Legal: Size does matter, as get-together affirms

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Can a mid-sized law firm provide a high-quality legal service to clients with international business interests, or should that be the preserve of the corporate giants?

Clearly the answer to that was a resounding “yes” at this year’s spring gathering of LEGUS at St Andrews – the first time Scotland had been chosen as a conference venue for this international network of mid-sized law firms. Delegates came from as far afield as Mexico, the Philippines and Nigeria.

The event, of course, also welcomed a contingent from the USA, where the organisation was formed in 1995 and has since expanded to comprise 2,000 lawyers from 37 countries, including most major jurisdictions.

The main purpose of LEGUS is to make members part of a network of mid-sized, globally minded law firms that can be trusted to provide high-quality advice at reasonable rates to clients with international business interests.

Members also hope to receive incoming referrals although there is no exclusivity; a member will not refer a client to a LEGUS firm elsewhere in the world if it is not suited to the client’s requirements. Because the network has only one member firm in each territory – Blackadders is the organisation’s Scottish representative – members also share information and join in education and training initiatives in a noncompetitive environment. While Blackadders has benefited from referrals from other members, the main advantage of being part of the LEGUS network has been the provision of an improved service for clients with an increasing international element to their business activities.

Frankly, we don’t want these clients to think they have outgrown Blackadders and feel the need to switch to one of the better-known, corporate-type law firms. Indeed, we think we offer an advantage over our corporate rivals since individuals holding senior positions within client firms are well known to us and used to having their instructions carried out in a partner-led way.

While there are similar international networks, some of them excellent, we decided that LEGUS best fitted our profile, especially as membership provided us with exclusivity in Scotland.

As for the conference itself, the legal dimension to Scottish independence was obviously a topic of great interest, even among lawyers attending from outside Europe.

Several delegates expressed the view that the prospect of further divergence in laws within the EU (assuming an independent Scottish state became a member) might be a backward step when clients already spend what they regard as wasted effort and money complying with European directives which are already implemented differently around the EU.

There was also the discussion of UK opt-outs and the disquieting prospect of border control between Scotland and England if the former decided to sign up to Schengen; and exploration of the possible consequences for legal firms in both countries should Scotland vote for independence and the rest of the UK subsequently voted to leave the EU.

It was also interesting to get an insight, from an international perspective, into the effects of the economic downturn and how lawyers are being required to adapt to client expectations on billing as a result. There is some compensation in knowing that UK law firms are not alone in this respect.

Conference decided that the outcome (of the pressure on fees) might be an evolution along the lines of the construction industry, with professional estimators pricing jobs which are then project managed, rather than relying on lawyers to provide estimates based on chargeable hours.

Away from the debates the highlight for many delegates was an out-of-season Burns Supper held at the atmospheric Mains Castle in Dundee, with many of those who attended savouring haggis for the first time. Everyone greeted the recitals and speeches given by several Blackadders partners with a mixture of enthusiasm and polite respect – whether or not they understood deliveries given in the broad Scots tongue. l Campbell Clark is partner, corporate and commercial, with Blackadders, which hosted the conference on behalf of LEGUS