Lawyers without borders

While Gómez-Acebo & Pombo is expanding at home – hiring a team of lawyers from the Mullerat office in Madrid – its international exposure is about to take a leap forward when Fernando Pombo becomes the new international leader of the legal profession.


En esta entrevista de Iberian Lawyer a Fernando Pombo, socio fundador, y a Manuel Martín, socio director de Gómez-Acebo & Pombo, se expone el proceso de expansión en España del despacho –con el contrato de un equipo de abogados procedentes de la oficina de Mullerat en Madrid – además de su creciente exposición internacional, especialmente cuando Fernando Pombo se convierta en el nuevo líder de la International Bar Association (IBA), una organización internacional de la abogacía. Manuel Martín nos explica que en este momento de mayor competitividad y presión en el mercado jurídico, la clave para Gómez- Acebo & Pombo es seguir reforzando su departamento corporativo con el objetivo de trabajar con clientes de primera fila.

{mosimage cw=200 popup=1}It was a humble beginning for Fernando Pombo in 1971, when he and Ignacio Gómez-Acebo opened their new law firm in a tiny office in Madrid. But even then, the partners had big, international ambitions for their new firm. Thirty-five years on, the firm enjoys a good reputation at home in Spain and an even higher profile in the international arena.

While its growth came through dedication and good business decisions, much of it has been attributed to the profile of Fernando Pombo himself. A networker of almost legendary proportions, some say he is able to entertain guests at three restaurants at once, floating through each course with a different group. He has also long cultivated contacts abroad, primarily through his involvement with the International Bar Association (IBA).

Last year, current IBA president Francis Neate presented Pombo with the inaugural Iberian Lawyer Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the legal profession internationally. Speaking at the award ceremony, Neate explained that, “travelling with Fernando is very exhilarating, as wherever you end up in the world there will always be somebody who knows him.” From next January, Fernando Pombo will begin serving as IBA president himself, the first Spaniard to hold the position in their 60-year history.

His ascension to the IBA post mirrors not only the incredible growth of his firm, but also of the Spanish legal market. When he started Gómez-Acebo & Pombo, Spain was still under the oppressive rule of Francisco Franco. Today, it is an engine of Europe, home to dynamic multinational companies with increasingly international ambitions. For lawyers, that means a lot more work, and a higher level of sophistication when it comes to client needs.

The top Anglo-Saxon firms have since arrived, and the auditors have aggressively expanded their large legal practices. Yet Gómez-Acebo & Pombo has not only held its ground, it has continued to grow.

Growing the business

In June, the firm took on 15 new lawyers from smaller rival Mullerat, including their managing partner Alberto Echarri, to bring its head count to more than 220 lawyers, solidifying its position as the country’s fourth largest domestic firm, after Garrigues, Uría Menéndez, and Cuatrecases. Mullerat, which once employed more than 60 lawyers dissolved earlier this year.

Fernando Pombo, Gómez-Acebo & Pombo

Speaking at the time, Alberto Echarri told London’s The Lawyer that the closure of the firm had followed a debate over who would succeed founder Ramón Mullerat as senior partner, revealing "totally different perspectives" over the firm´s future between the Madrid and Barcelona offices.

As corporate activity rises in Spain, and more capital flows in and out of the country, the competition for work is on the rise. “The profession is changing continually and we need very modern approaches to law. The legal departments of companies are now outstanding law firms in their own right,” Pombo says. “Thirty five years ago clients relied 100% on our advice. Now they are very sophisticated, up-to-date and wellorganised on any aspects of the law.”

Like many Spanish firms, Gómez-Acebo & Pombo has been approached on more than one occasion by a foreign firm about a merger or takeover. Pombo, however, is determined to build the firm into a Spanish champion with international reach.

“We wanted to, and still want to, remain independent,” he says. “We believe there is still a place for a strong independent Spanish firm with strong Iberamerican connections including Portugal, Brazil and Argentina among others. That said, a significant amount of our work has traditionally come from North America, the UK, Germany, France and Italy.”

Increasing pressure

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But competition is present on all sides. As the big Anglo Saxon firms gain ground, a group of smaller established local offices, including Pérez-Llorca, Ramón & Cajal, and Roca Junyent, are also pressing hard. It falls to managing partner Martín to keep the firm one step ahead. “These smaller firms do top quality work. They have some very good lawyers and very good clients,” he says. “If they continue to grow at the same rate, they will become among the biggest of Spanish firms.”

As the pressure comes from all directions, the key for Gómez-Acebo & Pombo, according to Martín, will be to continue to bolster its corporate department in order to win more top-tier clients. Although he acknowledges that mergers and acquisitions work is becoming a commoditised skill, he says, areas like litigation and public law are very profitable. Foreign work is crucial.

Neither Martín nor Pombo are committed to opening additional foreign offices, but with the internationalisation of business, neither will they discard the idea. “We need to be more international. London and New York are always on the agenda to be discussed,” says Martín. “Having a presence there could be important for keeping the image or name of the firm alive in those areas.”

Yet operating outside of Spain is nothing new for Gómez-Acebo & Pombo. It has always derived a large amount of its work from abroad. It was the first Spanish firm to have an office in Brussels, which it opened in 1985, and was also one of the first firms to have close ties in Germany – fruit of, among other factors, Fernando Pombo’s time there as a foreign scholar.

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“We’ve always had a vision of a more international approach to legal services built on the foundations of intense dedication to clients, quality control, and continuing legal education,” Pombo says.

One thing the firm is definitely not interested in, however, is growth for growth's sake. “The biggest issue for us is profitability, which is never going to appear in any newspaper,” he says, referring to rankings by publications like Expansión, which rank firm size by headcount and total revenue rather than profits.

For Martín, it is a very clear emphasis on quality rather than quantity. “The issue for me is how you can recruit people who are not ambitious enough to become a partner. With us maybe only one or two out of ten new recruits will make it to partner, but you need to look for that type of person,” he says. “Anybody who is ambitious within a larger firm and sees only one chance in twenty, may not stay.”

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Living with change

Manuel Martín joined the firm in 1981, when it was just 14 lawyers strong, and has ever since been integral to its growth and the moulding of its ethos. In 1989, he moved to Barcelona to open the firm’s office there. “I was young, perhaps naïve, and ready to cope with anything,” he says. “I was by myself. I had to recruit the lawyers, secretaries and even the cleaning ladies, open the bank account and negotiate the lease. That is how you start learning about managing a firm, from the bottom.” He returned to Madrid in 2000.

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From the outset, his focus has been to build the firm as a strong partnership of highly skilled lawyers, with a professional management team and approach. A key step along the way came in 1993, when the firm decided to change the structure of the firm to a partnership. “Looking back, we spent a lot of time discussing issues which were less important than we thought,” he recalls, “but we were learning as we went along.”

A clue to his management philosophy is revealed with the current book he is revisiting, called Who Moved My Cheese?, a guide to the inevitability of change that is told through a mouse – angry to find his cheese is not in its usual place – sending him in search of new sources of food. Manuel Martín gave a copy of the book to every partner to mark his first 5 year appointment as managing partner. “All the firms who say ´who moved my cheese? will have problems,” he warns. “We have to go along with the changes in the market or otherwise we are dead.”

The firm knows about change. From that three-man office in 1971, the firm today is based in spacious offices in one of the leaning office towers of the Puerta de Europa – known locally by their former name, Torres Kio – where it has been for the last five years. The Barcelona office has just moved to larger premises, and the Valencia and Bilbao offices are also growing.

But with its greater size come greater challenges. “We want to be known as one of the major Spanish firms. To achieve that recognition we have to increase our growth in the local market. We’re not looking to merge or become part of another organisation,” Martín says. “We have to avoid in the legal sector the same problem that we have in the Spanish economy, which is poor productivity.”

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Fernando Pombo will have even more on his plate when in January he takes over the leadership of the IBA. “The profession is at a time when governments and international organisations like the WTO and EU are putting forth initiatives that increasingly affect the practice of law and the work of lawyers,” he says. “The IBA has to be there to clarify as much as possible what the core values are and the different practices in each country.”

Manuel Martí­n, Gómez-Acebo & Pombo

Nobody can doubt, his dedication to the cause. One of the popular legends about Fernando Pombo is that he once gave speeches at two different conferences, in different countries, on different legal topics, on the same day. Would that ever happen in reality? “If it was about Spanish law I could probably do it, particularly if I was flying west, say from Madrid to Lisbon,” he says. “If you are committed to your firm why not? You just need the physical and mental energy.”

It is clear that Fernando Pombo has the energy required, and as ambassador for the world´s legal profession, his already hectic travel schedule will become even more so.

Lawyers without borders

Garcia-Sicilia

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