Through the lens of multinational firm Norton Rose Fulbright we learn how to cut it as a lawyer in the globalised economy.
Globalisation: where were you when you first heard that word? The term has only been in use since the 1970s, but you can't go five minutes these days without hearing it rebound around your echo chamber. If you were hoping to avoid it, law was the wrong career choice: it’s our epoch-defining trend, and lawyers have been there shaping it from the start.
Let's just cover the basics. Globalisation is the increasing interconnectedness of the world: be that culturally, socially, politically or economically. In 2000 the International Monetary Fund defined four basic aspects of globalisation: trade, movement of capital/investment, migration, and dissemination of knowledge. All have reached historically unprecedented levels in recent times: since the end of the Second World War, a relatively peaceful era of collaboration has seen the development of international financial markets, international trade and worldwide economic growth, all supported by rapidly improved communication and transport.
Now, those of you with your political ear to the ground will know globalisation has its winners and losers. However, the process has without doubt served to supercharge global economic growth, raising the populations of developing countries out of poverty and significantly realigning the axis of global power. What we are now left with is a globalised economy – a modern, interconnected, marketplace which has relied upon lawyers at every stage of its development: they've been writing patents, arranging finance, and shaping legal contracts to promote commercial growth.
Lawyers have been – and still are – critical to globalisation. This article explores the role lawyers play, how international law firms operate and how you can prepare to join this dynamic world.
Norton Rose Fulbright: a model for global expansion
In line with globalisation, top-tier law firms have grown to keep up with, pioneer and take advantage of the global developments that have taken place. One law firm that embodies this is Norton Rose Fulbright (NRF). In the past decade it made the conscious decision to grow fast. By merging strategically (most recently announcing upcoming combinations with US firm Chadbourne & Parke and Australia's Henry Davis York), it has swept the globe, tapping into new markets in Australia, Africa, Asia and South America, and becoming one of the world's largest firms, with over 50 offices on six continents and more than 3,500 lawyers worldwide.
“The recent trend has been for law firms to become more global.”
Duncan Batchelor, Norton Rose Fulbright’s global head of aviation, explains that for this firm “operating on a large scale means we are able to invest more easily in systems, infrastructure and knowledge sharing, which allows our people to fully benefit from globalisation.” Even so, firms still need people on the ground providing local jurisdictional knowledge; for locations where a firm does not have an office this can be provided by affiliated local law firms. However, “you can experience difficulties when dealing with other firms in other parts of the world,” says Batchelor. That's why combinations are the way to go, he believes. “As the firm has grown in the past seven years, things have become easier for me, and for everyone here. Having more offices with our own colleagues in has facilitated cross-border working.”
< Norton Rose Fulbright's offices in London
It can also help in “expediting turnaround times,” according to partner Dan Metcalfe. “If we have a tight turnaround, and if we have high-quality teams in London, Australia and Canada, in a single 24-hour period we can provide two to three working days of service. That means we can create a product quicker and more efficiently.” It's no surprise then that, as Metcalfe says, “the recent trend has been for law firms to become more global. There have been casualties along the way, but firms which have made a success of it show that globalisation and the benefits it brings are fundamental to survival.”
In anticipation of lawyers' roles becoming more international, it's never too early to begin following in their footsteps. To get you started, Chambers Student interviewed a selection of Norton Rose Fulbright's partners and associates practising in areas which provide the services critical to global development, picking their brains to find out exactly how the firm and its lawyers have capitalised on a world of opportunity.
The concept of lending and borrowing money has ancient origins. Scroll forward a few thousand years and – from agriculture to AI – it still serves an undiluted purpose: injecting money to mobilise economic growth through speculation and accumulation. Financial institutions facilitate lending all over the world, allowing parties to collaborate internationally on the complex financing for all sorts of undertakings. The wiliest of lawyers are needed to oversee these border-spanning relationships between borrowers and lenders. It's down to lawyers to aid in negotiations and ensure that the agreements made are representative of clients' interests.
Finance sits at the core of NRF’s business. So to understand better what part lawyers play, we turned to James Dunnett, an acquisition finance partner at the firm with a particular focus on emerging markets. “I have spent my entire career at Norton Rose Fulbright,” he said, and his work always “tended to have an international basis. We were pretty international in the 1990s, but even more so now.” For him, his formative years were spent dealing with Eastern Europe. “In the 1990s Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states were very high-growth environments, and we had to familiarise ourselves with the legal processes there.” His work included “financing a Hungarian commercial radio station, a Hungarian chemicals company and a radar technology company.” There's been a huge amount of change since then of course. “The region is more familiar and accessible now – 20 years ago operating there was more novel.”
“Wherever people see growth, there's always a group of enterprising individuals prepared to seek out opportunities.”
What is still the case, Dunnett says, is that “wherever people see growth, there's always a group of enterprising individuals prepared to seek out opportunities and provide mandates for us in new jurisdictions.” At the moment all roads lead to Africa. The continent has long been a hub for resource extraction – think oil, copper, diamonds – which went hand in hand with infrastructure projects: the building of mines, oil pipelines and railways. “But now we're seeing financing in Africa moving away from infrastructure and into the consumer side of things – Ethiopian Breweries and Nigerian insurance companies, for instance.” Being a patchwork of jurisdictions, the continent poses a legal head-scratcher for lawyers. “It's a little like foreign languages,” says Dunnett. “Once you've learnt one, it's easier to learn another. You see the typical issues, pitfalls and problems and it gets easier. You get better at forming relationships, with our own teams or with local lawyers. It's an evolutionary process.”
NRF currently has three offices in South Africa, one in Morocco and one in Tanzania, plus alliances with firms in Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Zimbabwe. Though clients are sometimes based in Africa, Dunnett tells us “Standard Chartered Bank and HSBC do a lot of work in Africa, but they are based in London.” Pumping money into African ventures provides benefits to businesses from Lagos to London. “The global effects of business endeavours aren’t only local. If you build a factory it has a tangible benefit locally, but it also benefits the UK because, for instance, a pension fund may be getting dividends from the local company that it invested in.”
“It's fantastic to go abroad as a trainee: you learn about how the business operates there and to make connections beyond London.”
NRF's junior banking lawyers enjoy a thoroughly international experience. Gemma Patterson, an associate in the banking and finance team, spent four years working in Tokyo for NRF, after first heading out there during her training contract. “It's fantastic to go abroad as a trainee: you learn about how the business operates there and make connections beyond London.” She recalls getting “client exposure from day one. Being in a smaller office means you get more responsibility at an earlier stage in your career.”
< International banking and finance work can be something of a cross-border puzzle, so it pays to get overseas experience
The experience is not without its challenges however, Patterson says. “You have to be very aware of time zones. When scheduling a conference call you have to allow for the fact that the time difference can be 14 hours. Also when you're dealing with local counsel you have to plan your day to make sure you get a response when you want it.” As well as organisation, “communication is a key skill. Approval processes in Japan can be quite lengthy. If you're dealing with a borrower in a different jurisdiction they may not appreciate that, and so it's up to the lawyers to help manage expectations.” There may be a language barrier too – “the documentation is complex and although you're dealing with people whose English may be excellent, but it's still not their first language. Given this you have to be able to clearly explain how documents relate to each other.”
What could you be doing now to kick-start your career in global banking law? Relevant work experience is a good start. Among the current trainees at NRF are people who interned with a law firm in Germany, spent time at an investment management firm in Hong Kong and worked as an English teacher in the Caribbean before joining the firm. Quite a few NRF trainees studied a foreign language, which goes down well when operating in such a globalised law firm.
Once you're a trainee, James Dunnett recommends, “getting a real breadth of experience – be open to doing an overseas seat.” He also advised that as a trainee and junior associate you should “try to work with a variety of clients on both sides – lenders and borrowers – in order to understand both perspectives and the concerns attached.” It helps to work with clients who aren't all cut from the same cloth, Dunnett says: “The firm has relationships with financial institutions like banks and insurance companies, as well as with corporations and wealth funds.”
Coming next week…
This feature was first published in June 2017. Since research then Gemma Patterson has left NRF.