From French Fries to Freedom Fries: Notes from Paris

By Salli Anne Swartz

I sometimes think that international law is a code name for a profession that means something different to everyone. Is the “right” term the international practice of law or the practice of international law? Does it matter? Where do we all fit in these myriad choices and practices?

Graveyards and births. Most of the firms that were the international stars in the 1970s and 1980s have either disappeared or merged. The graveyard of the big and famous is growing, small practices are shrinking, sole practitioners are just surviving, and the competition is ruthless. Partners in the top international firms have opened offices in five continents and are now questioning how to survive in the new crisis mode. Are big firms benefiting from economies of size or are they suffering from overwhelming and uncontrollable “keep up with the Joneses” overhead? With large firms cutting personnel, are the advantages of working in a large firm changing? The profession has changed from being a profession to that of a business. People count only insofar as they bring in the business; loyalty flew out the window along with equity partners. And because attorneys are now considered and treated as a commodity not unlike any other commodity, they are becoming more mobile and are more willing to move to different firms and practice modes.

No one has all of the answers, and the legal profession is suffering from a new identity crisis—who do we need to be to get it right and meet the needs of our internationally minded, cross-border business clients? What changes do we need to be making to get ahead of the curve quicker than the others? Is it better to be a generalist with a solid international network or a specialist in a mega-firm?

Small vs. big, specialist vs. generalist. My decision to open a small law firm in 1988 had a lot to do with buying independence and lifestyle choices than it did with rejection of the big-firm environment. But it came with choices: Independence and freedom do not give you partnership remuneration. Although small is often said to be beautiful, it does not always compensate for the convenience of infrastructure or resources. I immediately found myself doing all of the day-to-day management that bigger firms delegate to staff, and I was doing my own research as well. But I rarely have problems with conflicts of interest because I don’t swim in a big ocean. Every time a firm merges, the conflicts-of-interest conundrum becomes more important. I can be nimble and fast to adapt to new trends in practicing and new practice areas because I don’t have to do a market study and request authorization for investments in people and equipment from a committee. I can travel where I want usually when I want—assuming I want to pay for it—and I spend my time being reactive to my clients and getting ahead of the curve.

Having celebrated the 20th anniversary of the creation of my firm, I can now step back and see changes that have occurred in the last 20 years and how they have impacted my clients and my practice of international business law. The differences that existed years ago between small and mega-firms have changed. I remember when one of the advantages of practicing in a very large firm was the fabulous library; conference room facilities and infrastructure such as the best and fastest computers, telecopiers, and photocopiers; and the staff that operated such complex equipment. I also remember the top-notch practitioners who were attracted to big firms for their reputation, stability, client contacts, remuneration, and exotic practices.

Now, the big libraries still exist, but in electronic form only, and anyone anywhere can access the Internet. Aside from the huge negotiations and closings for acquisitions, mergers, and consortia agreements, clients have fewer and fewer face-to-face meetings, so the conference rooms remain pristine but unused. The equipment has becomes smaller and much less expensive. The difference in remuneration still exists, but as big firms look to stabilize costs and overhead, there may be a flattening out of this phenomena. The stellar client list still exists, but because the world is so much smaller and the Internet so much bigger, there are many more opportunities to meet and form new relationships with potential clients than there were 20 to 30 years ago when Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo, and other virtual communities did not exist.

International stasis. My practice has changed as well. There are more countries involved, and their legal environments have changed. The European Union has doubled in size; certain countries that were stable are no longer so, and some countries have so improved their legal, financial, and economic environment that foreign investment is thriving. Before the 1990s I did not counsel clients on investments in Poland or Hungary. Now I do. This requires the ability to access and understand more information in the time it takes to catch a plane. It requires being fast and mobile. It means that I have to know which free zones in Dubai have offices available and which banks are financing public-private partnerships. It means keeping up with the new labor laws in France and following the ever-changing investment regulations in the countries where my clients do business.

It translates into the structuring of transnational deals, the incorporation of companies in different jurisdictions, mergers and acquisitions across borders, hiring and firing personnel on behalf of parent companies with subsidiaries worldwide, leasing commercial real estate and purchasing residential real estate, negotiating hydrocarbon and mining joint ventures in countries with mineral and energy resources, incorporating new airlines and leasing aircraft, and mediating and arbitrating commercial and corporate disputes between and among companies of different nationalities.

Thankfully, because of the increase in the power and accessibility of the Internet’s wealth of resources and my web of ABA International colleagues and friends, if I cannot handle a client matter, I can find specialists for my client all over the world. No need to have them all in-house. In-house to me means financial overhead and client conflicts of interest. I have the luxury of a “one stop can do all” practice, but I also have the stress of getting the right information and the right references and competing with the reputations and perceived safety of the big firms.

So big or small? Generalist or specialist? What differences are the important ones to retain? In my humble opinion, big or small is no longer the question. You can practice international law in a mega-firm or be a sole practitioner; the differences are choices you will make in light of your personal preference for risk, stability, income, stress level, work habits, infrastructure demands, and types of clients.

What you do need is a creative, curious, open mind that seeks new information and enjoys new challenges. You can only be the international lawyer you want to be if you put in the time and devotion to becoming a great, technically adept lawyer who enjoys different cultural, legal, financial, and linguistic environments, and who thrives on challenges to your intellect and to the practice and challenges of our profession.

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