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Building Global Legal Networks

By Keith Warburton

Read Time

By Keith Warburton

Read Time

Many of the global law firms we work with at Global Business Culture struggle with cross-border cross-selling. Their whole strategy is predicated on servicing large clients on a global basis, but the reality remains that most of their clients only use their services in one or two jurisdictions.

Why might this be the case? What is preventing better cross-fertilisation across jurisdictions? There is probably no single answer to these key questions, but we firmly believe that a serious lack of attention to strategic internal network-building across global law firms must be a major contributing factor. This is not to say that associates and partners don’t build internal networks because they obviously do. The problem seems to lie in the fact that these networks develop in an ad hoc fashion rather than being built as part of a strategic, long-term business development process.

We believe that if associates and partners were to be more thoughtful in the way they build alliances and partnerships within their firm (and with best friend firms), they could really start to tackle the issue of under-performing cross-selling.

So how is a functioning, work-delivering internal network best developed? As with most things, the answer is not complex – it just needs thought and careful planning. Here are five key areas we think lawyers should focus on:

Keith Warburton

Keith Warburton, Global Business Culture CEO

1. Define Your Strategy

The first thing that lawyers need to do is to ask themselves what they are looking to achieve. Most good lawyers that I know are incredibly time-poor. Their key focus is on delivering exceptional legal advice to clients on time and on budget – and so it should be. This means that they have limited time for business development, that any time they do spend on BD needs to be really targeted, and that activities need to be consistent over time. Basically, people need a plan! Some simple questions to ask when developing a plan would be:

  • How much time do I realistically have to spend on network development?
  • What results am I looking for from my network?
  • What can I give to my network in order to encourage people to reciprocate?
  • What networking tools do I have at my disposal?
  • Is my bio network-development friendly?
  • Why would somebody want to link with me?
  • What events am I able to attend that would help me to make meaningful connections?
  • What will my ongoing engagement strategy be once connections have been made?
  • How can I measure the success of my network-building activities?
  • How often should I review my plan?
  • Do I have a mentor who can guide me in the process?

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting point.

2. Which International Markets Are Key?

One of our major global law firm clients has offices in 47 countries; another operates in 52 countries. That is one hell of an international network and seemingly presents a major headache when formulating a strategic internal network development plan. It would be impossible to have meaningful, mutually advantageous relationships with lawyers in 47 different countries.

It is therefore critical to align your specific country-based network development with your overarching objectives. You should have a good feel for which countries are most likely to cross-refer the most amount of business into your territory. If you are a lawyer in Zambia it seems self-evident that China will be of importance whereas if you are in Poland, Germany might be much more important.

So, am I therefore saying that you should target those countries which are likely to deliver most work into your jurisdiction? Not necessarily. If a certain jurisdiction is of such critical importance to your country, you might find that other colleagues have already developed a monopoly on cross-referral work from that location – and you probably don’t want to go into competition with colleagues in your own office. Maybe you should be looking at jurisdictions of second or third level importance with the objective of becoming the ‘go-to’ lawyer for cross-referral work between those two countries. The Zambian lawyer should maybe target Brazil while the Polish lawyer might get better returns from building bridges with Saudi Arabia.

Whatever country-specific plan you develop, you need to have a plan and you need to be consistent with that plan over time. Networks rarely deliver overnight success – it’s a medium- to long-term play.

3. Practice Area and Sector Focus

Having determined which country/countries to focus your network development efforts on, the next thing is to be granular in the approach to which individuals within your internal network will be most helpful to know and inversely which individuals might benefit from your knowledge and insights.

The obvious starting points here are at a practice group level and then at a sector level.

The key thing regarding practice groups is to think beyond the confines of your own practice area. If you are in employment, not all referrals will come through international employment practice colleagues. Reach out to corporate, tax, restructuring lawyers as well. If you want to become the ‘go-to’ employment lawyer in your country in the eyes of people in your chosen international target territories, you need to spread your net as wide as you can.

What level of contact are you looking to cultivate? You probably should be connected to the head of practice in a target country, but are you realistically going to get much referral work from them (they will probably have their own legacy channels)? Again, think laterally. Look at different practice areas and lawyers at different levels. Today’s senior associate is tomorrow’s partner. Grow with people in other jurisdictions. If you pay attention to people at earlier stages in their career, they are likely to remember that in the long run and the rewards will come.

Having exhausted viable practice area connections, move on to sector contacts. All global law firms take a sector approach. (Ironically, all global law firms tell me that their sector approach is their USP.) Every lawyer who wants to progress should be an active member of at least one sector groups (but probably no more than two or three at an absolute push.) The great thing about sector groups is that they bring you into contact with internal contacts you might never normally come across. Do some research. Who are members of your sector group(s) in your target countries? Connect with them. Start an active dialogue. You have things in common and you should have insights you can share.

4. Cultivate Key Support Staff

Gone are the days when support staff were seen as an annoying but necessary expense. It is now widely accepted that support staff add enormous value to any firm and that they play a key role in the effective functioning of the firm.

Lawyers should cultivate meaningful relationships with BD and Pitch team members who often have a more holistic view of the market and potential client opportunities. If you can deliver helpful market-facing thought leadership to BD contacts in target countries, they will remember you and they will be ‘on your side’ for the long-term.

5. Ongoing Engagement

The purpose of bringing somebody into a network is not just to connect but to start to build a relationship over time. When I work with law firm partners on global law firm integration challenges, they always talk about the lack of meaningful relationships as a major barrier to cross-selling. They don’t want to refer client work to people they don’t know and therefore probably don’t trust.

The key to developing cross-border selling opportunities and cross-referral work is in building trust and respect over time – and unfortunately, this can take years in some cases and in some cultures.

Therefore, having contacted people initially, an ongoing engagement plan needs to be developed and deployed and this engagement plan needs to be long-term and consistent. Ask the following questions:

  • What ‘brand’ do I want to develop in terms of what my niche capabilities are?
  • How can I add value to my contacts over time?
  • What work might I be able to refer to my contacts? (You need to give to get.)
  • What type of thought leadership pieces can I develop?
  • Which events might I be able to attend which my key contacts will also attend?
  • Who else can I introduce to key contacts which will be helpful to them?
  • Can I deliver some meaningful training for an overseas office? (This can be done by videoconference if budgets are tight.)
  • What interesting sector-based information can I disseminate?


For all global law firms, building an effective internal network that delivers good-quality referral work should be one of the key objectives of partners and senior associates. It is good for clients, good for the firm and good for individual lawyers. As with all things that create great value, the process is not simple and demands planning, application and consistency over time. The rewards, however, will definitely justify the effort – I know this because I have worked with a lot of partners and associates who have used this approach to great effect.

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Building Internal Networks for Global Law Firms