October 23, 2012

Choosing an International Network: What to Know Before You Join

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July/August 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 5| Page 45

Choosing an International Network: What to Know Before You Join

Becoming a member of an international law firm network can hold many benefits for independent firms seeking to extend their reach across borders. While expectations and objectives will vary, there are several common goals in joining these cross-border alliances—including building an international practice through inward referrals, retaining existing clients that have needs in foreign markets that the firm can’t serve, and winning new and larger clients locally. Whatever their objectives, however, firms must investigate whether a network can meet their expectations. Here’s a list of factors that will guide the decision.

No two networks are the same. When short-listing international networks, the most important factors to consider are clients’ needs—both current and future. Think of where your firm’s clients and the incumbent member firms’ clients do business, and scrutinize the member firms’ capabilities in those cities. Look carefully at not only technical ability and industry expertise, but also at whether the firms embrace similar values—and therefore can feel comfortable referring their clients to one another. The culture of any network is defined to a large degree by its members’ values, and ensuring a good cultural fit is an essential ingredient of successful membership.

A strict admissions policy and quality control are critical. The specific hoops a firm has to jump through to secure membership status vary from one network to another. It’s essential, though, that a sufficiently rigorous due diligence process is applied to new entrants and that an ongoing review process ensures that only performing members remain. At the very least, the entry process should consist of a detailed application form, scrutiny of client lists, and checks for conflicts of interest and litigation threats. Preferably a network representative makes an on-site visit to applicant firms as well. A requirement that firms adhere to a charter or code of conduct once membership has been granted is a good sign that quality-control procedures are in place.

In addition, although it’s less easy to track, try to determine how much churn the network is experiencing. The more stable the organization, the greater the likelihood of long-term referral relationships among the firms.

High-quality meetings and services are a good network’s cornerstones. It’s also important to consider a network’s meetings program. The ability to meet contacts in the flesh at a range of meetings ensures valuable networking opportunities. It also ensures that the lawyers become more to each other than just names in a directory and thus will be more confident about referring their clients to each other. Look into previous network meetings to find out how well attended they were, what topics were discussed, and what speaking and marketing opportunities were on offer. Also, look at whether the network has meetings at the local, regional and international levels, as well as practice group meetings that provide opportunities to network with lawyers working on similar client engagements and management issues.

In terms of assessing services, does the network appear to spread itself too thinly by providing 101 different services the firm will never need? A staffed secretariat office that offers focused, dedicated support and provides access to resources central to member firms’ success is a very useful component in a network.

Membership should match with the firm’s use of existing relationships. Network membership does not, by design, erode a firm’s independent status. However, you should look carefully at the “exclusivity requirements” of some networks and whether they require use of network firms when referring clients. If your firm already has strong relationships with firms in a number of countries, it may be best to avoid this type of network.

That factor, however, should be balanced with an appreciation of the reality that any good referral relationship has to be reciprocal, and that best efforts must be made to refer work to network members when circumstances allow. Membership opens up a whole new avenue of referrals, and failure to refer work out inevitably restricts inward referrals.

Membership is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Last but far from least, when joining any network, you must understand that the benefits of membership will be commensurate with the time, energy and commitment that the firm invests over the long term. Crucial to ensuring the relationship works is maintaining firmwide awareness and buy-in to the network concept. After all, if your lawyers and staff aren’t aware of the firm’s membership, don’t understand the value, and aren’t willing to use the network’s resources, then how can membership succeed?

Also, don’t overlook the fact that network membership can give the firm’s marketing and business development professionals an extra weapon in their armory, strengthening the firm’s hand when targeting larger, more nationally or internationally focused clients—and providing access to a captive audience of law firms around the world to whom the firm’s services can be promoted. But again, your professionals need to make an ongoing effort to realize these goals.

About the Author

Giles Brake is Marketing Manager of the London-based MSI Global Alliance, an international association of independent legal and accounting firms, with over 250 member firms in 100 countries.