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September 30, 2005

Think Globally, Act Globally?--It's a New World for Lawyers, Ready or Not...

Law practices with clients who trade across borders are becoming the norm.

This week about 3000 lawyers are meeting in Prague in the Czech Republic at the annual convention of the International Bar Association. The IBA has members ranging from solos to some of the largest firms in the world. If you have never been to a meeting of lawyers from jurisdictions all over the world, you should do it. The programs (about 260 in Prague this week!) are generally excellent and the contacts attractive. And whether you are already a full-time, experienced international customs and trade lawyer or are a state court litigator who rarely handles matters involving events outside your county, it's time to join an international group. Potential clients from outside the U.S. are all around you. And your U.S. clients may venture into Europe or Asia any day now.

Seven years ago my firm became the Pittsburgh member of the International Business Law Consortium and it forever changed the way we thought about clients, practicing law and marketing. Smaller than the IBA, the IBLC is an alliance of about 70 law and accounting firms, generally under 100 lawyers, in strategically located cities around the world. The firms meet 2 to 3 times a year in member cities -- generally western Europe and North and Latin America. (We just concluded a 3-day meeting in Dresden, Germany.) When and where appropriate, we use the lawyers of other member firms on client projects or outright refer work to other member firms.

If you aren't Baker & McKenzie or Freshfields, it's a good way to have "branch offices" without the liability issues faced by a large firm with branch offices. There are scores of lawyers groups like this worldwide. The trick is (1) to join one with first-rate firms and (2) to have some say as to recruitment of new members.

Why did we join the IBLC group in 1998? Just what did we gain?

Three things:

(1)
Outgoing work: the ability to get things done for our North American clients abroad. A number of our clients, traditionally served by much larger firms, like the idea of our being able to find lawyers who we say we know and trust in major commercial capitals of the world. Because the group is small and increasingly intimate, firms getting work from other member firms tend to make the work referred to them a priority and do their best work. There are unspoken but powerful group "sanctions" for mediocre service or dropping the ball in any way.

(2) Incoming work: foreign clients doing business or litigating here in the U.S. The group lets us meet new clients from abroad who don't need or want to use a 300+ lawyer U.S. or international firm to do its U.S. work. If we meet them through our IBLC members, we may become one of a handful of U.S. firms the foreign client even knows about or meets. That's positioning at its best.

(3) "A New Frame of Reference": We have picked up on some differences in folkways -- both major and subtle -- between parties and litigants in deals and ADR forums around the world which, frankly, I am embarrassed we were not adequately attuned to previously. We are learning new things.

Posted by JD Hull at September 30, 2005 12:02 PM

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