Scots law firms need to think global

STOP the world, we want to get on, says Douglas Armstrong.

Many in business make the trip from Edinburgh Airport to London on a regular basis. Picture: Ian Georgeson

When asking whether Scottish law firms should have global ambitions, we should perhaps follow the lead of our most successful clients. As the mornings get lighter, the prospect of the 6:40am shuttle to London City becomes slightly less daunting for the many “Willies” (Work in London, Live in Edinburgh) making this regular journey. I am as likely to meet our clients on this flight as I am walking along George Street. Successful Scottish businesses have always looked beyond Scotland but now, more than ever, a profile in the global market is essential. London is a gateway to the rest of the world and a significant asset for ambitious Scottish businesses – no wonder so many clients are making this flight every week. 

Some Scottish lawyers address the global marketplace by offering Scots law advice within a regional branch office of an international or national firm. However, in my view, more Scottish lawyers should be seeking to emulate their very successful international clients headquartered in Scotland by offering top quality legal services from Scotland – not just in Scotland. 

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In recent times, the Scottish political arena has brought much internal examination but it is vital that the Scottish legal sector looks outwards. The UK, in particular the City of London, has been very successful in exporting legal services overseas and there is no reason why Scotland cannot do the same. 

Within financial services, burgeoning UK and EU regulation and the impact of US tax rules means that, with the provision of legal services, national borders are becoming much less relevant. Regulated businesses need advisers who can address global regulatory concerns. The idea of a “Scottish” lawyer in this sector is as redundant as the idea of a “Scottish” banker or a “Scottish” fund manager. Our clients see themselves as international business people who happen to enjoy living in Scotland; their lawyers should have the same perspective. 

The Scottish financial services sector and its legal profession grew in tandem and earned well-deserved reputations for expertise in their respective fields. Despite the financial crisis in certain financial services sectors, Scotland still boasts world-leading businesses in asset management, life insurance and banking. New banks are being established in Edinburgh and there are numerous start-up fund management businesses. The Scottish law firms risk being left behind.

Scottish law firms have a strong legal heritage, well educated and highly trained professionals, an efficient cost base, access to the City of London and the option to use English law and courts. More and more international clients are looking to open branches in the EU, and the UK offers the most accessible means of establishing a presence in the EU. These clients need to be guided through detailed regulations, especially in financial services. US clients make no distinction between a lawyer based in Washington DC, New York or Boston. The same should apply to Scottish lawyers who choose to operate out of Edinburgh or London. 

More than 20 years ago, I was drawn to an image on the cover of my traineeship application form: a globe. Law graduates today have a similar desire not to be limited by regional boundaries. They have grown up in a connected world in which national boundaries are increasingly irrelevant. 

Law firms can and should offer these opportunities. Expecting bright, talented law graduates to confine themselves to advising Scottish companies on Scots law purely within Scotland is limiting and unrealistic.

Other graduates have opportunities to work in world-class Scottish businesses across sectors such as oil and gas, technology, food and drink, engineering and financial services. Law firms should and can offer the same.

As a legal trainee, the idea of business travel was exciting. Now it can be a chore. Technology means that clients expect lawyers to be available and responsive whatever time zone they are in and means that advice can be given from anywhere in the world. 

The same technology makes the export of legal services feasible for ambitious Scottish law firms. However, an old-fashioned and un-pixelated face-to-face meeting is still the gold standard for giving quality advice. So geography may be history, but the 6:40am shuttle will remain on the curriculum.

• Douglas Armstrong is Partner and Head of Funds and Financial Services at Dickson Minto WS