Asia-Pacific

Will a ‘One Asia’ strategy work for BLP?

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I spent just over a decade in Asia between the 1990s and mid-2000s. In all the time I spent there I never considered the Region as ‘One Market’ – but rather as a multitude of diverse and different markets.

By way of example, almost everything we did in Asia was “ex-Japan“. This wasn’t because we didn’t see Japan as part of “Asia” – as it very much is – but rather because the international legal market there (NB, the Japanese local legal market is a very different issue) has far more in common with the US market than the Asian. As a result, we lumped Japan in with the US when discussing strategy (and you’re free to question that thinking/strategy).

Likewise, any strategy discussions we had that involved Singapore almost always included India, the Middle East and the Philippines. Similarly, strategy discussions that involved Hong Kong included not only mainland China but also Indonesia.

Finally, SE Asia (Thailand – where I was located, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) was its own regional discussion.

All up then, when discussing “Asian” strategy we had four or five discussions – not one.

That said, I worked with (but not for) firms (notably Herbert Smith as it was then) who operated on a fly-in fly-out basis. In my day we called this the “hub and spoke” approach, where the expertise went to the client need and, I have to assume, strategic discussions were done on a Regional basis.

While not criticising firms who took this approach – some did very well out of it – I didn’t think it worked for the firms I worked with as we held the view that, probably more so than any other market in the world, Asia operates on a relationship basis. Our experience was that relationships trumped expertise, and in the very family operated business world of Asia at that time, cost.

So why the history lesson?

Last week, in the Asian Lawyer, I read Bob Charlton – Asia Managing Partner of Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP) – comment, following the firm’s Asian retreat, that:

“…in broad terms we agreed we must have a one Asia approach.”

Interesting, I wonder what BLP could mean by “a one Asia approach“?

Fortunately the article sets out exactly what that means:

“BLP’s “one Asia” strategy means the firm is doing away with the concept of geographic and practice area distinctions, focusing instead around sector groups. These groups include aviation, construction, oil and gas, private wealth and shipping.”

Now that really is interesting because, frankly, I’m not sure it is going to work.

A sector focus in Asia is a sensible move. A sector only approach to market in Asia is gutsy to say the least.

I say this for two reasons: (1) ‘relationships still trump in Asia’, and (2) Asia is not now, nor will it be for a very long time (if ever), one economic zone. That’s the case both for inbound and outbound work. And even if you don’t want to have people on the ground (which I would strongly recommend you do), you need to consider the geo-political economic implications separately.

And I’ve said all of this without mentioning the elephant in the room: “AdventBalance”. I wonder if they take a sector approach to their strategic thinking in Asia…

RWS_01

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“We’re serious about this,” says the head of EY’s Australian legal services

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“We’re serious about this,” EY’s head of legal services Howard Adams said

Finally, despite all protests to the contrary, the head of one of the country’s leading accounting firms has come out and said what we all know to be true – the Big 4 want in on law firm turf!

And if you doubted this, you need look no further than yesterday’s article in the Australian Financial Review (‘Big four accounting firms push into legal services‘) from which the quote that opens this post is taken and which also included the following gems:

  • “In Asia Pacific, EY has hired 206 lawyers since January last year. Sixteen of them are based in Australia, focused purely on transaction, corporate commercial and employment law.”
  • “PwC legal services – which just recruited K&L Gates’ national head of antitrust, competition and trade regulation, Murray Deakin – has about 340 lawyers throughout Asia Pacific. About 120 of these are based in Australia, of which approximately a quarter are dedicated solely to legal work.”
  • “In the last six weeks alone, PwC has hired 13 qualified lawyers to its Australian practice.”
  • “EY recently admitted a Hong Kong law practice to the EY network and expects to be open for business in HK by the end of August, after which it will target Indonesia and Malaysia. Its ultimate goal is a pan-Asia boutique law practice with hubs in every commercial centre across Asia.”
  • “KPMG Legal has an ambitious target of doubling revenue in fiscal 2016 under the leadership of David Morris, who previously co-led the Asia-Pacific corporate practice of global firm DLA Piper.”

So we now know that not only do the Big 4 want in, they also want to be Top 10 legal providers in Asia [any doubt about that? PwC is quoted as saying they are looking for revenues north of A$75 million a year by 2019].

Thanks to this same article, we also get insight into how they [Big 4] hope to achieve their lofty aims, with Howard Adams being quoted as saying:

“We’re going to market with our advisory team in health care, government, financial services, procurement and supply chain. It’s a new, more hands-on approach, to providing legal services,”

Should law firms be concerned?

Well, not according to quotes attributed to Baker & McKenzie’s national managing partner Chris Freeland. Nor Ashurst vice chairman Mary Padbury.

My own take?

If you are the Managing Partner of law firm with a pan-Asia practice, then you need to be keeping a very close eye on who your fellow partners are talking to. After all, where do you think these accountancy firms are getting their staff from?

In KPMG Australia’s case, alumni.

“You actually need to be in Asia to understand Asia.”

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“You actually need to be in Asia to understand Asia. You cannot look at it from a distance, or certainly run a business in Asia from a distance. So, unless you are actually in Asia and focused on Asia and the different markets in Asia, it’s very difficult to understand the different markets, their stages of development, and how you need to run your business in those markets. And certainly you can’t do that from London or New York. That’s a fundamental point.” – Stuart Fuller, King & Wood Mallesons

The above quote, which I couldn’t have put better myself, is from an interesting interview between columnist David Parnell and Stuart Fuller, Global Managing Partner of King & Wood Mallesons (‘Stuart Fuller Of King & Wood Mallesons, On Vereins and Succeeding in China’s Legal Market‘) posted to the Forbes website on 20 July 2015.

A lot can be said about the ‘Mallesons’ strategic approach to Asia (or, probably more to the point, the lack of it) in its days as ‘Mallesons Stephen Jaques’ – when the firm was rumoured to be heavily courted by the likes of Clifford Chance and Linklaters in the UK – but since the tie-up with King & Wood (and the subsequent merger with SJ Berwin), the firm that is KWM, as it is now affectionately known, has certainly turned a corner, got its strategy ducks lined up and come a long way.

To my mind evidence of this is clear in the following two paragraphs by Fuller:

“Secondly, it’s a business model issue. If you come into Asia and run a Western business model, then you are likely to lose money. That’s quite difficult for many of the international firms because they have such powerful and strong business models in their home markets, and they export them to the rest of the world.

Thirdly, some markets are more developed than others, so if you come into Asia and think that because the law firms are younger, that they are less developed, or frankly, in some ways less professional, then you’ll be surprised. There are firms here — us for instance — who have 1200 lawyers and 2000 people across 12 cities in China alone. We have an impressive international business in China operating at an international standard. There are a number of firms across the market like us, and I think that is a surprise to Westerners.”

Absolutely spot on!

Indeed, probably the only thing missing from Fuller is the strength that relationships play in the overall marketplace throughout Asia – both at government level and in many of the region’s family run businesses.

Then again, possibly that’s what Fuller is eluding to when he says:

“And for Western business coming into Asia, the big thing you need to know is how to get things done. The system is different. It’s the lore as much as the law.”

In any event, it is clear that KWM has moved forward a long way since 2012, and I’m not sure the rest of the pack are giving this firm the appropriate credit they deserve.

“Berlin is closer to Beijing than Brisbane is”

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“Berlin is closer to Beijing than Brisbane is. And it will always be so.”

– Andrea Myles, CEO China Australia Millennial Project (CHAMP)

I recently had the great fortune and pleasure to attend the opening ceremony of the inaugural CHAMP. Unlike many other events I attend, this one was driven by a group of young adults looking for ways to improve cooperation between China and Australia, principally from what I can tell in the areas of research and development (R&D).

Leaving aside the fascinating work being done under the CHAMP banner, two comments that Andrea Myles, CEO of CHAMP, said in her opening remarks really resonated with me.

The first was the opening quote to this post: “Berlin is closer to Beijing then Brisbane is.”

The second was this:

“China is Australia’s largest trading partner, but also the largest trading partner of 124 other nations.”

Yep, 124 other nations can claim that China is their largest trading partner.

So if Australia isn’t geographically closer to “Asia” than Europe is (and flying time from the UK to Thailand is roughly the same as Sydney to Bangkok), and if economically (from both a trade and investment perspective) Australia isn’t streets ahead of the rest of the world in the eyes of those conducting business in Asia, why in the world would so many law firms be “Driven here by the lure of Asia” – as the Australian reported last Friday (3 July) [“International legal firms see Australia as a hub for Asia” NB: subscription may be required to read this]?

Personally I’m not 100 per cent sure I understand the need for global firms to be in Australia if the only reason they are doing this is to create a hub for entry into the Asian market more broadly. I rather suspect better cases to that type of strategy could be made for Singapore (which historically it has been) and even Hong Kong.

Nonetheless, Patrick Sherrington, Hogan Lovells’ regional managing partner for Asia and the Middle East and author of the said article in last Friday’s Australian sets out his case for why he thinks this might be so.

These include:

“The Australian legal services market is characterised by its ­concentration, innovation and sophistication. Although globally the sector is generally characterised by low concentration, the market shares of the major players in ­Australia have been and remain particularly high, especially compared with the US, where no law firm accounts for more than 1 per cent of the industry.

This concentration yielded high levels of competition between those leading firms, which spurred innovation and sophistication throughout the market.”

Sorry, but having worked in the English, Asian and Australian legal markets during the course of my working life I can categorically say that the Australian legal market is no more innovative nor sophisticated than any other. While this might have been the case in the 1990s, I would venture that the US market is probably more innovative than the Australian market is at the moment and the stuff that the likes of A&O, Lawyers on Demand, Eversheds, and Riverview Law – to name but a few – are doing in the UK is streets ahead of where the Australian market currently is.

Sherrington then goes on to write:

“More critically, it [the GFC – my comment] affected the faith many leading national firms had in their business models. The hitherto boundless belief in the limitless growth of legal services in a country accounting for nearly 40 per cent of the Asia-Pacific legal services market was lost to the ­existential and strategic dilemma of how and where Australian law firms should operate in an increasingly global market.

Suddenly, market entry became a practical proposition for the major international firms. Since then we have seen the large national firms scramble for Asian and global exposure through ­alliances and combinations of varying intimacy.”

I’m of the view that flat, depressed markets in the UK and Europe more widely made the bigger English firms look up and think of other markets where they could still get growth. The mining boom that was going on in Australia at the time, plus historic highs of almost parity in exchange rates between the Australian and US dollars, meant that the Australian market looked very attractive at the time.

Ironically, a shift in the sands have now made these much less favourable reasons to be in Australia (the Australian dollar has fallen off to somewhere in the region of 75 cents now) and one has to wonder if the internationals would still be clambering to get here if the current market existed then.

Sherrington also notes that:

“We [Hogan Lovells] concluded that not having a focused high-end legal practice in Australia would be strategically detrimental to the ambitions of our long established practice in Asia and would have an impact on our ability to service global clients.

Australia is uniquely positioned to assist international law firms achieve growth in Asia. With the third largest pool of investment funds under management in the world, the largest stockmarket in Asia (ex-Japan) and the fourth largest economy in Asia, as well as being the single largest beneficiary of Chinese foreign direct investment since 2005, Australia is an ­integral part of the Asia region and also a global player.”

I think there is a lot to be said for the second part of this quote. Much less so for the first part. Having an Australian practice is one thing; having an Australian presence as a hub to Asia is a completely different issue.

If you have an Australian practice for all the reasons Sherrington sets out in the second part of the quote above, and you have a core client-base operating in Australia, then I commend you and wish you well.

But if what you are saying is this [Australia] is your hub for Asia, then I ask: “where does your senior Asian management sit?” Because one firm aside, nearly all of the senior “Asian” management teams I’ve seen sit offshore (ie, outside Australia).

A final comment of Sherrington’s is that:

“While the manner and mode of market entry will continue to ­differ between international law firms, it is a trend that will not be reversed.

The regional and global economic case for an Australian presence is too strong. It remains to be seen whether the flood of international entrants will reduce the concentration of the Australian legal service market.”

Sherrington and I will have to disagree on this one. I think it is a trend that could very easily be reversed – and to some extent already is.

And we should always remember that law is a very fickly business – who knows what might happen if you had a downturn in the Chinese economy and a European nation that was refusing to pay its debts.

Oh wait…

A tale of two Asias

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Two separate comprehensive reports on the state of the legal market in Asia have recently been published. While both look to have been very thoroughly researched, that, and the shared (as in, this) week in which they were published, is, however, about all the two appear to have in common.

As to the two publications in question: one was published by the UK’s The Lawyer and the other by The Asian Lawyer – part of The American Lawyer stable. As such, the two publication represent a fairly comprehensive review of how international firms are fairing in the ever competitive Asian market.

The Lawyer

Turning first to the The Lawyer publication, the executive summary of which you can read here and the full report of which you can purchase here.

On reading this publication, “teething troubles aside“, you are left in little doubt that international law firms have positioned themselves well for the uptake in demand in the increasingly important Asia-Pacific legal market. Importantly, those who made the decision to invest in Asia a decade or more ago would appear to be seeing that investment finally paying dividends, with international firms in the region recording 5.7 per cent growth [in headcount] between 2013 and 2014.

In addition:

  • international law firms now make up 16 per cent of the Asia Top 50 (which is the same make up as two years ago).
  • five (six if you include KWM) of the Top 10 Asia firms hail from China – but number two in the list, Dacheng, has approved a merger with Dentons and so arguably is now an “international firm”.
  • no doubt because of the abundance of Swiss Verein these days, Australian law firm Minter Ellison sneaks into Top 10 Asia firms despite not being financially integrated but rather because the firm is integrated under “one brand”.
  • continued prosperity for internationals in the region is seen on the back of robust M&A activity and 5+ per cent growth predications by the IMF .

Overall though, content and opinion in this report can largely be summed by the comment that Freshfields Asia managing partner, Robert Ashworth, “is generally bullish about the region“.

The Asian Lawyer

Turning our attention now to The Asian Lawyer publication (and please do because the graph in this article is fantastic!) and we find we get a very different picture being painted of how the market is shaping up for US firms operating in Asia.

The context of this post, based on results of The NLJ 350 Annual Survey of the [US] Nation’s Largest Law Firms, can be summed up from its title: “Signs of Slower Growth for U.S. Firms in Asia“.

Although the post starts out saying: “Asia has been a powerful magnet for international firms over the past decade” – with the number of Am Law 200 attorneys having nearly tripled in that time, the latest year-on-year stats show a near flat-lining in these numbers.

It is also no secret that a number of US firms have been looking closely at their Asia strategy – the latest of which is Latham & Watkins, but even the US arm of DLA Piper has taken a financial interest in the Asia business in the hope of moving things along following some turmoil in the region.

It should not, therefore, be a surprise that this post finishes on the note: “Are more dramatic cuts to Am Law 200 lawyer counts in Asia coming? Stay tuned“.

So who is right?

I think you’ll agree that the two publications are very contrasting and paint different pictures of international law firms operating in the Asia legal market.

In a world of two Asias, a question arises: “Whose version is right?“.

My answer to that question is – probably both.

There is certainly some – finally some cry out! – positive signs for international firms operating on the ground in Asia (as opposed to those who may still operate a fly-in/fly-out operation). The market looks like it might start to deliver on some of the rich rewards it has promised for a long time. But to do this firms have to come to the realisation that they need to get over two crucial hurdles:

  1. they must have a strategy for the whole of Asia and not just China, and
  2. while staffing maybe cheaper in Asia, headcount doesn’t tell the story of financial size or profitability.

How well are we doing at exporting #Auslaw?

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Finally, some years after the Australian Government first announced and then consigned to the dustbin  its ‘Australia in the Asian Centurywhitepaper, a fair amount is being written around the issue of exporting Australian professional – read, ‘legal‘ – services, including:

While it is undoubtable that the export of Australian legal and professional services is a trending issue on an upward trajectory, it is still probably a little early to say (as the College of Law post does) that “Australia is now trending on a global scale” (vis-à-vis the export of our professional services) – although, to be fair, the export of Australian lawyers (to which the College of Law would have a particular interest), particularly to the UK and New York, has been ongoing since the early 1980s and continues to this day.

Moreover, given that the Australian International Disputes Centre (AIDC) was established way back in 2010 (with the assistance of the Australian Government and the Government of the State of New South Wales) and still lags behind both the Singapore International Arbitration Centre and the Hong Kong International Arbitration Centre, the export of #Auslaw has undoubtedly been a slow burn.

So while I for one applaud the latest chatter around an impetus to export #Auslaw, I hope that this time we are serious and take the time to have a robust conversation about whether or not we wish to seriously promote (and lobby) the export of #Auslaw overseas. And, assuming we decide we do wish to progress with the export of #Auslaw overseas, we put in place concrete national plans to move this initiative forward rather than taking the lacklustre state-based approach we have to date.

Your law firm’s brand recognition: How much does it really matter?

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Earlier today Dr George Beaton (@grbeaton_law), Partner in Beaton Capital and an associate professor at the University of Melbourne, posted the following question to Twitter:

“Which firm is the ‘world’s strongest’? Skadden or Baker & McKenzie or Jones Day. Confusing”

George I

With a twitter pic link to an article on the Global Legal Post website that contains links to the following “Related stories”:

George II

Leaving aside the issue of financial strength, as George’s tweet clearly infers brand strength, the question I always ask when I see news items and survey responses of this nature is this:

Does it really matter?

And the answer to that really depends on what my firm’s overall strategy is.

Taking a step back, whenever I’m asked in my role as a business development consultant by law firm partners of the importance of such survey findings I will often respond by asking them the following question in return:

Imagine we are on a long distance flight on an important business route – say Sydney to London or Tokyo to New York. Now, say I give out a questionnaire to all 300 plus passengers on that plane asking them the simple question of whether or not they have heard of your firm. Would you prefer:

A. a greater percentage of passengers in first class to have heard of you?

B. a greater percentage of passengers in business class to have heard of you? 0r

C. a greater percentage of passengers in economy class to have heard of you?

Now if your firm’s business plan is to be doing “premium work for premium clients”, then my guess is you’d want a greater percentage of first class passengers to have heard of you. Similarly, if your business plan is to be working with the top ASX 200 companies, then I would hazard a guess you would want to be known by both first class and business class passengers, with the edge being on the greater brand recognition among the business class passengers. Finally, if your firm’s business plan is to be a leading B2C law firm, that I’m guessing you wouldn’t mind if your brand is widely recognised by the economy class passengers.

A very simplistic way of looking at this issue? Very much so.

But, at the end of the day, despite headlines that read ‘Top legal brands grow 45pc faster than others over last four years‘, I’m very much of the view that surveys of this nature fail to ask a more critical question, namely:

Do you regularly, or have you ever, instructed one or more of these firms you have heard of in the last three years?

Because, does it really matter if you have heard of me but never given me any work (ie, fed me)?

And all of this is before we get into the even more interesting discussion of whether or not you instruct individual lawyers (lawyer name [brand] recognition) – either at my firm or elsewhere – regardless of which firm they work for (lateral hire movements)?

After all, we have a long flight ahead of us…