Does my law firm need an Asian strategy?

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I go to a lot of meetings at which the state of the Asian* legal market is discussed during the course of a year. At a lot of these meetings, it is taken as a given that the relevant/respective law firm “needs” to either be in Asia, have an Asian strategy, or both. But, as is the case with a lot of prospect mining in this industry, short consideration seems to be given to the pitfalls of getting involved, and the most important strategic question of the lot:

Why?

as in:

Why do we (as a firm) even want to be involved in the cutthroat market of Asia?

is all but glossed over.

Keep in mind that most law firms won’t make money in their first few years of involvement in the region (and I should know, I have first-hand experience helping with the success of a start-up law firm that later became part of Clifford Chance). Indeed, some firms have been active in Asia for over a decade and still haven’t made any real money (and now exist on the principal that they have “a lot invested in the region”). And with a number of firms saying they want to grow revenue by 30 or so per cent year-on-year, if you do decide to get involved in the region then your firm’s commitment can easily and quickly translate into millions of dollars.

With all of this in mind then, it is important that your strategic reasons for being involved are more than simply a partner’s desire to live somewhere a little more exotic than cold, windy [insert name of city] or because you heard on your train ride to work this morning that XYZ company may give you a job in Rangoon at some unspecified time in the future.

More specific questions your firm needs to be asking include:

  • does the firm have short-term, medium-term and long-term strategic goals in place that will help measure whether your foray into the market has been a success?
  • has the firm identified which of your existing client base is active in the region?
  • do any of your firm’s clients have strategic growth plans for the Asian market?
  • are your firm’s potential clients in the region growth prospects, or are they mature players whose account you need to keep?
  • is your firm pursuing an aggressive acquisition policy or more conservative rear-guard protectionist policy?
  • how are looking to grow in Asia – lateral hires in the markets we want to be in (preferred method for South East Asia)? Or are we relocating partners from elsewhere into the jurisdiction (favoured method in Korea for example)?
  • what performance related metrics has the firm put in place to encourage its partners to be actively involved in the strategy (for example, is there cross-referral profit points?)?
  • what local issues will the firm need to include? – For example, how many law firms send lawyers to Asia without sending them on a cultural awareness or language program (in the same way as government departments do)? Why is that I wonder?
  • what are your competition currently doing/likely to do in the near future in the region? Importantly, do they have a chequebook that is likely to cause me considerable pain?

These are just some of the issues your firm should be thinking through if it wants to get involved in the potentially lucrative Asian market.

And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?

  • The Asia-Pacific legal services market had total revenues of $80.4bn in 2013
  • The Asia-Pacific legal services market enjoyed compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.9% between 2009 and 2013
  • The Asia-Pacific legal services market is forecast to enjoy an compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7% for the five-year period 2013 – 2018
  • The monetary value of the Asia-Pacific legal services market is forecast to be $112.9bn by the end of 2018

Unsurprisingly then, you won’t be alone. There were approximately half a million active lawyers in the Asia-Pacific legal services market 2013.

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* It is critical, when looking at your “Asian” strategy, that you think of the whole of Asia – Indonesia; Korea; Myanmar; Malaysia; Philippines; Singapore; Thailand; Taiwan; Vietnam; as well as China. In other words, Asia is more than just China. If China is your market strategy, that’s fine but don’t call it an “Asian” strategy, call it a “China” strategy. Likewise, if ASEAN is your target market, call it an ASEAN strategy, not Asian.

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