Building a better institution: Abreu Advogados

Throughout its 15 years of operation Abreu Advogados has continually made legal headlines. But the firm’s emphasis on scale, management processes and structure, are indicative of the future of legal practice in Portugal, believes its managing partner Miquel Teixeira de Abreu

Miquel Teixeira de Abreu is a man accustomed to challenges. Under his guidance the law firm he helped establish and now leads, Abreu Advogados, has grown from a handful of lawyers to feature among the largest law firms in Portugal. With over 130 lawyers, including 27 partners, and offices in Lisbon, Oporto, Madeira and Angola it is not however merely an impressive size but is also now aiming to establish itself as one of the leading players in the market.

En solo 15 años Abreu Advogados ha pasado de ser un despacho con 5 abogados a convertirse en una de las 5 firmas más grandes en Portugal. Sólo el año pasado dobló su tamaño hasta los 130 abogados, incluyendo 27 socios y se ha fusionado con 3 despachos distintos ubicados en Lisboa. A lo largo de su corta vida, Abreu Advogados ha conseguido marcar la diferencia. El énfasis del despacho en la gestión, los procesos y la estructura son indicativos del futuro de la práctica legal en Portugal, dice Miguel Teixeira de Abreu

Along the way the firm has doubtless had its ups and downs. Last year saw the departure of co-founding partner Pedro Cardigos, but also a unique three way merger significantly expanding the firm’s capabilities.

Critics may suggest that Miquel Teixeira de Abreu has sought growth at any cost, but his ambitions for the firm do not stop here. His aim, he says, is to make Abreu Advogados a reference firm within the Portuguese legal market. ‘Our goal is to be among the three leading law firms in Portugal. This is an easy statement to make but of course the challenge is in delivering.’

Integration

Abreu Advogados was founded in 1993 by 5 Lisbon lawyers including Miquel Teixeira de Abreu and Pedro Cardigos, as Abreu Belmar & Asociados. Regarded as mavericks at the time. Their aim was to build a full service firm, but lacking the political contacts of the longest-established firms – within some of which they had practised – they sought instead to focus on the needs of international clients.

In the past year alone the renamed Abreu Advogados has almost doubled in size – the result of an audacious triple merger, in which it absorbed mid-size firms PACSA, Lusojurist and Chastre & Associados.

In a market perhaps better known for the frequency of law firm disintegrations than successful integrations the move propelled Abreu Advogados once again into the legal headlines.

The driver behind the mergers, says Teixeira de Abreu, was to enhance the firm´s practice coverage but also its profile. ‘It was most essential that after the mergers Abreu Advogados was regarded as significantly more than the sum of its parts.’

His competitors in turn say he is clearly not afraid of a challenge. PACSA comprised a team of 18 lawyers, focused predominantly on corporate, dispute resolution, tax and employment issues; IP and IT focused Chastre & Associados counted 5 lawyers; while Lusojurist added a further 18 lawyers, and had a particular focus on litigation issues.

‘Some people may have thought that taking the conditions of the market this was a bold move, but our thinking was that if managed properly one merger is as difficult as three,’ says Teixeira de Abreu.

In order to co-ordinate the integration process it was important, he says, that each of the firms lawyers had the opportunity to get to know each other before the mergers, and be fully informed what to expect when operating within the enlarged firm.

Abreu Advogados is uniquely positioned in the Portuguese legal market as the only law firm certified under the ISO9001 criteria, ‘The organisation imposed by this’ he says, ‘made it possible to demonstrate to the new teams the firm’s management and work processes before they arrived.’

‘Integrating 41 new lawyers is no easy task but we have the systems in place to make it work. But once everybody arrived we made a point of splitting up all of the existing teams. We mixed everybody.’ In addition, a partner from each of PACSA and Lusojurist was appointed to the management board with specific firm-wide responsibilities.

Dynamism

What was important also was that the new lawyers helped to reinforce the idea of Abreu Advogados as an institution, and Teixeira de Abreu is keen to emphasise that the firm is not dominated by its founding fathers or led by any one group of individuals.

‘The PACSA team has added significant M&A and transactional capability, the Lusojurist team brought their own expertise but also sophisticated software to help us develop our mass litigation capabilities, while the team from Chastre has significantly enhanced our IP expertise – which has continued to show further dramatic growth.’

The arrival of the lawyers from Chastre doubtless also helped to cushion the loss of the firm’s highly rated lead IP partner César Bessa Monteiro to ABBC, suggest some. To which firm Pedro Cardigos also moved, prior to establishing his own firm Cardigos & Associados earlier this year.

For José Maria Corrña de Sampaio, founding partner of PACSA, it was the changing demands of the legal market that helped affirm the decision to integrate with Abreu Advogados.

‘It was clear that PACSA had to grow if we were to maintain the expectations of our clients, and I can honestly say that all of our expectations have been met. We have been able to build deeper and stronger relationships externally, while internally our lawyers were very well received very quickly.’

What continues to drive the firm forward, believes Teixeira de Abreu, is the unique character and dynamism of the partnership.

‘This firm is the product of the successful integration of teams of lawyers, but lawyers who have not merely jumped from a large firm. Each of the partners has helped establish their own firms prior to joining Abreu Advogados. This is an equal partnership, and all of us know how to build and grow a practice as well as the risks involved.’

Teixeira de Abreu emphasises that there are no internal markets within the firm. ‘Every partner here has an equal equity stake, and we use a mathematical model to assess remuneration. At the start of the year everybody already knows the criteria under which their remuneration will be calculated and what they are likely to take home.’ Such a system, he believes, leaves no room for misunderstandings and enables everybody to focus on developing the firm as a whole.

A notable coup for Abreu Advogados in early 2008 was the surprise recruitment of Paulo Teixeira Pinto, the former Chairman and CEO of Portugal’s largest private bank Millennium BCP, and who now oversees the development of the firm’s strategy, organisation and knowledge management systems.

‘We have an organisation and culture that works, and this is because we have a solid structure. People know each other and where to find the expertise and know-how they require,’ adds Teixeira de Abreu.

Quality

Some suggest however that the inclusiveness of Abreu Advogados growth strategy has meant that it has had to accept both the strong and the weak within its merger partner firms.

A competitor firm told Iberian Lawyer, off the record, that it chose a collegial approach rather than create friction by hand-picking key individuals, but that it may now face issues bringing all of the new intake up to a common standard.

Teixeira de Abreu is adamant that the strength of the firm’s work processes ensures that quality control is no more of an issue than at any other firm. ‘Fundamental to the choices we have made is that we didn’t lose any ground,’ he says.

He points to the success of Abreu Advogados as an employer as indicative of the firm’s cohesion and its investment already in promoting the professional development of its staff and lawyers. The firm was named Portugal’s Best Law Firm to work for in both 2007 and 2008, and this year was also named Portugal’s Best Company to work for by Exame and Heidrick & Struggles – in a competition that attracted 18,000 submissions from all business sectors.

Abreu Advogados administrative staff all receive ongoing training, through the firm’s Project Prime scheme. Similarly, the firm supports individual lawyers to undertake LLMs, and offering generous maternity leave allowances.

‘We place great emphasis on treating people equally, regardless of their grade, and what this ultimately means is that we have unity both in the quality of our services and of our mission,’ says Teixeira de Abreu.

The departure of Pedro Cardigos, suggest some, came as a result of a conflict of styles and the emphasis on a partnership of equals. ‘I honestly believe that evry one of our 27 partners has value to add to our projects. Someare at the peak of their careers today, some will be at the peak of their careers within 10 or 15 years. But they are all equally important when you vision a firm for the long-run,’ says Teixeira de Abreu.

He has taken the decision not to talk publicly about the departure of Cardigos. At the time, rumours circulating in Lisbon portrayed Cardigos as the stronger personality who Teixeira de Abreu balanced. ‘He was the Ying to Cardigos Yang,’ says one lawyer.

Closer to clients

The current difficulties being faced by the Portuguese economy mean that the firm is already well positioned to capitalise on the greater emphasis being placed by clients on the quality of the services they receive from their law firms, says Teixeira de Abreu.

‘There is of course a need for financial soundness, an emphasis on quality of performance and in our capacity to innovate. But the very best firms will never lack work and we believe that we are among the very best. No one knows where the market will take us but we expect to continue to grow. If a crisis does come we will have to face it, but I am confident in the quality and strength of this firm’s partnership and their ability to do so successfully.’

Abreu Advogados has faced difficult times before, he says, but is adamant that each time it has emerged stronger. ‘It is a question of leadership and of the partners taking the right decisions. You take the right decisions and the results will come naturally. But flexibility is also important. When your clients are in difficulties that is when they really need you.’

Teixeira de Abreu speaks eloquently about the increased need for law firms to partner with clients in uncertain times.

‘We need to offer the correct advice and expertise but we also have to emphasise that not everything we do is about fees. In the good times clients are content to pay premiums and bonuses, but when they are facing real difficulties you have to demonstrate that you share their concerns. This, I believe, adds real value.’

Besides closer client–lawyer contact, Abreu Advogados also offers clients the ability to ‘plug-in’ to the firm’s know how and extranet systems in order to have a ‘virtual’ lawyer sat beside them at all times, he says. ‘In difficult times it is the little things that count, and which will hopefully reward you when the good times return.’

Reactionary

In any event, Teixeira de Abreu is clear that it is not enough for Abreu Advogados to rest on its achievements to date, or to limit its operations solely to the domestic Portuguese legal market.

‘We want no less than to be a leader in the legal market. This is not a vague statement but our consensus. We are a partnership all of the same generation. None of us inherited a name or practice, we have each built them up from nothing.’

He acknowledges the strength of the competition, both the major domestic law firms and the Spanish firms in Portugal, but nonetheless reiterates the distance that Abreu Advogados has already come in its 15 years of operation. He does also not rule out opening elsewhere across Portugal.

‘We already have a tremendous national spread, and are in three of the major Portuguese commercial centres, but we are looking at others. Even in the current climate we have to demonstrate that we can continue to grow, both in size and credibility.’

The firm has recently announced the addition of 2 new partners, Miguel Mendes Pereira, the former senior legal advisor of the Portuguese Competition Authority and Paulo Tarso, a corporate law professor with a niche 5 lawyer practice in Oporto But the extent of the firm’s ambition also means that it is assessing its international options.

‘There would arguably be no advantage to our clients should we open in Spain, or perhaps even in São Paulo, which are both very sophisticated legal markets and where we must be realistic about the level of differentiation, service or expertise we could offer. But we can of course act as a gateway to our clients in other markets.

The major strategic focus is therefore being directed towards those markets with which Portugal, and the firm’s own lawyers, already have strong connections. Indicative is the close relationship it already operates with FBSL Lawyers in Luanda.

‘Angola is certainly attractive and where our relationship is increasing in importance by the day. But also of interest are Cape Verde, São Tomé and Prí­ncipe, Macau, and Mozambique.’

Teixeira de Abreu emphasises that the firm must remain confident enough to set its own priorities and goals, but also to be prepared for events and new opportunities as they unfold. Abreu Advogados will continue to grow, he says, to develop as an institution and keep surprising people.

‘With Portugal and Africa our hands would already be full, but in every situation there is your own strategy and then there are those things that the market imposes on you, to which you have to react – and which must always feature somewhere in your thinking.’

Abreu Advogados has grown significantly in recent years and intends to continue to do so. For Teixeira de Abreu size clearly matters, but so also does culture, systems and quality. ‘We all know very well the cement that brings us together and helps this project grow successfully. We will grow only when we are certain that the newcomers add the same cement to the cement that is already here.’

Building a better institution: Abreu Advogados

Garcia-Sicilia

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