The global lawyer: who is really global?

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Check out the websites of companies like Baker McKenzie, Dentons, DLA Piper, Linklaters, Norton Rose Fulbright, and Ropes & Gray, among others, and you’ll see that a keyword they use to describe themselves is “global.”

It has become such a popular descriptor in the legal industry that it’s easy to ignore it or assume it means something other than its technical definition. But are all these companies really global? To do this, they should at least have offices in each region.

In some of the larger markets their presence is evident, but in other regions, such as Africa, it can be difficult for clients to know how companies actually stack up in terms of size and scale.

Law.com International, which has long sought to shed light on the industry’s grayer areas, has produced its second annual ranking of the firms with the most lawyers and offices in Africa.

Compiled in association with Africa Legal, the ranking of the top 50 offers some valuable information.

First, the biggest companies in Africa tend to be South Africa-based companies. Six of the eight largest institutions are from the country. Despite all the talk from the biggest international companies, only DLA Piper, which came in second, and Dentons, who came in seventh, disrupted the dominance of South African companies.

Second, few of the most profitable legal institutions in the world have sizable offices on the continent. When Global 100 companies are ranked based on average earnings per partner, only one of the top 35 – White & Case – is included in the Africa 50. Simply put, some regions are more lucrative than others and the Most of the most profitable companies are not particularly large outside the United States.

The third idea is how few of Africa’s biggest have grown over the past year. Of the top 10 companies, only a few have significantly increased their workforce. Most suffered a slight fall. The continent is still grappling with the challenges of COVID, and its major economies will struggle to bounce back to keep pace with China and the West.

Considering those three points, it was particularly surprising to see Allen & Overy win a major team transfer to Johannesburg last week. Our correspondent in South Africa, Jennigay Coetzer, has learned that A&O has hired six partners from South African heavyweight Webber Wentzel. They were also senior officials, including Ryan Nelson, who will lead the A&O JoBurg office upon his arrival, and Alexandra Clüver, who led the project funding team at Webber Wentzel.

A&O is one of those companies that doesn’t settle for being well regarded in the UK only. Like DLA Piper and Dentons, it clearly has global ambitions, as evidenced by its recent office openings in the United States.

Expanding into the United States still seems to be the company’s top priority, as it probably should be for all international businesses, as this analysis shows, but A&O knows other regions matter as well.

Africa may not be as lucrative a region as others, but if businesses are serious about being global then it is also important to be there. And now that these rankings exist, some big companies will also have to accept that they cannot credibly claim to be global without paying some attention to the region.


European companies want to have their cake and eat it

Credit: AdobeStock

“Take your cake and eat it” is a curious idiom. It basically means someone who wants to have two good things that can’t go together at the same time. You can’t “eat your cake and have it always” would be a more sensible wording.

I’m not sure if the phrase exists in German, French or Italian, but it should even be used to refer to the way independent law firms in the region are trying to build their empires.

A market renowned for its fiercely independent law firms is suddenly inundated with “associations”.

Altana in France, Beiten Burkhardt in Germany and Nctm in Italy announced they have formed Advant, which has a combined turnover of 216 million euros, placing it comfortably in the Global 200 in terms of size.

Meanwhile, Unyer, who was trained earlier this year by French Fidal and German Luther, signed Italian law firm Pirola PennutoZei & Associati as a third member. The Unyer group now has 2,500 advisers and an annual turnover of more than 650 million euros, which would place it around the 75th place in the world in terms of turnover.

Except that the organizations will probably not be in the Global 200 because these are not actual mergers. Not in the traditional sense anyway, where companies adopt a single brand, integrate financially, and have joint management, costs and conflict controls with customers. They are Swiss Vereins, in which the companies remain technically and financially independent. In Unyer’s case, the members even keep their original names.

Indeed, organizations really only rely on exclusive SEO relationships. This early-trend coin explains the new setup in detail. A German recruiter at the time said: “It’s just marketing to get more recognition.”

Which begs the question of why bother at all?

Well, from the point of view of European companies, they want to be able to show that they are more than just single site entities unable to compete with larger international players. If they can maintain the independence they value so much while still being able to convince customers that they have cross-border capabilities, then it’s a win-win situation for them.

Again, the only opinions that really matter are those of the customers. If they feel that the associations aren’t close enough to be of real value, it could just as easily end up being the worst of both worlds for the companies involved.

Still, it certainly sounds compelling. And given that there are many independent European law firms out there, it wouldn’t be surprising to see others take similar steps to make sure they don’t miss a thing. After all, who wouldn’t want to eat their cake and still have it?

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