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Global Law Firm Integration – 6 Key Focus Areas

By Keith Warburton

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By Keith Warburton

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Over the past ten to fifteen years I’ve worked with a lot of major global law firms – helping them to build effective global networks across geographies, cultures, language and technology. In that period, I have noticed some key areas which, if not addressed, can have serious negative impacts on a global law firm’s ability to deliver on the promise of a seamless service across multiple jurisdictions.

I make lots of keynote speeches at law firm conferences (partner retreats, practice areas training weekends etc.) at which I often speak about the impact international cultural differences can have on a global law firm and just before I speak I am introduced by the Managing Partner or Practice Head of that particular firm and they always talk about the cross-border cohesiveness of that firm. They always say, ‘What makes this law firm unique is A, B, C and D.’ And every firm I work with says more or less the same thing! It is really easy to write on a website that you offer your clients a seamless service across the jurisdictions, but I think everybody knows that dream of a seamless service is much more difficult to achieve in reality than it is to write on a website.

So, what areas does a global law firm need to focus on if they are to gain maximum traction from their global networks? Here are 6 key topics that come up time after time when I’m working on cross-border effectiveness with a variety of firms:

1) Knowledge Transfer

Lawyers always complain that they simply don’t have enough knowledge about the firm’s global capabilities. This may seem almost unbelievable after so many years of law firm global expansion but almost all the partners and associates I work with tell me that they find it really difficult to find the right lawyer with requisite experience in an overseas office. The technology available to them simply doesn’t have the search functionality they need to help them pinpoint a particular lawyer in one of their offices in another jurisdiction – and even if the search functionality is available the data simply hasn’t been uploaded onto the system.

Bios on lawyers in other offices tend to be static, bland and impersonal. How can I tell if that lawyer has the knowledge, experience, and charisma to service my client to the level I expect? Will I reduce my exposure if I don’t refer work to another jurisdiction within the firm network on the assumption that if anything goes wrong it won’t be my fault?

I would say that the two of the biggest barriers to successful cross-border cross-selling are lack of knowledge and lack of trust. Let’s face it, all major global law firms wrestle with the challenges of cross-selling (both cross-practice and cross-border) and these can only be addressed through working assiduously on a targeted, long-term strategy aimed at developing trust across the firm and this has to be underpinned by effective knowledge dissemination.

2) Virtual Working Skills

Many of the difficulties associated with developing ever greater levels of cross-border integration within the law firm environment can be traced back to the fact that cross-border activities are by their very nature conducted in a virtual environment. Almost all the research you can read points to the fact that effective virtual working is much more challenging than working with local colleagues and yet hardly any law firms have addressed this as a learning and development priority – at least to my knowledge.

Keith Warburton

Keith Warburton, Global Business Culture CEO

When I work with law firms on the challenges of integration almost all the partners and associates, I deal with raise a host of difficulties which they feel block greater levels of cross-border co-operation. These challenges are wide-ranging but include such issues as:

  • Inability to get visibility of resource pressures in other offices
  • The difficulty of forming deep relationships at a distance
  • Lack of trust resulting from having shallow relationships
  • Lack of spontaneity
  • The need for much greater levels of planning
  • The danger of things falling through cracks

All these issues are real and can result in cross-border inefficiencies and poor take-up of cross-border opportunities – but all of these can be addressed through training and better project management capabilities. Other industries have recognised that effective cross-border working is imperative and equip their employees to rise to the challenge. For some reason the legal sector seems loath to take this issue seriously – it simply isn’t seen as ‘core’ but is very definitely is.

3) Global Cultural Fluency

If you want people to be able to work seamlessly across the boundaries of culture, language, geography, and technology, global cultural fluency becomes a ‘need to have’ and not a ‘nice to have’. But what does cultural fluency actually mean in a law firm context and how is it developed?

It seems an obvious observation but, if people are working with colleagues, clients or other stakeholders in another jurisdiction it seems likely that overseas contacts will have differing priorities, ways of working and expectations than contacts in one’s own jurisdiction. Cultural fluency is therefore about finding out what those differences might be, how they will impact on any interactions you might have and what approaches might need to be taken to ensure that cultural dissonances do not cause disruption.

The starting point is for people to accept that global cultural differences can have a significant impact across a wide range of business activities but then people need to develop knowledge. People need the detail around what the key cultural differences might be and then work out how to overcome any potential problems.

Cultural knowledge can be gained in a number of ways. The most common method of learning seems to be through experience. Experience can be the best teacher,
but it is often the most expensive one. If your learning results in mistakes and a dissatisfied client, then the cost is very high. We have found that the best ways to gain cultural knowledge are:

  • By speaking with lawyers in your international network (or best friend firms) who are experts in the way things work in their own jurisdiction. In our experience, lawyers massively underutilise the enormous knowledge bank they have within their own firm and extended network. If you want to know how to successfully interact with a Korean client, ask a successful Korean lawyer.
  • Through targeted, high-quality training interventions. We run hundreds of cultural awareness training programmes for lawyers which are aimed at developing greater levels of cultural fluency and knowledge and we find that the lawyers we work with immediately see the benefit of working on their levels of cultural fluency – they understand that more effective cross-border working leads to happier clients and greater internal efficiencies.

4) Project Management Skill

If you are running a complex multi-jurisdictional matter you are basically managing an international project with a legal slant. Any complex project requires good project management skills and technology to support it and this is even truer if the matter has an international dimension. Project management is not really something that should be learned by osmosis – it is a discipline in itself and good project managers are worth their weight in gold.

Most law firms are competing in a legal landscape where fixed and capped fee deals are the norm. In a fixed or capped fee environment, internal efficiencies become the key to matter profitability. If your work is inefficiently managed, it seems inevitable that matter profitability will be reduced and conversely that good matter management will increase profit levels.

Historically law firms have been slow to invest in developing project management skills within their lawyer base and conservative in their moves towards employing full-time, dedicated project managers. Admittedly, firms are slowly improving in this area, but these trends need to accelerate. All firms need project managers and all lawyers need project management skills.

5) Technology

The answer to many of the challenges of law firm integration can be found with the effective deployment of relevant technology. Lawyers always complain that they just cannot find out the relevant internal firm information they need when they need it. Law firm tech systems have tended to grow piecemeal with new technologies being deployed to answer specific problems but without too much thought being given to a larger holistic picture. In addition, firms often lack consistency in systems across multiple jurisdictions meaning they are inherently disconnected. I think that most law firms would not start from where they currently are if they were trying to develop systems to overcome the challenges of fragmentation and knowledge sharing.

The problem is that not many of the technologies thus far deployed are specifically designed to enhance cross-border, cross-practice, cross-sector collaboration and integration. Most current tools solve a specific problem, but the problems of integration are multi-layered and multi-faceted.

Firms are crying out for the implementation of good internal community-building social platforms which can help people easily share information and build relationships. These technologies exist (Carii is a great example of a social collaboration tool which could bring enormous benefits to law firms) but there seems to be an unwillingness to explore these types of technologies.

I suppose there are two challenges in this area. The first is to get firms to invest in the systems in the first place and the second is to get lawyers to actively engage on the platforms. I really believe that the right community platform tool would see an active take-up – especially from the younger lawyers and partners who are already very fluent in the use of tools like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter etc.

6) Remuneration

When discussing the challenges of cross-jurisdictional, cross-selling the elephant in the room is usually remuneration and recognition for referrals. We start off talking about many of the issues I’ve outlined above but eventually, the conversation comes around to money. People tend to feel that cross-referrals are either inadequately rewarded or that the systems are so complicated that they are off-putting.

Each firm seems to have its own unique approach to remuneration in this area, but the outcome seems to be the same – dissatisfaction leading to lack of activity.

I ran a whole partnership development programme which looked at improving cross-selling but was told in advance that we were not allowed to discuss money in the sessions. Of course, as soon as we started everybody wanted to talk about financial recognition ‘pay me for it and I’ll be more inclined to do it.’

There isn’t one, easy solution to the problem but the answer isn’t to do nothing. This issue needs to be addressed, and it needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency as a precursor to improving cross-referral levels.

The challenges of effective global law firm integration are real, and they will become more pronounced as firms continue to expand internationally. One thing is certain – these challenges will not be resolved by ignoring them. Decide where you currently are on your march to full cross-border integration (and be honest about it), think about where you need to be and then make the decisions needed to take you on that journey.

Hopefully, the six focus areas I’ve outlined above are a good starting point for your global law firm.

If you’d like to discuss these issues in more depth please contact me.

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