When we talk about the business of law around the world, we tend to focus on the giants. Next month The American Lawyer publishes our annual Global 100—the list of the top-grossing firms in the world. We recently announced the winners of our second annual Global Legal Awards, which highlight the best, and frequently the biggest, cross-border transactions and disputes. Capital knows no boundaries and law firms have organized themselves to facilitate its flow.
But big is only part of the global story. At last count, 112 of Am Law 200 firms have foreign offices, and 20 percent of the 200′s total head count work out of them. For all the talk about the global law firm, just 10 firms account for roughly two-thirds of the lawyers posted abroad. Eighty-eight of the Am Law 200 firms don’t have a single foreign office. Most don’t need one; there are opportunities closer to home to bleed money. But what they do need is a foreign policy.
Foreign investment continues to flow into the United States. According to the Organization for International Investment, overseas investors sent to the U.S. $168 billion in 2012, the latest available full-year statistics. Leaving aside the riches parked in Treasury bills, those cash bets often require lawyer-intensive work. Further, when Acritas, the legal market researcher, asked overseas general counsel in what foreign jurisdiction they anticipated needing legal help in 2014, 62 percent said the U.S. Now, even the global giants can’t handle all that work. Nor do they want it all; some just doesn’t suit their rate cards.
So we know the work is there. How do the firms that haven’t built a string of outposts around the world get their share? For an answer, I went to Nashville, famous as a center for the music and health care industries, sitting comfortably astride the Cumberland River, 700 miles from the nearest foreign border. Yet several of its major firms are trying to become magnets for foreign work.
Nashville is one of 20 outposts in the Southeast for Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berko­witz; it’s also home to John Scannapieco, a partner who coleads the firm’s global efforts. With 170 lawyers in Nashville, Bass, Berry & Sims has the largest office in the city. Details of their playbooks vary, but their general approaches offer a useful guide.
• Get organized. Baker surveyed its nearly 600 lawyers and found that about 100 had performed global work recently. With that number in hand, they organized a smaller group to focus on outreach. At Bass Berry, strategists studied what foreign work already came to their city and found that one-quarter of the expansions and relocations were from abroad. “We’ve been intentional in our efforts,” says Todd Rolapp, Bass Berry’s managing partner. “It’s important not to do this randomly.”
• Get out of town. Their lawyers travel abroad frequently, looking to build on or create relationships. Some trips are part of their memberships in global networks—Bass in Lex Mundi; Baker in Terralex. But part is greenfields exploration. “We’ve gone beyond the network to connect with other professionals who have local knowledge and contacts, who can serve as a force multiplier for us,” says Scannapieco. “You have to develop relationships and you have to be patient,” says Rolapp. “If you travel for two or three years and then get a large engagement, you can pay for several years of investment very quickly.” All told, the firm credits 9.8 percent of its revenue to international work, 60 percent to corporate and about 30 percent to litigation, including the much sought-after Foreign Corrupt Practices Act assignments.
• Talk to clients. Ask what clients need, and then try to provide it. Scannapieco likes to tell the story of a Chinese wire manufacturer he represents in the U.S. who had an export problem in Brazil. Once he heard about it, he put together a coalition of Brazilian lawyers who could handle both the trade and payment issues. Or, as he puts it: “When clients say I have a problem, now I can say we can help you with that—anywhere in the world.”
Local lawyers solving global problems: Sounds like a plan.