Are you the law’s international man of mystery? The answer to the prayers of corporate counsel in global companies? Can you leap jurisdictions with a single bound? Effortlessly unravel the tangle of law, culture and procedure? Wrap your arms around a wriggling mass of seemingly conflicting regulations, and fearlessly work with them to make compliance a reality?
Well don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Conversations with in-house counsel about the difficulties supporting business overseas often have familiar themes (more on this later), but what’s becoming clear is that these challenges are becoming more acute.
Whether it’s the sheer volume of international business increases, the interest in emerging markets continuing to heighten as western markets stagnate or become saturated, or technology adoption increasing the ability to communicate effectively across the world, more and more in-house lawyers are being asked to operate in jurisdictions which are often way outside their comfort zones.
Bear in mind also, that many of the challenges described below might be experienced by those in a law firm that is supporting an inhouse client with an overseas project (and this applies even with a global firm working cross-office) almost to the same degree as an in-house lawyer.
The problems start with the ability to quickly identify what the relevant issues are. It may be that you have an idea of what they are – the big headline-grabbers like anti-trust, employee issues and anti-corruption legislation are obvious examples. However, it may be that there are a bunch of the infamous “unknown unknowns” which might be substantive law, but they might also be difficulties around the legal process or simply understanding the legal system.
Some of them you might be able to get an overview from research or asking the right people, but others will require hands-on experience of the situation you are facing.
Which leads on to the next step in the journey – selecting and managing local counsel.
Given that the problems above (not knowing what the key issues might be) immediately cause difficulty in having productive, early-stage conversations with business colleagues, it’s not surprising that they can also make the relationship with local external counsel much more difficult to manage.
The first challenge is finding the right lawyers for the matter in hand. Existing contacts, referrals from trusted sources and directories (online, paper) are often the first port of call, but even then the answer might not be the right one.
When I was inhouse I had difficulties both with specific offices of global firms (delivering anything but a consistent global service) and local firms that were recommended at a firm level, but who had individuals that weren’t up to scratch.
The next step is of course instructing the local counsel, which is understandably more difficult than using external lawyers in your own jurisdiction. Lacking an understanding of the key issues means giving a tightly defined project scope is difficult, which has a knock-on impact on costs and timescales.
There may also be softer factors at play, ranging from the more obvious such as language and cultural barriers (“what do you mean he’s out for lunch and won’t be back for three hours, we close the deal this afternoon!”) to those that are more difficult to put your finger on such as differing views of risk and mismatched service expectations.
For multi-jurisdictional projects, this is the point at which project management skills come into play. Assuming those skills exist (which is not always the case), invariably the international element to a transaction adds a bigger administrative overhead to the project, and critically for the business, lengthens timescales.
Which leads nicely on to billing.
Managing billing on an international project, particularly one in multiple jurisdictions, is invariably a nightmare which would warrant its own post. I’ve found the best strategy is to close my eyes and wish really (really) hard that all the bills arrive in the right currency, on time and for the agreed (or a reasonable) amount. Admittedly it didn’t work that often.
So, there we are. A post full of problems this week. There are mitigating strategies at almost ever stage of course – getting contacts on the ground (folks in the business can be a mine of useful information) is a great start, as is developing your own network of trusted advisors in major jurisdictions. Getting a baseline understanding of different international cultures helps (have a look at Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business) as does up-front conversations about expectations on both sides of the table.
However, my point was really that as a profession, we need to crack this. To efficiently serve clients, whether internal or external, in a global business environment, we need to provide a seamless service. It’s difficult, but not insurmountable – don’t you think?
- A game of risk (business.financialpost.com)
- Are Law Firms Global In Name But Not By Nature? (mottersheadconsultingblog.wordpress.com)
- Inside Straight: Tasks Versus Projects (abovethelaw.com)
I am invariably these days drawn back to In Search of Excellence (ISOE) as my touchstone for the efficient and profitable running of a legal practice.
Your post touches on the MBWA issue that Tom Peters has made his own over the last 40 years. Most, if not all, of the problems you identify could be handled or addressed if your external advisers were closer to their clients.
Yes, this takes time but that is where the issue lies.
Lawyers are simply not prepared to put in the grunt work to get closer to their clients. Everything comes with a price tag attached and if they can’t see the ROI (in time terms) then they simply cannot be bothered.
I think it shall be my crusade to make sure that every partner up and down the land reads ISOE before they speak to another client.
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