Firms should expand into overseas market, says Derek McCulloch
Scots law practitioners have a great track record of assisting exporters and an excellent reputation abroad, but they should also be looking to package their own, transferable, skills for export. Scottish Government statistics suggest one third of all exports overseas (excluding oil and gas) are services, valued at around £7 billion, of which £1.4bn relates to the export of professional services. I expect services export values to grow further and law firms must seize the opportunities presented.
Scotland’s main markets are led by Europe (over 50 per cent of all exports), with key individual countries led by the USA, Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium. Most law firms that develop international links and opportunities do so through the activities of current or prospective clients who trade internationally. Developing such relationships can lead to identification of, and partnering with, clients, other professionals and agencies, both at home and abroad.
Identifying the right countries
It is harder to establish client demand from non-UK based companies. Clearly, we must not underestimate the skill of our colleagues in other jurisdictions and the countries mentioned are well served with such expertise. So, two strategies come to mind.
First, identifying countries where quality advice on international dealings or projects is scarce on the ground, particularly where one or other of the parties in a project (not least the funders) will expect a certain standard of legal documentation and structures. Such countries are not without risk, so it is worth researching any potential targets through the various support agencies available in the UK, particularly SDI and UKTI.
Build on the particular strengths of your firm, its sectoral track record and ability to deliver projects which can be replicated abroad, especially where the sector or project is new to that region or is in such demand that local resources cannot cope. Infrastructure and energy projects immediately come to mind given Scotland’s reputation for these and, in my experience, an adviser who has sector or key project understanding, and who can analyse and document the project from start to finish, is welcomed by all parties involved. UK lawyers are often involved in advising on regulatory regimes for trading, utilities and infrastructure offering further opportunity in a developing region. Our friends in accountancy and engineering consultancies have excellent track records in applying their skills abroad and we should learn from them and, indeed, partner with them where possible.
Target the appropriate project
Tracking and bidding for projects can be assisted by the agencies mentioned above. Why not prepare a pre-package appropriate to the target project, including outline documentation, key terms and checklist of issues, plus proof of your track record, prior to approaching a project party, suppliers, funders or commissioning authority. Do not be shy!
Foreign jurisdiction advice is not a hurdle and, while an essential element of any international project, is not always the key input required and can readily be obtained by partnering with the appropriate local provider. Experience tells me that such a partner is usually happy to share a project in which they may not otherwise have been involved.
Nor is language or the application of English law or other choice of law to the project. We are privileged that English is the common language of global business and that most international projects are documented using common structures and phrases with which any experienced Scottish corporate/commercial practitioner is familiar.
Furthermore, many of the lessons learned by on-line and logistic-driven goods exporters are just as relevant to the exporter of professional services. Working with international supply chain clients can be a good start to building your export experience.
We must portray our UK-based credentials, as “London-centric” channels for referred work remains an understandable hurdle. We can overcome this by strategic targeting of our niche sector experience and evidencing our project documentation skills. Early “in person” visits to targeted ventures, jurisdictions and projects are recommended, as is involvement in trade missions, which offer the triple opportunity of outgoing, incoming and foreign-based clients.
• Derek McCulloch is head of the commercial client division of Gillespie Macandrew LLP and a leading member of Lexwork International www.gillespiemacandrew.co.uk