HONG KONG — Legal firms in the Asia Pacific area are looking across borders and pursuing several different strategies to expand on their own or establish relationships with firms in other countries to better serve clients, according to a recent Thomson Reuters panel.
The panel was conducted last week at the Thomson Reuters’ 6th Annual Asia Pacific Legal Executive Briefing in Hong Kong, which welcomed law firm leaders from countries throughout the region.
This is the second time I have played a part in this important briefing. This year I moderated an illuminating panel examining how Asia Pacific origin firms are positioning themselves to serve clients beyond their national borders. The panelists included: Jeremy Lam, of the Management Committee of Deacons; Jasuzo Takeno, Managing Partner of Mori Hamada & Matsumoto; Rachel Eng, Deputy Chairman of Wong Partnership; and Seng Kok Chew, Chairman of ZICOlaw.
I want to share some of the learning from the panel.
Increasing Client Need for Sophisticated Legal Service Across Borders
Last year I wrote about the evolution of the Asia Pacific law practice over the years, focusing in particular on the interplay of global firms from outside the region with indigenous firms. One of the developments I mentioned last year was the increasingly concrete steps Asia Pacific firms were taking to reach beyond their original national borders. This year’s panel drilled down on this development.
The growing economies and expanding legal systems in the Asia Pacific region — particularly the countries within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — increase the needs of Asia Pacific clients for sophisticated legal service in each of the countries of the region. To fully serve clients on cross-border transactions and disputes, however, a firm must be able to advise on law and custom in the many nations of the region as part of an integrated service model.
This year’s panel presented four quite different, and effective, approaches to addressing this market challenge.
- Deacons: Collaborating with Leading Lawyers — Deacons is the oldest continuing law practice in Hong Kong, dating back to 1851. It supports its clients throughout the region by collaborating with local lawyers who the firm believes are the best in each country for each of its clients’ engagements.
- Mori, Hamada & Matsumoto: Branch Offices Collaborating with Local Lawyers — One of Japan’s leading law firms, Mori Hamada & Matsumoto has opened several offices in the region staffed predominantly by Japanese lawyers. The Mori Hamada lawyers collaborate with local lawyers who provide expertise on local law and custom.
- Wong Partnership: A Combination of Branch Offices and a Network of Independent Firms — One of Singapore’s leading law firms, Wong Partnership pursues a combination of approaches, opening branch offices in several countries and associating with independent local firms in others.
- ZICOlaw: A Network of Independent Firms — ZICOlaw originated in Kuala Lumpur in 1987 and now consists of a network of independent law firms with a presence in 17 cities across Southeast Asia and Australia. ZICOlaw is supported and connected by a separate infrastructure firm.
Three Common Themes: Clients; Quality & Culture
Each panelist candidly shared how and why their firms decided to take the course they eventually did, as well as the challenges they have faced and the successes they have achieved. While each story was different, three themes were reflected in each.
- Each approach was based on an assessment of the specific needs and preferences of the firm’s clients;
- Each firm pursued the solution that it believed would best deliver the same quality and character of service in the foreign jurisdiction as the clients expected from its original office; and
- Each approach was based on the unique culture and capabilities of the firm itself.
There are many ways to service clients effectively across borders. Choosing one for any given law firm turns on what is best in that firm’s particular circumstances, clients and culture.