A Guide to the World's International Business Law Firms

By Josephine Carr
1993 Edition. Euromoney Publications, Nestor House, London; 555 pages, $228 hard cover, $180 soft cover.

New York Law Journal, Monday, February, 22, 1993.  Reviewed By Jean M. H. Fergus And Robert C. Loehr

The currently popular slogan "think globally, act locally" could serve as rather sound advice for today's lawyers-especially those expanding into international practice. New national markets, consolidated trading blocks and newly-opened competitive economies continue to fuel the international legal market's growth, yet dramatic differences remain in the opportunities presented by individual regions and nations. What the successful decision-maker needs is access to all of the relevant details.

Succinct insights into the labyrinth of projections, pitfalls and power players around the world can be found in an unique and encyclopedic new directory:  The International Financial Law Review (IFLR) 1000, 1993 Edition. This 555-page volume contains profiles of the business law panorama in the five major geographic regions (Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America, Middle East & Africa, and North America) and in 118 individual nations, together with snapshots of some 1,500 international law firms (organized by location and alphabetical index). The "hard" data is synthesized in a series of intriguing "big picture" essays and informative charts which form the magazine's segment featured at the beginning of the directory.

For those searching out legal service, formulating co-counsel or other relationships, planning an expansion, or merely sizing up the competition, The IFLR 1000 has collected and organized a formidable array of vital information. Firm profiles provide such data as names of senior partners, office locations and size, addresses, fax and phone numbers, and, in some cases, areas of practice, firm history and languages spoken. The information on each country includes population, principal currency, addresses for the bar association, admission requirements, number of lawyers, and hourly billing rate (of partners and associates, in local and U.S. currency). In addition, there are brief analyses of each county's business climate, recent legislative changes, local legal market conditions, the practice expertise of the various firms, and their billing practices. It is extraordinarily convenient to find such crucial data encapsulated in one or two pages.

Beyond the data, even a brief perusal of the IFLR 1000 paints an interesting picture of the state of the international market. And the first conclusion one can draw is that, recession or no recession, the international business law firms continue to grow. A piece by Robert Budden entitled "The Growth in Demand for Legal Services" provides a solid perspective for analyzing the growth potential of the various legal "playing fields" around the world. Asian/Pacific and European regions registered strong growth in the number of lawyers - and one assumes in expected business - from 1991 to 1992, averaging 13.5 percent and 9 percent increase, respectively. Compare that to 5 percent growth in Latin America (not bad, considering that legal markets have been liberalize less rapidly than other facets of the economy), 6 percent in Canada, and a mere 2 percent in the United states. Clearly, the U.S. is not currently seen as the land of legal opportunity.

Practice area trends are also explored in the survey study entitled "What Will You Be Doing in 1994?'' Three areas - intellectual property, entertainment and environmental law - are considered "hot" by both European and Asian/Pacific lawyers. These would seem to be the truly global legal trends - the ones we all should be thinking about. In Europe, antitrust (competition), tax and securities law are also expanding, while in Japan, mergers and acquisitions and employment and pension law are projected as developing practice areas.

Of course, the very fact that the same practice areas are even applicable in Jakarta, Kuwait city, Warsaw and New York says something about where the worldwide legal community is going. Taken as a totality, the spectrum of nations represented here projects a clear picture of the market-oriented, international nature of the modern world's pursuit of economic stability and prosperity. And, luckily for the lawyers, this approach demands first rate legal talent to pave the way. The 1993 IFLR 1000 thus includes new sections on the Baltic States, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Vietnam, along with Belize and Oman, as well as the "legislative change" segments within each country description.

Bearing this need for legal talent in mind, there is an intriguing twist to the list of the world's 40 largest law firms. Twenty-five of these firms are from the U.S., 10 from-the U.K., four from Australia, and one from Canada. In Europe, over 80 percent of the biggest firms are from the U.K., while in the Asia Pacific region, 14 of the 15 largest firms are from Australia or New Zealand. Most experts would agree that size and geographic spread are significant sources of competitive advantage for international law firms (giving the firm a far greater ability to service the needs of the international client), and firms from countries with "English" backgrounds and systems are well positioned to take charge in a world where more and more nations are deciding to play by the same or similar rules.

Moving from potential to performance, this just released book has further surprises in store. "When Billing Rates Meet the Recession," an analysis by Mr. Budden, finds that U.K. lawyers are not the most expensive in the world. British lawyers charge an average of $585 (U.S.) per hour. Moreover, European rates (especially German rates which reached $510 per hour) are rising, while rates in the Americas have encountered stagnation and decline (the top U.S. rate is $350 per hour). The study offers a simple axiom: "When demand for legal services has dropped, hourly billing rates have also fallen.'' But what are the broader conclusions?

Exchange rates are clearly a factor in the rate differentials, and various publications (including The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times) pounced upon Mr. Budden's analysis, noting that overall transaction fees (not to mention the necessities and nuances of the local market) are more important. However, the crucial point lies elsewhere. What truly matters here is the change in rates. The fact that European and Asian rates are rising while U.S. rates decline must be a major cause of concern the U.S. law firms competing in the international arena. While reflecting the intense level of local competition, when added to their slow growth rates this decline indicates that U.S. firms, long considered world leaders, may now be witnessing a serious slip in their competitive advantage.

On the other hand, clearly there are still strong international business opportunities available to U.S. firms. The potential international market for U.S. attorneys' "product" are immense. The question for U.S. legal leaders is: can they capitalize on these opportunities before their strong positioning (grounded in size, reach and well-focused expertise) becomes a thing of the past?

Tremendous opportunities exist for those firms willing to undertake strategic cross-national planning and to be bold in this period of flux. In this market, The IFLR 1000 is a mainstay reference book-informative, easy-to-use, well researched and thoroughly readable. It provide the specific information lawyers working overseas need, and also houses insight into the market of 1993 (not to mention 1995) crucial to decision-makers at global thinking firms. Either factor makes it worth a look. Together, they create a volume worthy of anyone's reference shelf.

Fergus Review | full list

© 2003 Fergus Partnership Consulting Inc.
New York office: 212-767-1775 | London office: 44 207 247 9660