Paul Rawlinson
Paul Rawlinson ()

With Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promises to “rip up” free trade agreements and nationalist movements gaining ground in other European countries, Baker & McKenzie’s new chairman is leading a firm known for cross-border dealmaking as protectionist rhetoric threatens to scuttle international cooperation and trade.

Baker & McKenzie’s 15th global chairman Paul Rawlinson has been on a tour of his firm’s North American offices in recent days. He’s been to Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas and on Friday he was in Chicago, where the firm got its start in 1949.

The London-based IP partner took the chairman reins on Oct. 24. On his U.S. tour he finds a country and world in a much different mood than at the end of World War II. That was the dawn of a new era in globalization, which Baker & McKenzie has both spurred and benefited from. It has 77 offices in 47 countries.

In an interview on Friday, he defended the benefits of free trade and said short-term fears could be a boon for his firm as clients look for answers in a turbulent environment.

“Change throws up opportunities. There are winners and losers in that change. But as a global law firm, you’re in even more demand,” Rawlinson said, later adding: “Protectionism is a theme that’s emerging. But for lawyers, that means rewriting the script.”

While that uncertainty may lead to inaction for some businesses, Rawlinson doesn’t plan to sit still. He said the firm has plans to add lawyers in its North American practices with a focus on transactional partners in New York.

Rawlinson won an internal election at the firm by promoting a strategy to globalize client relationships through an industry-specific view of the firm’s practices and to focus on innovation to react to the fast pace of change in the legal industry.

Rawlinson has a history in that area as one of the champions of the firm’s legal services center that opened last year in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The office has 170 employees who handle large volume e-discovery, document review, M&A due diligence and legal research at a lower price. The firm’s first back office service center was opened in Manila in 2000. “That interim model and deploying that on transactions and disputes has proved very successful,” Rawlinson said. “We’ve got expansion there in Belfast and it’s been well ahead of schedule in terms of demand for services from there.”

Mike Wagner, the new chair of the firm’s North American regional council, said those service centers are a large part of its strategy to respond to trends in the market detailed in an Altman Weil survey this month, that said law departments continue to cut their spending on outside counsel.

Clients increasingly demand that law firms take on pricing risk in their engagements, which Wagner said has elevated the role of Stuart Dodds, the firm’s pricing director, within the firm.

“Lawyers don’t accept pricing risk lightly, so we want to have someone like Stuart who has pricing modeling options and can walk into clients and negotiate with procurement professionals because he speaks their language,” Wagner said.

Externally, the firm and its clients will continue to wade through a political season that could threaten the decades of economic liberalism that Baker & McKenzie has played a role in developing. Rawlinson said “the fear” among the firm and its clients is that politicians will close borders “completely” to trade. But he said he doubts that outcome, calling such protectionism “rhetoric.” He said politicians are rather trying to rethink trade so that it protects their own countries’ interests.

“I think [free trade] does. I’m a liberal, free-trade kind of guy. That’s my philosophy.”

Contact Roy Strom at rstrom@alm.com. On Twitter: @RoyWStrom