Spreading the word

Law firms placing increased emphasis on building international links

In line with a weakening Iberian economy, Iberian Lawyer’s Group of Experts say that they are looking for new and better ways to assist clients as they expand beyond Spain and Portugal, but also to attract new international work referrals.

For some this means cementing established international referral arrangements, while for others the reverse is true, as they look to broaden their network of international referral partners as wide as possible.

A propósito del debilitamiento de la economía de la Península Ibérica, el grupo de expertos de Iberian Lawyer apunta que se buscan nuevas y mejores maneras de atender a sus clientes, no sólo en su expansión más allá de España y Portugal, sino también para atraer nuevas referencias internacionales. Para algunos esto significa la consolidación de lo establecido en los acuerdos internacionales, mientras que para otros es lo contrario ya que buscan ampliar al máximo su red de socios extranjeros. Sea cual sea el caso, comentan, tal evolución es sólo una manifestación más de la importancia creciente que otorgan los despachos a capitalizar las oportunidades fuera de Portugal y España.

Whatever the driver, such a development is only a further demonstration of the increasing importance for firms to capitalise on opportunities outside of Portugal and Spain, say some.

“When you look at our present international offices network – London, Paris, Brussels, New York, Shanghai, Casablanca, Maputo and Luanda opening in 2009 – it is possible to understand that our aim is to follow our clients wherever they go and to expand internationally with them,” says Diogo Perestrelo at Gonçalves Pereira Castelo Branco (Cuatrecasas) in Lisbon.

Nonetheless, he emphasises the importance of also maintaining the firms’ existing international referral links. “We do not jeopardise our good relations with international firms, or strong local players, for when we don’t have a local office to support a client in a certain jurisdiction. Or simply when it is appropriate to ask them to join us in a specific project or transaction.”

Such an approach reflects the belief among many of the wisdom of taking a mixed approach to building and maintaining an international profile. Iberian firms, by following their clients, can even offer advantages over the global firms, say some – in countries such as Africa and South America – where there is still only limited international experience, or expertise.

Should Iberian law firms be looking to build closer ties with law firms beyond the

'In my view, expanding internationally is the key to a strategy to diversify risks. The economic atmosphere in Spain is and will remain very difficult for some time, so going abroad seems a smart move.' José Ignacio Jiménez-Blanco, Clifford Chance

'Certainly. The way to do it should emulate the firms strategy, following the 'best friends, 'network' or 'association'
approaches or a mix of them. However, I believe that the current climate should not discard an increase in the search of synergies
within the Peninsula.' Pedro Cardigos, Cardigos e Associados

Clearly yes, in accordance with clients’ needs. Being so, we are giving higher priority to Angola, Brazil and Mozambique.' José Miguel Jíºdice, PLMJ

Definitely yes. Unless law firms have their own offices abroad, we consider it is the best way to give a good and comprehensive
service to clients. On the other hand, it also guarantees domestic law firms to have international work referrals.' Rafael Montejo, Legalia

Joao de Macedo Vitorino, Macedo Vitorino e Associados

'These new interesting times we are living in require flexibility and are not compatible with tight ties, to the extent those ties may signify exclusive relationships or being under strict fee structures which are typical of international law firms.' Joao de Macedo Vitorino, Macedo Vitorino e Associados

As far as the prevailing domestic climate goes, it is probably late (but never too late) to start looking for opportunities abroad to compensate for a lack of work or lack of quality work at home. If you actually want to perform the work abroad or participate on the team serving your international clients you probably need people on the ground internationally and this cannot be improvised overnight.' Charles Coward, Urí­a Menéndez

What efforts is your firm making to ensure or enhance its international profile and capabilities, and where, if any, is the strategic emphasis?

Albert Collado, Garrigues

'The drivers of our international strategy have not been affected by the domestic and international changes in the economic environment. In this sense, for 2009 our focus will be to strengthen our presence in those markets where offices have been already opened and to maintain an open relationship with some of the major firms in the most relevant inbound markets.' Albert Collado, Garrigues

'The challenge is not merely being able to refer to another firm in any jurisdiction, but being focused and in a position to guarantee the best quality of the services provided by those we refer, as if they were our own firm. Achieving this stage requires a considerable effort and time spent on relation building with your international partners, networking is the way (or, our strategic emphasis).' Nuno Telleira, BSG – Antas de Cunha Ferreira & Associados

'Large firms tend to establish formal links with foreign firms of comparable size and philosophy while smaller firms establish 'best friends arrangements, perhaps less visible from the standpoint of advertising, but they are perfectly capable of defending the interests of their clients abroad.' Francisco Prol, Prol & Associates

Javier Fernández-Samaniego, Bird & Bird

'Our strategy looks at exciting markets in our key sectors, namely IP, communications, IT and obviously, as soon as regulatory constraints will allow it, India together with other Eastern Europe and Asian jurisdictions (as Singapore) will be our next steps of international development .' Javier Fernández-Samaniego, Bird & Bird

But as Nuno Telleira of Antas de Cunha Ferreira & Associados notes, Iberian clients’ international expansion is no longer limited to such markets. “More often clients now move to Eastern European countries, the Middle East, Asia and the US. Therefore we agree that there is a growing need for Iberian firms to develop closer ties and strategic alliances beyond the Peninsula.”

What may vary however is how, and with whom, firms establish such ties, with the approach taken clearly dependent on a firm’s own profile, suggests Rogério M Fernandes Ferreira at PLMJ. “We work with several foreign law firms in matters concerning their clients and our own without ever compromising our mutual strict independence to refer matters to the best firm.”

Phenomenal progress has clearly been made by Iberian firms, through alliances and referral arrangements, as well as by establishing their own offices abroad, says José Balañá, managing partner at Lovells. “However, their most relevant source of income remains the Iberian Peninsula as the majority of their partners are based in Spain and Portugal. So their exposure to a particularly negative cycle in the Iberian Peninsula is substantial.”

While “ties” alone may not be enough to correct such an inbalance, firms should clearly be looking to build closer relationships beyond the Peninsula, believes Charles Coward at Uría Menéndez. “Certainly investing in these relationships now will not be of help in the current crisis but will certainly help the next time the domestic climate turns bad.”

Opinions vary however as to how firms can best establish and strengthen such relationships. The key, suggest many, is to get physically closer to the sources of work – through international networking, conferences and other client-focused events.

BSG – Antas de Cunha Ferreira & Associados is among those firms placing increased emphasis on membership of referral networks (Bomchil Group and Euro American Lawyers´ Group), explains partner Nuno Telleira, but which is now also undertaking lawyer exchanges with firms in the countries in which it sees growing demand.

“We have planned and are now executing a low profile strategy to create an efficient platform with law offices in Angola and Mozambique together with law firms representing foreign clients who are also investing in those countries,” echoes César Bessa Monteiro at ABBC in Lisbon.

Such a measured approach is also preferred by PLMJ, which has this past month announced new national joint ventures in Guimarães, Coimbra and the Azores, and is looking to establish similar arrangements in Madeira and Cape Verde, and has established an “Eastern Europe” international desk. “We are a law firm with a global outlook stepping up to become an international firm,” says Nuno Brito.

Other smaller firms are placing specific emphasis on individual practice or business sector lines. “For us, expanding now means enhancing the number of international contacts with individual firms each focusing on different segments of the Portuguese market – infrastructure and public contracts, project finance, banking and finance, M&A, corporate and litigation,” explains Joao de Macedo Vitorino at Macedo Vitorino & Associados.

Among the global firms present across Iberia, the international emphasis say many is towards reinforcing those practices and offices with the greatest continuing client demand, and to target emerging markets. “We are constantly analysing opportunities to open or strengthen offices where we are not present or need to grow. Currently the focus is in the Middle East and India,” says José Balañá at Lovells.

Bird & Bird has likewise consolidated its Scandinavian practice, says Javier Fernández-Samaniego of Bird & Bird, and announced plans for a third Chinese office and begun expanding into Central and Eastern Europe.

For Uría Menéndez there is however a clear common driver behind all three arms to its international emphasis, says Charles Coward: best friends arrangements, membership of the Lex Mundi global network, and the ties established by individual partners.

“Obviously, developing these relationships is a daunting task involving investment in initiatives such as joint training and the development of best practice and protocols for providing seamless service. These are the same type of things that global firms have to work on but we have to work harder because, while it may be more challenging, it preserves something very valuable to all of us, our independence and our sense of ownership.”