Do you think your law firm’s ready to open an office outside the United States?

Foreign law firm leaders handicapped the odds for U.S. law firms in their markets and shared their own unique strategies at the Law Firm Leaders Forum held last week at San Francisco’s Four Seasons Hotel.

If Spain is the next red dot on your map, you might want to reconsider. That’s because there are already 146,000 registered lawyers in that country, according to Jos� Mar�a Alonso, managing partner of Garrigues, Abogados y Asesores Tributarios, an international law firm based in Madrid.

“Spain is overlawyered � too many lawyers for a relatively small piece of cake,” said Alonso during a Friday panel discussion, “Law Practice Outside the United States: The View from Other Countries.”

Garrigues itself has 25 offices in Spain and Portugal as well as offices or alliances on every major continent in the world, with more than 1,500 professionals. Only a few U.S. firms currently have offices in Spain.

In contrast, the Japanese legal market has just over 20,000 registered lawyers, according to Akira Kosugi, managing partner at Nishimura & Partners, one of the largest law firms in Japan.

“Japan is the second-largest economy in the world, but we have a very small legal market,” said Kosugi. “That’s why it’s a safe place.”

Although there is currently more work than lawyers, Kosugi said that will change because of reforms that have made the hurdles to becoming a lawyer in that country substantially less strenuous. He said that will make lawyers more available for hire by foreign firms, but at the same time may drive down the profitability of the legal market there. A number of U.S firms have offices or alliances in Japan. San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster has one of the largest offices there, but it’s nowhere near the size of Nishimura, which will have close to 400 lawyers following a merger this summer.

Perhaps the most competitive foreign legal market is London, where there are more than 250 non-U.K. firms, according to Robert Sutton, managing partner at high-end London firm Macfarlanes.

“You want competition, come to London,” he said.

Still, lots of U.S. firms are flocking there. Heller Ehrman and Thelen Reid Brown Raysman & Steiner both recently opened offices there. That’s because London has been perceived as more business-friendly than the United States in recent years, Sutton said.

The one thing that foreigners will have to put up with there is the very aggressive, tabloid-style legal press, he said. And U.K. reporters aren’t entirely to blame.

“Our lawyers are as egocentric and prone to gossip as yours,” said Sutton.

Zusha Elinson


While most Silicon Valley attorneys are thinking about technology, Web 2.0 and the IPO market, Jeffrey Lawson has other things on his mind. About 100 days out of the year, the Silicon Valley Law Group partner is managing more than 150 military lawyers and paralegals in the Air National Guard’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

Lawson, 54, is a longtime member of the Air National Guard and was recently promoted to the rank of one-star brigadier general. In this role, Lawson oversees the legal operations of 40 Air National Guard wings.

With the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention the various hurricane, flood and earthquake rescue missions that the Air National Guard tackles stateside, Lawson has his hands full. But the longtime military man says he’s thrilled with the new position.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” he said.

Air Force and Air National Guard JAGs handle everything from wills for troops heading to the front lines to military civil and criminal trials to nation-building in developing countries, Lawson said.

“It was the Judge Advocate Generals who testified in Congress about how the law should apply to terrorists and enemy combatants,” he said. “We also have a large peacekeeping function where we go out and try to engage other nations � and imbue them with our philosophy of the armed forces being subservient to civilian authorities.”

Lawson enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1971, and after four years went to college on the G.I. Bill at San Jose State University. He got his J.D. from UCLA School of Law in 1981.

Always interested in military law, and hoping to give his family a chance to travel the world, Lawson re-enlisted. In 1986, he joined the Air National Guard. For his military work, he’s received the Meritorious Service Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal.

Lawson has not had to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq since the post-9/11 wars in those countries began.

At the Silicon Valley Law Group, which Lawson says has a large base of developer clients, he is an environmental law litigator.

“It’s like having two full-time jobs,” he said.

Although the Silicon Valley techies and military crowds don’t usually mix, Lawson says the cultural differences have never been a problem.

“Most civil attorneys know very few people who are in the military, so in my circle of associates, I’m really the only military person they know,” he said. “They’re very appreciative of what I do. My clients have been very gracious. And no judge has ever done anything but understand.”

Jessie Seyfer