Last week’s news that PwC has agreed to a strategic alliance with the U.S. immigration firm Fragomen provided perhaps the strongest signal to date of the scale of the Big Four’s ambitions in law.
But while the return of the accountants to the legal sector has prompted expectations of an encroachment on established law firm territory, the emergence of immigration at the forefront of this trend has come as more of a surprise.
However, as PwC global immigration head and legal markets leader Julia Onslow-Cole explains, the current geopolitical landscape means immigration has risen up on the agenda for corporate leaders and their in-house legal teams.
“Immigration has become ever-more complex and politicized—it’s a perfect storm; clients want to move people more swiftly across borders, but policies have become more restrictive,” Onslow-Cole said. Clients are facing increasing difficulties, and these issues go right up to board level.”
Fragomen chairman Austin Fragomen, who along with Onslow-Cole led the alliance discussions, also points at growing immigration concerns for clients amid the ongoing pushback against globalization. “We know there’s going to be a lot more enforcement and a lot more compliance issues,” he said. “That’s something we’ll be able to collectively address very effectively.”
The alliance, under which PwC and Fragomen will team up to work with multinational clients, is the second recent example of an immigration-focused tie-up between the Big Four and a law firm. A smaller-scale tie-up between Deloitte and Berry Appleman & Leiden took place earlier this year.
But Onslow-Cole said this deal offers more than just an opportunity to work together in one specific area.
“It’s not just about advising on immigration. It’s about how tax and immigration work together,” said Onslow-Cole, who has led PwC’s global immigration team for 11 years since joining from CMS Cameron McKenna in 2007. “There is much more sharing of information between authorities, and as such, tax and immigration need to be aligned. Together we have a wealth of global insight to give clients—immigration advice joined up with tax, Social Security, and global mobility consulting.”
PwC’s global immigration practice already covers more than 170 countries, but the deal will open doors in the U.S. market, where Fragomen has 16 offices in all of the major financial centers, including Washington, D.C., where Onslow-Cole says the U.S. firm’s government liaison team will offer “unparalleled insight” on the latest legislative developments.
Outside of the U.S., Fragomen, which generated firmwide revenue of $557 million in 2017, has offices in more than 25 countries, including 10 across Latin America. “We have the two premier organizations in the immigration space. They really complement each other, giving us collectively strong worldwide coverage,” Fragomen said.
Fragomen’s client base will also now be well positioned to benefit from PwC’s wider legal service offerings, including employment and corporate law. PwC has about 350 fee earners in the U.K., offering advice in areas such as cybersecurity, data protection, disputes, M&A, pensions, and technology.
The alliance also comes amid the rise of managed legal services offerings in recent years, with many firms now looking to build more rounded, day-to-day relationships with clients rather than just focusing on one narrow area of practice, something that is likely to lend itself to what a Big Four player such as PwC can offer in tandem with a specialist firm such as Fragomen.
“The role of a lawyer used to be about helping companies to execute individual cases, but companies are now looking for strategic advice. If they’re thinking about expansion, they want to know what the immigration ramifications of the decisions they are taking are because that affects the ability to put together the workforce they need to make their operations successful,” Fragomen said. ”Companies want a worldwide solution, and they want that to be uniform in nature. It has to be managed on a much wider level, and there’s a great premium on being able to provide multiple services.”
Attention will now inevitably turn to whether PwC and Deloitte’s Big Four rivals will follow suit with similar law firm alliances, and Fragomen predicts there will “definitely” be other deals. But for now, both parties are understandably enthusiastic about the immediate benefits of their agreement, which Fragomen describes as “a unique opportunity.”
“Between the two organizations, we have some of the thought leaders in this field. That’s one of the reasons we’re particularly excited to do this with PwC,” he said. “I’ve known Julia for a long time and have always admired her. We wouldn’t have got into any detailed discussions if we didn’t think we could work very effectively together and share common values. That’s one of the underpinnings of one of these arrangements working.”
“This is a real step forward for us,” Onslow-Cole added. “We’re tremendously excited.”
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