The breaking down of global barriers

The challenge of going global is one which all large firms have had to consider during the last decade.

Approaches have differed from firm to firm. Some have opted to set up offices abroad, staffed by UK or local lawyers; others have gone down the association route. Few, however, have opted for merger with foreign firms because of perceived difficulties with culture, local Bar rules and any variety of other reasons.

It is now becoming clear that, as the millennium approaches, major law firms are going to have to revisit their international options. Competition is greater, clients are more fickle and fees are no longer paid without question.

US firms are fully bent on taking up their rights to practise UK law and most, if not all, of those with offices in London are at various stages of the recruitment process.

Some UK firms have responded to the challenge by hiring US lawyers, the notable example this week being Freshfields' acquisition of Shearman & Sterling's Tom Joyce, who will head a US securities law team for the Freshfields firm. Clifford Chance and Linklaters & Paines have also gone in this direction and recruited US lawyers in their New York and London offices.

Although the majority are working in particularly specialist areas, the moves nevertheless mark an important shift in the thought process.

The major barriers between US and UK firms in terms of culture and working practices are gradually being broken down. Freshfields is stressing that its US lawyers will work as an integrated team with UK lawyers. Indeed, the firm already has 11 US partners.

As the century draws to a close, firms are gradually learning to think the unthinkable. It is now a question of when, and not if, we will see the first major US-UK merger.