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3 reasons why global law firms need to develop global cultural fluency

By PhilH

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By PhilH

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Over the past decade, I have worked with some o the world’s greatest international law firms and have been heavily involved in their globalisation processes.

This has been a fascinating journey and I’ve learnt an enormous amount along the way. Many of the firms have grown from local powerhouses to global super powers and their progress has been fast and furious. Looking at various Acritas surveys over the past few years, it shows how the legal landscape has changed dramatically with many of the historically stellar names falling away as newer upstarts begin to assert themselves.

One thing, however, that all the major international firms struggle with is trying to make the dream of ‘a seamless service across the jurisdictions’ become a reality. All the firms purport to deliver this seamless service and yet behind the scenes all the firms realise that this aspiration is easier to write in a brochure than it is to achieve in reality. Making global firms ‘work’ cross-jurisdictionally remains a challenge to even the most sophisticated outfit and close attention is required to prevent the undoubted benefits of a global footprint becoming a colossal millstone around the neck.

One of the key essentials for any global firm is to ensure that they work hard to develop a ‘global mindset’ across the entire fee earning base as well as within the support functions. Far too often partners and associates are parochially focused – they often don’t see beyond their practice area let alone across national borders. This is not just my opinion – it’s borne out by the facts. The level of cross-selling across jurisdictions is often very poor in major firms and this remains a real break on the growth and profit levels of those firms.

So from my perspective the 3 key reasons firm’s need to work increasingly hard to develop better levels of global awareness and cultural fluency amongst their employee base are:

Clients demand it from their trusted advisers

As well as working with global law firms, I work with in-house counsel teams and Global General Counsels are getting tired of firms telling them they work seamlessly across the jurisdictions and then not delivering on that promise. One GC from a global corporation recently told me he has moved away from using firms across multiple jurisdictions and gone back to a model of hand-picking firms in specific counties. ‘It’s much more work for us but I owe it to my company to get the best level of service I can. I’ve tried a number of global firms and none of them have delivered on their promise.’

The more offices a client works with, the stickier the client

All of the statistics show that the more international offices a client works with, the more likely they are to remain loyal over the long term – and the more offices a client works with the more profitable the client becomes. These facts are well-known and yet high volumes of cross-border, cross-selling remain a distant aspiration for many firms. I have often encountered levels of mistrust across offices which manifests itself as a suspicion over quality levels in other countries. However, this mistrust is often based on a lack of knowledge about ‘how things are done’ in that other jurisdiction and what ‘good’ might look like over there. Working with a large UK firm who merged with a large German firm I heard a lot of comments along the lines of ‘the way they do things over there – it’s all wrong’. What people really meant was that things were different over there and they simply didn’t like it.

If you don’t understand an overseas client’s expectations, you can’t deliver against them

Not all clients think the same way and not all clients have the same expectations from lawyers in terms of approach and service. If you are working into a global client base you need to develop high levels of knowledge of different cultural approaches to business around the world – and that is not about how to hand over a business card in Japan. You need to understand what psychology (the result of your own country cultural programming) you are taking into any client engagement, how that differs from the psychology of your overseas counterparty (the result of their country cultural programming) and what the impacts of those differences are for you and your client. Without this knowledge you are fighting with one hand behind your back.

In a modern, ultra-competitive, cut-throat global legal market place, developing high levels of global cultural fluency within a firm is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s a ‘need to have’. At Global Business Culture we have unparalleled experience of working on these issues with global law firms. If you would like to discuss how we can help your firm gain a competitive edge in this area please contact us.

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Global cultural fluency