Global law firm or mom-and-pop shop?

Global legal practice: an argument in favour of maintaining the integrity of the local office.

At the risk of giving away my age, I am a Generation Xer. I grew up “Where the streets have no name”, where “Sweet dreams are made of this” and where “Everybody hurts”. I still remember DOS and saving my law school assignments to floppy disks. I am clearly not a digital native.

It came as a rude awakening, then, to realize that founding my own training company would involve wading into the murky depths of social media. Success, I was told, would depend on my website’s Google ‘pagerank’, my ability to write in ‘hashtags’ and to have my tweets ‘retweeted’, and how many people not only ‘liked’ but also ‘engaged with’ my Facebook content.

The only definitive conclusion I have reached after engaging in this often energy-sapping activity is that, despite all the hype about social media and a clear increase in demand for virtual training, what ultimately matters most to the people I work with is still: (1) expertise, (2) local knowledge and (3) accessibility. This counts as much for training as it does for consulting your doctor or buying fruit from the mom-and-pop shop on the corner, where the lady behind the counter knows your name, that you have an allergy to tomatoes and when the strawberries are at their sweetest.

Like me, lawyers are service providers. Over the last decade or so, the trend of the global law firm has emerged; the law firm with its head office in a financial centre like London and offices in almost every major city in the world. This expansion is largely driven by the imperative to serve clients effectively wherever they may be.

However, when a foreign law firm expands into a local jurisdiction, the risks of doing so are not to be underestimated. On the one hand, if the global law firm in question chooses to merge with the local firm and applies its own unique culture and approach to advising clients at a local level, local lawyers will benefit from a high level of support and training, but might find themselves doing business in a way that is out of step with the demands of their local client base. On the other hand, if the global law firm chooses a loose association with a local firm, local lawyers may suddenly be faced with the prospect of having to understand a different legal system, practice in a foreign language and contend with vastly different cultural norms, perhaps without the appropriate level of support and training.

Neither option is ideal, but my own view is that there is a lot to be said for maintaining the integrity of the local office. The most successful global law firms are likely to be those that seek to develop an understanding of how the lawyers in each local office practice law and what makes their clients come back to them for advice time and time again. The key is not to impose on the local office a set of legal, linguistic and cultural values, but rather to draw the best from each jurisdiction’s unique way of serving its clients.

In Germany, where I mainly work, not only are the lawyers often expected to understand the common law system (in many crucial ways a very different system to Germany’s civil law system) but also to provide legal opinions and advice on German law in English and negotiate contracts in English (whether governed by German law or otherwise). This is an enormous challenge and, if not handled correctly, one fraught with risk.

A constructive, two-way dialogue between global law firm and local lawyers could potentially be the key to understanding the training solutions that are appropriate in the case of each individual office.


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