Each December, I look back on my consulting practice and try to make sense of the year. In 2012, management unease and indecision fueled by uncertainty reached an all-time high in companies and law firms. It inspired lots of benchmarking, as executives asked “what’s everyone else doing?” In-house counsel worldwide worried about not meeting demand, while outside lawyers lamented over supply. General counsel say everyone wants a lawyer on hand these days, but with territories and complexity growing as budgets shrink, something’s got to give. 

The effort to do more, better, is driving change. Wherever you go, senior corporate counsel are reengineering their law departments. Dust and debris swirls as we move through this perfect storm of globalization, regulatory risk, multipolar growth, and a turbulent, wounded economy. In the dust, the road ahead for international law firms looks pretty clear to me.

Since 2008, I’ve mostly consulted with in-house counsel in Global 1,000 companies. From my Brussels and New York offices (plus planes, trains, and Skype), I’m in constant contact with general counsel and their teams around the world. I still stay close to (and work with) global law firms, who made up the lion’s share of my practice from the mid-nineties until a few years ago. Reinforcing my views are the findings of a major study I ran this year for a law firm network (World Law Group), with senior in-house counsel of large multinationals from more than 30 countries responding. All this inspired me to prepare this 2013 “to-do” list.
The “do’s” are for firms with international offices, and firms with hopes of serving domestic clients internationally and foreign clients at home. I believe that if you make progress on these things, you will win more business and grow confidently into the future. If you don’t address these things, I’m afraid your firm may slide down the rankings as your profit margins shrink.  

1)  Inhabit your client’s world; they want you there. Your clients in corporations around the world are busy rethinking and reworking every aspect of making and delivering legal services. While they’ll proceed with or without you, they’d like to have their preferred firms at their side. Unfortunately many of you are simply not involved enough in their world. Their focus is not just the legal part—it’s how legal advice is sourced and delivered in the company. 

Make time to talk with clients and find out exactly what their in-house legal teams are up to. Schedule a meeting at their offices. Explain that you want to make sure your firm understands their priorities and goals as you support them in the coming year, and they’ll likely be happy to talk. After this conversation, figure out a few specific ways that your firm can help. Typically clients don’t know how you can help, so you must be proactive with specific ideas and recommendations.
For example, if their focus is to better manage resources to cover growing demand, you could help them better identify and prioritize risks. Your key practices working in the client’s industry could review their “risk list,” and suggest ones they see other clients facing that may not yet be on their radar. Or you may want to present to them a few ways that your firm has helped other clients that are also working to improve resource management.
General counsel of the world’s largest companies overwhelmingly agreed in the global study I mentioned that “closer integration with the business” is the key element to improving in-house counsels’ performance. Figure out how you can support your client’s objectives to integrate better with the business. For example, armed with an understanding of the client’s greatest risks, your firm could conduct basic benchmarking with other clients. Then the in-house lawyers can present this information to their business colleagues to show how others are addressing similar risks, and compare what and where are the biggest concerns.
2)  Build project management tools, including financial accounting ones. Your clients want more certainty. Clients still love what you do for them, but many want to manage smarter so they can use you less. To nourish the relationship, your numbers must show you can deliver on your promises. Most of your firm’s financial and account management exists to give you (and The American Lawyer and the banks), productivity and profitability info. What’s in it for the client? 

Your clients want to see how you will manage to deliver on budget and on time. You need a system that can help your lawyers and their clients track progress and resource use in relation to project scope and estimates. It must connect to financial accounting and billing. Without such a system, progress reporting will be time-consuming and cumbersome, your lawyers will have little credibility, and your firm will be at greater risk of getting the alternative fee estimate wrong.
Since today’s global clients value certainty often more than cost (especially in complex multijurisdictional work where fees are difficult to compare), your accounting systems must be able to supply that precision—or you have to improve them so that they can. Once you have the tools, lawyers must learn how to comfortably discuss and apply them to client situations. Remember: In uncertain times like these, only enemies serve up surprises. 

3)  Use knowledge management and IT across borders to reinforce client relationships. Trust is a relationship thing, and your clients long ago stopped thinking of relationships as one-to-one. In multipolar business, relationships between international law firms and corporate clients are inevitably multipersonal. Across the time zones, organizational structures, legal systems, and compliance frameworks, trust is a network constructed with information and project continuity that supports good personal relationships. 

Global corporate in-house teams are not great at knowledge management either—what we define as capturing, comparing, mining and distributing current and historic information, commercial documents, legislative developments and actions, and relevant expertise and experience. Many of your firms have made big advancements in KM and IT, but clients haven’t seen the benefit. Now it’s time to show how good KM enables you to provide information to cost-effectively support multinational client coordination. 
The question is: Does your firm’s infrastructure help your lawyers win and perform effectively across borders, making the world flatter so they can more easily bring the firm’s strengths to clients? If you’re not sure, another firm is likely doing it better. 

4)  Demonstrate international know-how. Your firm should provide specific and compelling proof of your knowledge of laws and regulations across the diverse places where your clients are selling, buying, sourcing, or investing.  It seems so basic, but global clients say their most pressing concern in high-growth markets is: understanding local and regional laws and regulations. Hello? Big Law, step up to the plate. 

Your lawyers must collaborate across practices and geography to help clients make decisions in situations involving several jurisdictions, or when different laws and regulatory frameworks collide. If you don’t have coverage where the issue is, prepare to credibly show your client how you will get the know-how (at least as well as your competitors who boast a wider network of offices). Clients don’t need the statutes—that part is easy. The devil is in the nuances that can help them make wise moves: the legal history, which laws are taken seriously, what has been enforced and how, and which problems most typically arise for organizations like theirs.
Elizabeth Chambers, chief marketing and business development officer of Freshfields, explains that “clients care particularly that we collaborate seamlessly across our own network, and also with the local firms we may have tapped for jurisdiction-specific advice. When a firm can present a well-synthesized, clear body of global advice that still reflects local nuance, the client is delighted. They prefer not to do this integration by themselves, especially in a crisis.” 

5)  Show off your multicultural strengths. Since many of your clients are worldly, they can quickly discern your lawyers’ and your firm’s ability (or failure) to get things done with a diverse cultural mix of stakeholders, executives, employees, and regulators (many of whom have not mastered your language). Clients active in multiple new markets recognize that service styles and practices vary across cultures. They also know that great short- and long-distance service can be as important as technical legal skill in giving valuable counsel.
Service attributes often tilt the scale among competing firms, and multicultural fluency is highly valued—especially when corporate leaders and customers come from all corners of the earth. International firms that win and keep multipolar clients are made up of lawyers that don’t all look and talk alike.

Make sure you effectively present your firm’s multicultural makeup. If you are weak in this area, address it. Do your Chicago lawyers know what a dishdasha is? (hint: an ankle-length, usually long-sleeved robe commonly worn by businessmen in the Persian Gulf). If your Russian client asks which of your Houston lawyers speak a second language, would the answer put you at a disadvantage?
6)  Figure out what you do that’s better or different and emphasize it. Big Law has aced the task of providing expert lawyers who speak brilliantly on their subject matter. It’s far harder, yet more important now, for lawyers to present the firm’s advantages in a way that resonates with the particular client. To do that, you need to understand better what your key clients worry most about, for the issue at hand. Is it meeting a deadline, managing a far-flung legal team, compliance monitoring, reducing costs, cross-border coordination, getting along with a prickly regulator? Only then can you present a differentiated offering that addresses the client’s specific needs.

It’s not realistic to expect the members of your marketing and business development team to come up with the better proposition alone, although they can certainly help. Often people from a combination of disciplines must team up to customize the approach for the client. For example, if your strength is coordinating a far-flung legal team, your solution will likely require support from HR, IT, and communications. If the client wants lower costs, you’ll involve finance and accounting, with project management and marketing support to organize and articulate it. Then it’s up to the lawyers to understand and effectively communicate the offering.
Baker & McKenzie, which ranks as the top global law firm brand in Acritas’s research, differentiates itself by “bringing the entire firm to every meeting.” (Acritas is the U.K.-based legal market research operation.) To do this, the firm assembles client service teams in direct response to client needs regardless of geography; partners managing client relationships monitor each office and lawyer serving the client and conduct posttransaction reviews; and lawyers are encouraged to understand the client’s global footprint and know their growth plans in every market.

7)  Make your global brand real by aligning it with how you serve clients. Given point Number 6, it frustrates me that many firm marketing efforts travel poorly to clients (and the firm’s own lawyers) around the world.  Global law firm branding tends to overemphasize visual identity and underemphasize how specific services and the firm’s resources are discussed with and delivered to clients. Many firms send promotional messages that don’t make sense across cultures and thus mean little to the clients you are trying to win. 

Unfortunately, lawyer behavior in offices internationally is often disconnected from the brand message, especially in firms that have recently merged. Too often, the meaning of the brand is not translated in a meaningful way on the ground. Local lawyers and staff thus see it as “material from headquarters.”  It gets worse when clients are handed a local brochure with completely different looks and promises. What impression is the client left with? 

Every support function, every practice, every industry group, every office in the firm must strive to translate your brand to what it means for their day-to-day actions, wherever in the world they are. How does the brand drive their approach? How is the brand demonstrated in the way they work with others, and how does the brand make them more effective for clients? 
That’s it: only seven “to do’s” to win global clients better than the other guy. This is a big undertaking, and no one said it would be easy. But when this extraordinary storm finally clears, the sun is going to shine bright for the international law firms that take steps necessary to thrive into the 2020s.  

E. Leigh Dance is president and founder of legal services management consultancy ELD International, based in New York and Brussels. She speaks three languages fluently, and for more than 20 years has worked with global corporate law departments and law firms. The study referred to is the World Law Group Global Agenda 2012: Issues & Priorities for Senior In-house Counsel Worldwide, conducted in conjunction with LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell and ELD International. Download the study report on home page of www.TheWorldLawGroup.com.