International alliances offer a way forward for smaller and mid-tier law firms competing
with leading international practices. I have no doubt that international alliances really can work for smaller to mid-tier law firms, in terms of providing a platform to compete against the top-tier. I say this both as the head of the litigation department of a mid-tier firm located in London, and also as the chair of an international alliance of law firms spanning the globe.
The world is changing rapidly. My international colleagues and I have identified that there is a real power-shift away from North America and Western Europe towards India and China, with other emerging economics, such as Brazil and Mexico, laying down a strong challenge for the future. There is business to be generated from these markets, and opportunities coming the other way as foreign businesses invest in or take over domestic companies.
Being part of an international alliance, with the additional international gravitas and resources this brings, means that a smaller to mid-tier practice can stand up and be counted – and will often hold an advantage in terms of being more competitive on their pricing structure, which means a great deal in markets such as India and China. With members from these markets, we also have a competitive advantage in terms of understanding the culture and business environment, which works in both directions.
Finding an international alliance can be difficult for a law firm situated in a prime commercial location. We were invited to join an established international alliance of accountants, called the Alliott Group (www.alliottgroup.net), which was now looking to bring lawyers into the fold.
Sherrards was the fourth law firm to join AG Legal, and my partners and I took a glass-half-full approach, looking at the benefits of getting involved on the ground floor, and being able to help to shape the recruitment process. It has taken several years, but the Alliott Group now boasts over 170 law and accountancy firms across over 30 countries.
The benefits of membership of an international alliance arise at different levels. There is the obvious prospect of incoming referrals of business to the practice from overseas professionals. Perhaps less obvious is the ability to provide a good service to existing clients, who increasingly want to develop their operations internationally, and protecting relationships which might otherwise be lost to a larger, international practice.
Our members have seen a growing raft of clients with international ambitions, who are only too pleased to be able to find an alternative to the top layer of firms. Paul Campeau, senior accountant for Align Technology’s operations in the Netherlands, is typical of the mindset when he states,
“Our business requirements extend across many borders; with the help of Alliott Group and their international members, Align Technology BV has been able successfully to grow internationally.”
Other benefits include: sharing knowledge and information on such things as practice-management, marketing intelligence, PR and indeed IT. It is enlightening how open and relaxed members of an alliance will be in sharing know-how of any kind, and an alliance can allow members to get all the advantages of pooled resources without the need to maintain an expensive and cumbersome infrastructure. Recruitment and retention of fee-earners can also be aided. Good lawyers tend to be attracted to a firm that can offer international work and the prospect of some travel.
Margot van-Camp of Dutch firm Rosina Eckhart states,
“I had a terrific three weeks working at Sherrards in London. I stayed with young lawyers of my own age and discovered London. I also got an insight into the differences between common law and civil law, which has been really helpful in my day-to-day practice in Amsterdam. It has been one of the highlights of my career, and I would recommend an internship to anyone who gets the opportunity to do this.”
If a more senior lawyer with a following has a choice of firms, they are bound to be attracted to the firm that can offer the greater range of services to its clients. We have recently seen that. Keith Robinson joined Sherrards from a leading City firm, to head up our corporate finance department, and Keith confirms,
“I had discussions with several firms, and one of my primary concerns was to join a firm which would be able to look after my existing clients. Having experienced the benefits of being part of a global alliance of law firms, the active involvement of Sherrards in the Alliott Group was a strong factor for me. I was particularly encouraged by the involvement of both accountancy and law firms in the Alliott Group.”
Such an alliance does require investment and patience, but most firms would agree that there will be a correlation over time, between input and reward. Most alliances will organise international conferences, structured around technical sessions but with an emphasis on social and networking activities. It can be a chance to see the world and make some good friendships. However, days can be long and it is not always easy, with all the travel, including many weekends away from the family.
There is also a balancing-act to be achieved with managing one’s existing client portfolio. Clearly, with modern communications, keeping pace with the desk at home is much easier than it used to be, but it does mean working double days and making use of room service! But I believe it is worth it, because operating within an alliance is about relationship-building, and it is true that people would prefer to do business with people they know and trust. Alliances help to create the perfect platform for this.