South East Asia

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…

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Are international law firm offices worth the trouble?

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I’ve read four news items in the last 24 hours that, frankly, would make any law firm managing partner ponder on whether there was any value in opening an international office or two.

1.  PWC’s 2015 Annual law firms’ survey

The first item I read was PWC’s 2015 Annual law firms’ survey – specifically the ‘Global operating and financial performance‘ section, which included the following doom & gloom news:

  • The UK continues to subsidise international offices and exchange rates have further accentuated the imbalance this year. UK profit per all partners is ahead of international by 74.4% (2014: 65.8%) in the Top 10 and 88.5% (2014: 66.8%) in Top 11-50 firms. Fewer chargeable hours and consequently higher fee earner staff cost ratio in international offices is the key differentiator.

  • International chargeable hours for the 1-5 years pqe grade are significantly behind UK offices (between 3% and 33% across the bandings) with the exception of Top 10 firms in the USA (no difference) and Top 11-25 firms in the Middle East (1% in excess of UK performance).

  • Top 11-50 firms continue to expand internationally, with mixed results as the range in performance widens. Average global net profit margins now range from 23.0% to 44.0%.

There’s more, but I think you get the picture:- international law firm partners are effectively being subsidized by their UK partners.

2.   Merged Firms Contend With Weak Aussie Dollar

The second item was by The Asian Lawyer over on the americanlawyer.com who published an article yesterday on an issue that I’ve blogged on no less than four times since 2013 – ‘Merged Firms Contend With Weak Aussie Dollar‘.

The article mentions the entry into the Australian legal market of Herbert Smith (Freehills), Ashurst (Blake Dawson), K&L Gates (Middletons) and King & Wood (Mallesons) and contends that each largely saw the weakening of the Australian Dollar prior to merging and were still happy to proceed with the merger.

It’s definitely an interesting read, if not a little flawed. For a start, K&L Gates are on record as saying that the fall in the Australian currency has hurt them.

If you add to that the HSF tie-up was probably more a “Freehills” driven deal than “Herbert Smith”, and add that currency fluctuations would probably have been the last thing discussed in the Swiss Verein tie-up of KWM, then you’re only left with Ashurst – and rumblings in the UK industry press would seem to suggest that they are not overly happy with the results from their Australian operations at the moment.

All in all then, despite the upbeat message in the article, not a particularly good advertisement for international operations in my opinion.

3.  China set to invest £105 billion in UK over next 10 years

The third article I read was in the China Daily no less, which stated that ‘China set to invest £105 billion in UK over next 10 years‘.

This item, based on research done by think tank the Centre for Economic and Business Research and international law firm Pinsent Masons, is on the back of a trip to the UK by President Xi Jinping.

It nevertheless provides some insight into why Pinsent Masons felt the need to open an office in Australia, even after its merger talks with Australia firm Maddocks fell through. It also makes one think that there’s a world of opportunity out there if you have the right international strategy.

  4.  Cross-border M&A surges

The last was an item I read this morning over on the Australasian Lawyer website – ‘Cross-border M&A surges‘.

This article highlights the findings of a new study by international law firm Baker & McKenzie and again touches on a topic that I’ve blogged about in the past, namely that:

“Australia is a significant destination for inbound cross-border M&A and that’s a trend that has continued in recent years and in the past 12 months, there has been a number of significant cross border M&A transactions into Australia,” Baker & McKenzie Sydney partner David Holland told Australasian Lawyer.

While the last two items undoubtedly give you cause for why a law firm would have international operations, I’m nonetheless cautioned by another my recent posts: “A bridge too far” : When international law firm mergers turn sour, which also featured a certain K&L Gates.

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.

“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.

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.

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.