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Joining the dots

In a world where demand for legal services continues to grow and firms are under increasing pressure to meet client demand across borders and time zones, how are networks faring up? Tanya Drobnis and Cameron Purse take a look

Since the late 1980s, when globalisation became a force the legal profession needed to reckon with, law firm networks have become a vital tool for independent, local outfits seeking to provide a cross-border service to their clients without the expense of opening offices.

While many international firms have expanded rapidly in their bid for global dominance, including many top UK and US players, legal networks have continued to flourish.

Adam Cooke, CEO of Multilaw, says: “when most of the networks first started coming into existence around 1990 it was assumed that the global law firms would soon grow big enough to render the network model obsolete, but for various reasons this has not happened and legal networks are here to stay”.

If proof were needed of their ability to adapt, the Covid-19 pandemic has delivered it. As Lindsay Griffiths, executive director of the International Lawyers Network, which counts 91 member firms across 67 countries, explains: “Networks have always been able to remain nimble because of our model – so pivoting to a virtual environment during the pandemic wasn’t a big shift for us; many of us were doing it already”.

This sentiment is echoed by Glenn Cunningham, chairman of Interlaw, whose 88 member firms span 79 countries.

He confirms that “pre-pandemic, we were already operating in a world where clients were increasingly requiring borderless, tech-savvy and accessible legal services providers” and that therefore “many elite global networks had already become agile, digitally enabled organisations”. Scott Guan, president of 61-member firm World Law Group, also agrees that “networks have been well-adapted for the post-Covid world since long before the pandemic”.

In practice, for many networks, the fact face-to-face meetings weren’t possible and virtual communication was de rigueur during the pandemic meant Covid proved to be a boom time, with many seeing concerted growth over this period.

At Multilaw, for example, “the pandemic era resulted in a surge of new firms joining”, according to Cooke, taking the network to 90 member firms covering 100 countries.

According to Cunningham, there were already signs that networks were challenging the status quo of the ‘traditional’ law firm model” pre-pandemic, with the organisation’s GC survey revealing that in-house teams were more focused on the quality of service than the structure of provider.

The continued drive towards globalisation additionally means that even the biggest international law firms can’t have an office everywhere – an admission acknowledged by the fact that even one of the most aggressively expansionist firms in the world – Dentons – chose to create its own global referral network in late 2016 to enhance its coverage.

In Cunningham’s eyes the pandemic “has arguably accelerated this shift, as international businesses need instant access to trusted legal experts wherever they operate, [meaning] the traditional model of global legal services is somewhat behind the aspirations of clients”.

Tech developments
So far so good. But in today’s tech-driven world, how well do networks comprising dozens of different firms, all with different IT strategies, hold up when it comes to investing in infrastructure?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those within networks stress that technology has become a watchword for networks in this post-Covid era.

For many, including Griffiths at the International Lawyers Network, the pandemic provided “the ability to try a lot of things out, to see what worked and what didn’t, and then to use successes to move forward”.

World Law Group “got creative with virtual offerings during the pandemic to help lawyers maintain existing relationships and build new ones – and those offerings have continued post-Covid”.

Multilaw, meanwhile, had its first meeting in the Metaverse in October 2022, and Cooke is sure that it won’t be the last.

Cooke stresses that it is vital for networks to embrace even more innovative technologies, and is encouraging the development of “AI, blockchain and machine learning to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and provide better services to clients”.

Aiming high
But of course, the future isn’t just virtual. The pandemic also proved the ongoing value of in-person meetings and the idea of close relationships is central to the ongoing success of the networks.

As Griffiths succinctly puts this fundamental idea: “it all comes down to being able to serve the client at the highest level because the lawyers know, like and trust each other”.

But how is that trust build in a system of inter-connected but fundamentally independent service providers? How is the quality control that engenders trust in the network model maintained?

According to Cooke: “In the past, legal networks were often viewed as a loose collection of individual law firms, with little coordination or consistency in service delivery. And that view was largely correct! However, in recent years, legal networks like ours have become more sophisticated and client-focused”.

At Multilaw, for example, there is a “rigorous vetting process for new member firms” as well as an appraisal process for existing members which “sees each member firm assessed every three years to ensure they are still a good fit for the network”. Cooke maintains he is “as proud of the number of firms we have said goodbye to during my time as CEO as of the number of new ones we have admitted”.

Griffiths, meanwhile, describes the self-regulating nature of the model, pointing out that “the firms in a network all have to do good work for each other, because if they don’t, they won’t last in the network very long”. The incentive to perform at a consistently high level is, therefore, extremely strong. In Griffiths’ view: “Network members are always having to do their best work for each other, or they’re out”.

It is this pressure on each member firm to deliver to the same standards which those within networks argue sets them apart from the big global firms.

Local Roots
As Cunningham explains: “We firmly believe that corporate ‘flag planting’ – where major firms open an office in a jurisdiction and parachute in a few lawyers in the belief that they will win work by trading on their international reputation and track record – is no substitute for the in-depth market knowledge that only established independent firms can provide, particularly for global clients”.

Guan echoes this conviction, suggesting that clients “know that when they are being cared for by a network, they are working with firms with deep roots in the local business communities in which they operate and not just someone sitting in a satellite office of a megafirm”.

This ability to tap into all the currents and intricacies of local legal markets is an advantage that networks are quick to highlight.

Cunningham believes that “clients want to know they can trust their legal provider to deliver the best service and advice, both in terms of legal knowledge and through understanding the nuances of the local culture of a specific jurisdiction”.

According to Griffiths, this is becoming ever-more important in light of the today’s uncertain geopolitical environment. In relation to the ongoing global uncertainty, she maintains that legal networks are well-placed to cope with turmoil, as they “always have somebody somewhere, and, if they don’t have a member in a location who has that expertise, they know someone who does”.

As Cooke summarises: “Legal networks can help clients navigate this complex global legal landscape by providing access to local legal expertise and resources in different markets”.

Network members highlight that in the current market – where it’s increasingly important to maintain a local outlook while also becoming increasingly widely connected globally–law firm networks need to continue growing and developing.

As such, several leaders in the space have been ramping up their membership. Both International Lawyers Network and Multilaw have recently bolstered their presences in Africa, for example, through the addition of firms based in Cameroon and Ghana, respectively.

For those firms that are still considering joining whether or not to join a network, Guan suggests that “the network model is well suited to regional or mid-size firms that are looking for both a flexible schedule and the ability to work for global clients”.

Cooke also believes that new firms and boutiques can be strong candidates for networks, adding that by joining one, “these firms can leverage the brand recognition and reputation of the network to attract new clients and grow their business”.

Membership benefits
It’s a position that many member firms agree with. Michael Pattinson (Vice-Chair of Interlaw and a partner at Trowers & Hamlins) and Peter Dernbach (Asia Pacific Chair at Winkler Partners) have both recognised the business benefits since joining Interlaw in 2014 and 2017, respectively.

In the case of Trowers, even though the firm has its own international presences across the Middle East and Malaysia, Pattinson still values the additional reach offered by Interlaw, stressing that without it Trowers would “never be in a position to have an office in every jurisdiction”.

Pattinson also highlights the fact that “these days, it’s more about having agility, resilience, and the ability to work together” affirming that “cultures are different, and we should embrace that”.

Russell Brimelow, a partner at Lewis Silkin in London, which operates as part of the specialist 51-firm employment network Ius Laboris, has noticed that the cross-border and cross-firm collaboration across jurisdictions which has long been fostered by networks has been enhanced further by the pandemic, adding that “in terms of work output, it possibly makes things even easier, as people are always on, frankly”.

Dernbach also argues that “the pandemic accelerated a number of changes that were already taking place, and now a new generation of lawyers are coming through, with a new set of skills and expectations”.

This feeds into the continued sense that firms and networks must remain hungry and competitive. For Pattinson, “one of the challenges now is to move away as far as possible from being a purely reactive referral model, to becoming a proactive, dynamic organisation that looks to create opportunities”. Brimelow, likewise, urges the need to “be more entrepreneurial and do more to dominate the market”.

Having weathered the Covid-19 storm, and flourished in the subsequent period, it is clear that law firm networks are eager to embrace the new ways of working which now characterise the legal world. As Cunningham sees it: “The pandemic has undoubtedly resulted in lasting change in how the legal sector works. For networks that were already working collaboratively and successfully across digital channels, the shift has brought a fresh perspective to the benefits of the network model”. Guan puts the case for networks even more starkly, suggesting that: “Midsize and regional firms that aren’t already part of a network will need to consider this in their strategy in the very near future, because most clients nowadays have global needs. In order to compete with megafirms, networks will be an essential part of their survival”.