Association of Southeast Asian Nations

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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The battle for Asia’s inbound investment

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I was interested to see that The Lawyer has an article today [27 July] by David Rennick, the head of Pinsent Masons’ relatively new Australian outlet, on the competition between English and Australian law firms for prize Chinese’s infrastructure investment work (‘Never mind the Ashes: England and Australia are battling for the Chinese investment prize‘).

When I first arrived in Asia back in the early 1990s, most of the conversations we had with governments and businesses around “investment” in the region nearly always took the path of inbound [into Asia] investment: in that investments largely moved in one direction, from West to East, and appropriately attractive and protective legislatively schemes around those investments were always being sought.

Possibly due to the GFC, although I would be more inclined to say as the likely result of a progression in time and a growth in Asian economies post the Asian Financial Crisis troubles, a shift has taken place: today when we are in conversations around “investment”, this conversation has taken on a new life and we are just as likely to be discussing outbound [from Asian] investments into the West or into other developing nations/areas (such as Africa) as we are about inbound [into Asia] foreign direct investment.

I love infographics and clear evidence (if it was ever needed) of the shift taking place in the conversation taking place here can clearly be seen in two amazing recently published infographics: one by the South China Morning Herald (‘Chinese outbound investment to rise to another record‘) and the New York Times (‘The World According to China‘).

And while both of these show a massive increase in outbound direct investment by China and Chinese companies (and people) over the past decade, decade and half, what they don’t necessarily show is the different reasons/discussions that are taking place for/around these investments.

To be clear, while Asian (including Chinese) companies and governments are investing overseas for a multitude of reasons, they largely centre around two principal reasons:

On the one hand, the governments – including State Owned Corporations – need better returns on their investments than they would otherwise be getting at home or else they need to diversify this investment. We typically see this type of investment with Singapore’s Temasek and GIC (Government of Singapore Investment Corporation). More recently we have seen foreign pension funds investing in Australian infrastructure in this way.

On the other hand, we see investments in western businesses by Asian companies and organisations looking to purchase technical knowhow in order to up-skill themselves. An example of this can be seen with today’s announcement that: “A major Chinese venture firm has launched a US$5 billion fund devoted to buying up Western technology, internet and biotech firms that are looking to enter the Chinese market.

And it is for this reason that unlike David Rennick I don’t believe English or Australian law firms should be strategically looking at the Chinese for inbound infrastructure investment work (with the caveat that this doesn’t include strategies around the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)), because I believe that type of inbound infrastructure investment work (once Australia can work out a suitably attractive investment vehicle for foreigners to invest in infrastructure) from Asia will more likely come from Korea, Japan and Singapore (under relevant FTA provisions with these countries).

For Chinese related inbound investment work, English and Australian law firms would do far better to be courting M&A and R&D work, and in this field they will find a much hungrier and more sophisticated competitor – the US law firm.

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…

Network ASEAN: Are you plugged in?

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I read with interest a commentary post yesterday (although the post itself was made on 7 February) by Reid Kirchenbauer (on the www.investasian.com website) that outlines some of the economic developments that had occurred in the forty years since The Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) and Australia had developed diplomatic relations – ‘Understanding Australia-ASEAN Trade’.

Some of the more notable aspects of Reid’s post include:

  • Southeast Asia (SEA) is currently Australia’s second largest trading partner after China
  • Bilateral trade between SEA and Australia was valued at US$67.9 billion in 2013

And yet, somewhat troubling, notwithstanding the multi-billion dollar level of trade between ASEAN and Australia, and even though a free trade agreement (FTA) exists between ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand (the AANZFTA signed in 2010), a 2013 survey by the Australian Trade Commission (ATC) found that the majority of companies in Australia were not aware of the ASEAN Economic Community.

I say “somewhat troubling”, but the reality is that the ATC 2013 survey mirrors a recent Acitas survey, whose major findings were that:

  • 45 per cent of multinationals require legal advice in South East Asia;
  • 34 per cent of Australian multinationals’ legal spend now goes outside their home jurisdiction; and
  • 60 per cent of Australian in-house counsel surveyed said they needed legal advice in South East Asia

but that these needs were largely going unmet – “Law firms are failing to support clients in South East Asia” an article by Felicity Nelson posted to the Lawyers Weekly website on the 19 December 2014.

If we leave aside for the moment the comprehensive recent report by  The Lawyer Magazine on Southeast Asia Legal Elite (the Executive Summary of which can be read here), it seems indisputable to me that ASEAN represents a massive opportunity for Australian law firms in 2015 and that, sadly, a large part of this opportunity is going to be unmet.

Turning back to Reid’s post though, what realistic opportunities exist for Australian law firms in all this?

Well,

  • no doubt assisted by the Thailand-Australia FTA (TAFTA), coming into effect in 2010, Thai foreign direct investment (FDI) into Australia has increased by over 20 times since 2007;
  • with the Australia-Malaysia FTA (MAFTA) coming into effect in 2013, Australia is ranked the third biggest investment destination for Malaysian investors and two-way investment between the nations has doubled since 2010 and now accounts for more than $20 billion; and
  • in addition to being the oldest FTA between an ASEAN nation and Australia (signed in 2003), according to the most recently published data Singapore is currently the largest foreign investor in Australian real estate, making up 28% of all foreign property investments in Australia.

and that’s just inbound work from ASEAN into Australia, let alone any of outbound work the 60 per cent of surveyed Australian in-house counsel said they needed help with in SEA.

All of which leads me to ask:

  • is your law firm plugged into a formal or informal network in ASEAN?
  • if so, do you know what level of inbound referral work you are getting from your ASEAN network partners?
  • and, do you know what level of outbound referral work you are sending out to the partners in your ASEAN network?

Indonesia – the next frontier?

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To those wondering what the next marketing and business development frontier in the Asia-Pacific will be for law firms now that China and India have started to go off the boil, I can say “the hunt is over” – Indonesia will be the ‘hot’ new buzzword of 2015.

An article published in Singapore’s Straits Times today [26 January 2015] – “Foreign law firms eye Indonesia market – Global players drawn in by opportunities as Jakarta pursues investment deals” by Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja in Jakarta, sets out a number of compelling reasons (as well as limitations) as to why more global law firms are looking to try an get active in this rapidly expanding and increasingly attractive market.

Of note:

  • Indonesia is South-East Asia’s largest economy
  • The country has an extremely ambitious 5-year infrastructure (roads and railways) development plan
  • The government of newly elected President Joko Widodo is looking to boost gross domestic product (GDP) growth by 7 per cent over the term of its government

Add to this list that Indonesia has one of the fastest growing middle classes in the world, and setting aside some of the practical limitations in place on foreigners practising in Indonesia, given the close proximity of Australia to Indonesia it is somewhat surprising that Australian firms don’t appear to be having the same tactical strategic business development approach to this market (as outlined in the article) that firms in places such as Malaysia do.

Of course, this very likely will change during the course of the year as ‘Indonesia‘ becomes the buzzword of 2015.

Ambitious or just blind hopeful? – Clifford Chance look to grow Asia revenue by £50 million

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On the train ride to work today I read a briefing update on the Australasian Lawyer website that the newly elected Managing Partner of Clifford Chance, Matthew Layton, had announced that the firm aims to raise revenue in Asia by 25 per cent.

Now the first thing I should say about this is that I haven’t been able to verify the source for this briefing update. The second thing I should say is that I know a number of key people – both on the management and fee earning sides – at Clifford Chance in Asia.

Putting that aside however, and on the back of the news that Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson is to effectively close its Hong Kong and Shanghai offices and pull out of Asia (there remains some debate whether the firm will retain a representative office in Hong Kong and there is also a suggestion that the firm will not relinquish its Shanghai licence), and bearing in mind that Clifford Chance LLP’s announced earnings for its Asia Pacific operations in 2014 were £195 million (significantly up from 2013 announced earnings of £179 million but only marginally up from announced 2012 earnings of £181 million), I’m left wondering:

where do Clifford Chance see themselves earning an additional circa £50 million in Asia in 2015-16?

Because, while I wish  Matthew Layton, Caroline Firstbrook, Bas Borris Visser and everyone else at Clifford Chance the very best of luck, I’m not sure that:

“embrac[ing] technology and flexible working and service models as key elements for [the] expansion”

will cut it. And I somehow think the management teams of a number of other firms in the region (including those at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson) would agree.