The world is smaller than ever and many law firms continue to believe that in order to compete effectively they need to be global. Over the years many have gone down the merger route and while this strategy suits some, it can present difficulties in the long run – firm culture and identity being two big issues to overcome – and besides which, it doesn’t always achieve the desired goal of global dominance. So instead, why not set up your own new bespoke office under your existing brand?
From the perspective of a consultancy like SSQ, nothing excites us more than working with a client from day one to build a new office. It puts a real buzz not just into our own people but into the market as well. We have worked with many successful new jurisdiction and office launches – Goodwin Procter in Paris, London and Frankfurt, Cooley in London, Pinsent Masons in Germany, and Allen & Overy in Barcelona – and many get it right.
A major reason why some firms sometimes flounder is because they fail to prepare properly. A great amount of research and preparation is required; firms need a clear vision about the strategy and tactics behind a new office in a new location. ‘We usually research the new market with a law firm client for at least 12 months before they are ready with a launch strategy. We spend a great deal of time with them, helping us all to understand the objectives and where the firm wants to be in five years,’ explains Adam Brown, SSQ’s director in London.
Firms need to be serious in their belief that a merger is not the right choice and to think realistically about whether their goal is achievable in that specific market. But with the right preparation the world can be your oyster.
What specifics need to be considered?
- Be clear on sectors and products, both for launch and for future investment: A firm needs to assess the local market and see where there is space for it. This does not necessarily mean ‘is there a gap in the market?’, but a firm must identify a competitive advantage it can bring to play. ‘It’s important to look at who else is operating in the location and who else recently entered; assess what their critical mass is and what their strategy may be,’ advises Alejandro Kress, director of SSQ in Spain.This also needs to be weighed up against the firm’s overall capabilities and investment plans. Cooley launched in London with a litigation and corporate team before expanding into technology, health care, and tax. It has doubled in size in three years. Investment is crucial. Without it a new office can quickly struggle; it is vital that new partners believe the firm has bought into them.
- Know your market: Firms need to understand how the local market, and clients, operate; how do fee rates and remuneration work for example? Moreover, as SSQ’s director in Germany, Sona Walentin, points out, it is even more important to identify how this will sit against the firm’s existing modus operandi. ‘It’s vital to integrate the intricacies of a specific local market (like fee rates and remuneration) into a firm headquartered elsewhere. These can put pressure on everyone and, if not properly considered, can jeopardise success if the stretch is just too far for the firm to handle.’ It is imperative that both the HQ firm and the new office understand the differences and why they are needed. Get this right and people will support each other.
- What is the sell? Often, an incoming firm’s brand is not well known and the challenge is how to present the firm’s vision and potential to prospective lateral partners. There needs to be more to the sell than money – though this obviously helps – and the firm must articulate what differentiates its offering from established firms. It’s then crucial for promotion to be consistent. This is where a search consultancy becomes a vital partner. A search firm should cover the market fully and be able to disseminate and control the message. It can also advise on how the market operates. As Melanie Tremblay, SSQ’s director in Paris, explains: ‘You need someone who really knows the players;
who has great skills and credibility within that market.’Reaching critical mass
So, you’ve set your strategy, learned your market, and you’re ready to press the launch button. Surely there is an entire team out there, one which will bring with it a great book of business direct from a competitor, creating immediate critical mass and a well-gelled team capable of transacting work. While this can be a great ticket to success, in reality this kind of move is rare. Restrictive covenants and anti-poaching policies make launching with a pre-built team very difficult. A better strategy may be to identify a magnet partner and build the team around them. A longer process, yes, but ultimately it allows the firm to cherry pick talent from across the market and build the best possible team. Ambitious people are attracted to being part of a launch and once the correct leading partner has been secured, finding a team to work with them is often easier.
However, don’t forget, the key to success is welcoming the new office into the wider global business. Integration of the team should have begun during the recruitment process. By taking time to identify the right people, firms can be confident that the newcomers have bought into the firm’s culture. However, it’s important that the most senior members of the firm take time to be involved in the launch and buy into the concept and the people. ‘They need to be visible both during the recruitment process and after the launch so that their enthusiasm is clear,’ suggests Shawn Chen, SSQ’s director in China. ‘The wider firm has to trust the new leading partner; giving them a seat on the global board or executive committee goes a long way in cementing this.’
A new office launch might seem intimidating, but it can be extremely exciting. The market is full of success stories and the opportunities for firms to put their stamp on the increasingly global legal market place. And besides, new competition is always good – it keeps everyone on their toes.