It is hard to think of Magic Circle and other law firms that dominate the sector without thinking of the word ‘international.’ With offices across the world, there is no better example of the globalisation of the legal field. Just last month, Dentons announced a major combination with Indian law firm Link Legal, the first combination of such a global firm with an Indian law firm, a move that will surely give Dentons a significant edge over the rest of their international competition.
The effect of globalisation on the legal industry has only continued to increase over the past decades with various technological advancements making it increasingly easier to converse with people across the world, the increasing interdependence of the global economy, and more. It goes without saying that law firms have to keep up with this development. Although cross-border flow drastically decreased in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit increased the challenge for UK lawyers to practise in European Union countries, current trends during post-pandemic recovery indicate a move towards an even more global approach to practise in the legal sector.
One motivator for international expansion is the emerging markets appearing across the globe, such as the group of countries recognized for their newly advanced economic development, referred to as BRICS(Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). If firms wish to tap into these potential streams of business, they need to have a presence in these areas. As legal copywriter and journalist Alex Heshmaty put it, “[w]hereas 30 years ago a New York office was often emblematic of success, these days an office in Shanghai or Beijing is more likely to symbolise the economic zeitgeist.”
Sometimes, the very nature of a firm’s practice area can require an overseas presence to keep up with the rest of the competition, as a multi-jurisdictional dimension to their practise is now practically a necessity. Firms operating in fields such as banking and investment, Mergers & Acquisitions, intellectual property, energy markets, and competition law strongly favour such an approach. Another rapidly growing field that requires an international approach is the technology sector. Internet-based companies such as social media platforms or online retailers usually enjoy a global customer base and to facilitate this base, these companies must be familiar with- or have access to someone familiar with- the various regulations and jurisdictions across the world that their users inhabit. This sector shows no sign of slowing in growth and in fact only continues to swiftly develop, so the legal sector will have to continue to develop accordingly to accommodate the tech sector’s international requirements.
The COVID-19 pandemic, while physically distancing everyone, did wonders for online communication and work as the world was forced to adapt to new circumstances to the point where the previous necessity for a firm to have a ‘physical’ overseas presence has been diminished. The normalisation and forced familiarisation with online modes of communication has revolutionised practically every field and sector there is, including the legal sector. Although certain firms like Freshfields, Allen & Overy, and Slaughter and May want to lower the amount of work done at home and bring people back into offices, others such as Linklaters and Clifford Chance continue with a 50/50 split between home and office. Embracing hybrid working environments not only affects a single office but is indicative of a much larger change overall in the expectations and previous limitations the field faced.
Having a physical office presence is just not as important anymore, not only locally but including in markets overseas. Many firms may be encouraged to downsize, and office growth is likely to slow down as well. Services such as cloud-based practice management suites and videoconferencing softwares make it easier than ever for teams based in countries across the world to work together remotely, and developments in this field are likely only to keep progressing positively. If they need, a firm can accordingly hire lawyers from relevant jurisdictions and parts of the globe to benefit from a certain expertise or skill and bring them onto a project without having to worry about geographical limitations.
This decrease in the necessity of physical presence does not mean that globalisation itself is negatively affected. On the contrary, these changes only mean that the legal field, as well as the world at large, is becoming more inter-connected as people from across the world can work together without needing the burdensome requirement of a fancy new overseas office.
As globalisation continues to rise, so does the demand for lawyers that can provide support concerning legal issues that take place on the international stage. By being, or having access to, knowledge and proficiency in various jurisdictions and countries, law firms give themselves an edge over the competition, something necessary in the fast-moving and ever-changing legal field, and even more so on the international level. As this phenomenon continues, how many branches a firm has and where they are located is not as important anymore because in our new globalised legal field, what sets an international law firm apart is not the number of offices it has but the ability to access a high-quality international network of experts spanning across the globe.
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Rayyan Asif is an Assistant Manager for the Queen Mary Pro Bono Society’s International Placements Department