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Law firms are seeing more and more of their revenues generated from clients or projects outside the UK. The challenge for them is to ensure that partners and clients alike are supported overseas by law firms of the highest calibre. As a result, effective global networks such as Lawyers Associated Worldwide (LAW) have become important in meeting this challenge, ensuring that standards of advice and service are kept high.

Clients are now more active than ever in overseas jurisdictions: property clients venture into emerging markets; due diligence may be required in far-flung corners of the world; sales and manufacturing functions are being relocated; tax strategies involve several jurisdictions; cross-border insolvency and reconstruction is a growth area; and private clients may already hold or be seeking to acquire investments overseas.

This trend has, in my experience, accelerated markedly in the past few years and is no longer restricted to multinational corporates. Businesses of all sizes and private clients with funds to spare are driving the need for international legal support. Such clients often have a close relationship with their lawyers and are usually very loyal. Ensuring that the client’s overseas needs are dealt with is essential: even the best of client relationships may otherwise flounder. In winning new work firms must be able to explain how their overseas legal requirements will be serviced.

In most cases, branch offices are not the answer: they are, by definition, geographically limiting and notoriously expensive and heavy on management time and resources. The use of ‘directories’ and old contacts of the firm’s partners may work on an ad hoc basis but are often inconsistent in geographical coverage and, more importantly, quality of service.

Networks are now playing a leading role in enabling firms to service clients through tried and tested relationships built up over many years. Not all networks are the same: some are, in effect, global or regional law firms with extensive exchanges of financial and other information between member firms, unified IT systems and a ‘top down’ business model often resembling more of a franchise rather than a law firm network. This model is unlikely to be attractive for a firm which values its independence, does not wish to be absorbed into the ‘lead’ firm and wishes to stay actively involved with historical client relationships. Other networks may be focused on particular areas of law such as employment, insolvency or tax and be more loosely organised. Networks are also managed in a number of different ways – some might have a small central secretariat whereas larger networks can have a more substantially staffed central infrastructure. Subscriptions vary greatly and can either be a flat rate or calculated by reference to a particular jurisdiction of the member, by fee earner, partner numbers, the turnover of the firm or be related to referrals; the latter being notoriously difficult to implement.

The most important criteria are:

l the ability of the firm to maintain its independence having regard to professional ethics, quality assurance and client perception, including the freedom to instruct or not instruct another network firm;

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