as the potential to serve the hi-tech and digital businesses coming out of the Silicon Valley. Yet despite appearing to have a similar vision of what they wanted to achieve, they could not agree on how to get there, believing their strategies to be too difficult to combine.

Instead the pair opted to press ahead by themselves, with Osborne Clarke recording significant growth in recent times. The firm’s lawyer numbers have increased by 63 per cent since 2007 from 322 to 527, with the great increase coming from its entry into the Spanish and Italian market. While FieldFisher has not yet opened in either Spain or Italy, Osborne Clarke’s leap into the region helped its lawyer numbers jump 37 per cent in just one year from 378 to 518, with a corresponding revenue increase of 9 per cent from £90.3m to £98.2m. 

And the growth looks set to continue, with Osborne Clarke responding not just to the rise of the multinational Asian corporations but the desire of their Silicon Valley clients to make their mark in the region.

In August the firm proposed to enter a strategic alliance with Hong Kong law firm John Koh by hiring the head of Bird & Bird ’s transactional group Marcus Vass. It has since also made its first foray into the Indian market by entering into a formal best friend relationship with BTG Legal, which was founded by the former co-head of Osborne Clarke’s India group Prashant Mara.

“When we think about expansion, we look at our sectors to see where the next generation of clients are going to come from,” Beswick explains. “There are significant Chinese companies in the market and so we are looking to build a broad base in Asia over the next few years. This will ensure we have a bigger geographical footprint in the region with more offices across the continent.”

Culture

How has this international expansion affected the firm’s culture and its people?

“One of the challenges is that when you get bigger, you can lose touch with the firm,” admits managing partner Ray Berg. “People have to know why we’ve chosen to open in a certain jurisdiction and understand why it’s relevant to them. It’s all about giving them the right information at the right time.”

Maintaining the culture of the firm and keeping its people on side has been incredibly important to Beswick, who describes Osborne Clarke as “collaborative, supportive and unstuffy”.

“Unstuffy” is a word used on a frequent basis by many of the firm’s employees to single out Osborne Clarke for its approachability and un-hierarchical nature. Berg still sits in the same desk he has occupied for the last 10 years “wanting people to talk to me in the same way” and he holds open discussion forums to give people more opportunities to comment on certain projects.

“We’ve tried to keep up that sense of collegiateness and an un-hierarchical structure, in which we tell people about what we’re doing and listen back,” says Berg. “Throughout all this expansion, it’s been important for us to maintain the culture of the firm in order to keep us together.”

Adrian Bott, head of Osborne Clarke’s largest sector, agrees saying there is cohesion in the partnership, with a strong culture existing in the work it carries out internationally and nationally.

“As a firm, we encourage collaboration rather than individualism and there is a foundation of openness and communication,” he says. “Everybody knows what we’re trying to achieve and we work as a team to see how best to achieve this.”

Part of the culture can be seen in the firm’s appraisal and remuneration systems in which staff were recently rewarded with a profit share of its financial results, as well as
bonuses based on individual performance. The firm’s revenue increased 15 per cent over 2014/15 from £142m to £150m, while PEP returned to stellar form, jumping 7 per cent from £513,000 to £550,000.

Smart Cities: is Europe on track?

Smart Cities is a pan-European initiative in which Osborne Clarke works with leaders in the digital business, energy and real estate sectors, as well as transport and financial services. Berg describes the project as “embodying who we are, as it’s where all our sectors collide,” with the firm’s international presence also enabling it to play a key role.

It looks at how places can be made more sustainable to live in with technological developments in healthcare, transport and energy, such as smart cars and smart grids. However, there are concerns it has not yet taken off in the way it should, with research carried out by the firm revealing just over half of the major cities in Europe have at least one smart city initiative planned.

“Everybody is talking about Smart Cities but there are not as many developments as you may think,” says Beswick. “We’ve had to think about why is it not happening more quickly, so we’ve been working to identify this to find some solutions.” 

Osborne Clarke plays a part in talking about the issues and attempts to bring clients together who have a vested interest in the issue. Currently, the firm believes the challenge to smart cities is a lack of funding as well as too few government incentives to aid development. But it is hoping it can bring together the parties responsible for making cities smarter in an attempt to overcome these obstacles.

Workplace provisions

But it’s not just about the metrics. Osborne Clarke has introduced other provisions to illustrate its “unstuffy” nature, at the same time as pursuing international growth and identifying the next opportunities in the market.

“There have been changes in how people work in recent years, as a lot of people who worked from an office now desire to work more flexibly,” explains Beswick. “As a lawyer, you’ve got to experiment to see what you need, and so we’ve created an environment in which people can do this. We’ve never been as good as we should have been in talking about it, but we’ve started to have an open dialogue about it in the past two years.”

To this end, 15 per cent of staff confirmed they had a formal flexible working agreement in place with their line manager in 2014, while 20 per cent said they had an informal flexible working agreement in place. The firm has also gone above and beyond in terms of shared parental leave (SPL) arrangements meaning anyone who has worked at the firm for one year or more will be entitled to 15 weeks SPL at full salary.

“For years Osborne Clarke has had a sector focus on digital business, making it a clear contender to pick up the world’s most innovative and hi-tech clients”

At the same time, junior lawyers have found themselves well catered for, with Berg saying trainees are especially attracted to the firm’s modern approach, big-name clients and collaborative nature.

“Law shouldn’t be an ivory tower that’s locked away: people should be able to make an impact,” he adds. “Pitching, for instance, is not the preserve of partners, and companies want to see non fee-earners as much as fee-earners.”

Earlier this year, Osborne Clarke managed to keep 89 per cent of its spring qualifiers, with eight out of nine trainees staying on. From 2013, they have been required to participate in the firm’s Q3D programme in collaboration with BPP Law School, which assesses lawyers through eLearning, self-study, presentations and workshops. A priority for Osborne Clarke has been to ensure its lawyers build on their skills and commerciality, enabling them to stand out in the marketplace and appeal to clients across the globe.

Conclusion

However, how much more can Osborne Clarke grow? As the firm continues to retain trainees, its headcount is ever increasing having broken through the 200-partner barrier this year by promoting five associate directors to partnership. It also continues to move up the UK 200 list, with the firm overtaking Macfarlanes to 24th place after skirting around the 30 mark for over seven years.

“We’ll continue to grow, but not to be a huge, huge firm,” says Berg. “We’ll be bigger in terms of more people and more offices, but it will be driven by what our clients want.”

And clients are increasingly wanting a firm that can support them from their humble beginnings and then aid them on their growth internationally. This is why the firm’s Silicon Valley presence has paid such dividends in recent years, with the area home to some of the world’s most innovative tech companies who have needed legal advice prior to expansion.

“We want to be a more international firm, while maintaining the culture that’s peculiar to us,” says Beswick. “As we start to enter the Asia market, we’re just trying to internationalise and become better known in areas of the market where we haven’t been known before.”

The Lawyer’s 2015 law firm of the year is on a roll.

OC ’s lead players


Simon Beswick 

Simon Beswick

Having joined Osborne Clarke as a newly-qualified lawyer in 1986, Beswick has seen the firm evolve from a one office business to an 18 office international firm. He was made a private equity partner over 20 years ago and led Osborne Clarke’s Silicon Valley office for two years before being elected to run the UK business from 2003 to 2014.

He was then voted in to the CEO position in 2012 from which he has been at the forefront of the firm’s global expansion strategy. He describes his role as “the Linkedin of Osborne Clarke” as he knows what is going on in the firm and is responsible for joining people together. 

Ray Berg

Ray Berg small

Berg qualified as a corporate lawyer in 1992 and joined Osborne Clarke as a partner nine years later. Before becoming the firm’s UK managing partner at the start of 2015, Berg was head of the business transactions group, which is home to the M&A, corporate finance and commercial teams.

As managing partner, Berg sets the strategy for the firm and oversees its day-to-day running. Over the next five years, he is expected to work towards consolidating the firm’s international growth as well as improving diversity within the teams. 

“I will be looking to focus on diversity so that Osborne Clarke is recognised as a leader in this field. If your clients are diverse for instance, they expect the same from their law firms,” says Berg. “This includes unconscious bias training for managers and making the career structure more supportive, so that we better take into account children, elderly parents and flexible working arrangements.” 

Andrew Saul

Andrew Saul

Senior partner Saul has worked closely with Berg in the business transactions group, having joined Osborne Clarke as a partner in 1996. He was made head of corporate in the same year and has acted for various multinational organisations headquartered in North America, including Yahoo!, Dell and Quest Software.

Many of these clients were picked up as Saul helped to establish Osborne Clarke’s Silicon Valley and New York offices, along with Beswick. He was made senior partner at the end of 2013 having led Osborne Clarke’s London office since 2012.