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Lawyers who go beyond the call of duty for clients can become trusted advisers and problem-solvers in times of extreme need. But what happens when this is tested on an unforeseeable scale? While Covid-19 has put great pressure on law firms and clients, some innovative lawyers are using new models of engagement to prove their value.
Lockdowns, supply chain disruption, business closures and duty of care for staff and customers all create liabilities and legal headaches for companies. Lawyers have had to act quickly and understand clients’ needs in depth — all while face-to-face meetings are often severely impractical, if not impossible.
Martin Desautels, managing partner at law firm DFDL, based in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) region, says that when Covid-19 hit, business development and networking initially posed a challenge — particularly with travel restrictions around the region. The firm operates in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Laos, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
“The relevance of maintaining and growing client relationships was heightened,” says Mr Desautels, based in Vietnam. Within weeks, DFDL’s 400 staff from 12 different offices were working from home with “almost no disruption in the workflow and responsiveness”.
The firm’s lawyers wrote personal emails to key clients, offered reassurance via video calls, and provided free advice on how to deal with Covid-related problems. DFDL also launched a new practice area for restructuring and insolvency business. The goal was to continue providing clients with legal advice, while building trust and confidence by showing that the firm understood their business and strategic needs.
“When you’re more than just a guy who writes a contract and who tells clients what not to do . . . then you become a trusted adviser to whom they will go for advice on many things beyond just the law,” says Mr Desautels.
Law firms with strong knowledge of their clients’ businesses are better placed to weather the crisis and react quickly.
“The pandemic and the various responses to it have required rapid legal advice in an uncertain environment,” says Sam Nickless, a partner and chief operating officer at law firm Gilbert + Tobin in Sydney.
Before the pandemic, G+T helped Australian telco operator Telstra — a longstanding client — complete a wholesale change management project. The initiative strengthened ties between the law firm and Telstra, which has proved invaluable in the current crisis.
As part of the project, Telstra’s in-house legal team reorganised its operating structure, but it was unclear how this would affect its dealings with external lawyers. The team felt an outside law firm could advise them on governance structures and business rules.
“We realised we needed to have some structure and inside knowledge about how law firms operated, so that we could engage with them efficiently and productively,” says Denise Doyle, a change management expert hired by Telstra to lead the transformation.
G+T helped determine operating procedures for the legal team, including how to better engage with outside counsel, and price and brief law firms. A legal project management expert from G+T was seconded to Telstra’s in-house team to stress test new operational models.
“I came with all the change management methodologies, tools and templates, but the G+T expert — who had also previously worked as a lawyer — was able to translate them into ‘lawyer speak’ and provide an insider’s understanding of what various business strategies would mean for our engagement with law firms,” says Ms Doyle.
For John Flood, professor of law and society at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, the renewed closeness with clients is a return to the past.
“Relationships between lawyers and clients were a lot closer until around the 1990s, when they suddenly became a lot more transactional in nature,” he says. “Law firms now find themselves in a position where clients are expecting more from them — more value and a better understanding of their businesses and needs.”
Prof Flood says this is partly because clients are becoming more sophisticated in how they purchase services — once only the corporate law department would engage law firms but now, for instance, a company’s procurement or finance team might hire a firm directly.
The need for closer relationships is also a sign of the times, he adds. “Wider societal changes — Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, responses to the global pandemic — are all issues that force law firms to respond with hands-on approaches, often outside their comfort zone.”
Law firm partners have always been reluctant to change procedures for fear it will affect their profits or payouts, says Prof Flood, but the pandemic is making them rethink client relationships: “There may come a time when they find they have no choice but to change.”
G+T’s Mr Nickless knew that in helping his client’s in-house lawyers become more efficient and productive, his team’s recommendations might run counter to the law firm’s short-term interests. “But we were confident that in the long term, the trust we were building would lead to a closer relationship — and probably pay off on the legal side of the business down the track,” he says. “And that’s how it worked out.”
New contacts: Investment matchmaking at DFDL
Connecting clients with professionals in his network is a way for Martin Desautels, managing partner at Asean law firm DFDL, to add value beyond the transactional.
Drawing on decades of experience shepherding M&A deals in the region, the firm has created a system to match investors with opportunities.
“In this region of many countries, languages and cultures, the right information on deal flow is critical,” says Mr Desautels.
Launched internally a year ago, the Connector Unit is a deal flow database and app, which staff can use to track investment opportunities and connect with potential investors, primarily among the firm’s existing client base.
The system has so far identified 175 projects seeking investment and has made about 75 connections.
While private equity deal flow services and clubs are not necessarily a new proposition in Asia, Mr Desautels says the system’s strength comes from the firm’s regional network of relationships, its regulatory, legal and tax strengths and experience, and the knowledge of its 400 employees.
“The intention is to use the Connector Unit — which now has its own staff — to channel legal and tax work though transactions that materialise from successful connections,” he says. “It’s what we’ve been doing for decades, just now we do it in a systematic and professional manner.”
Aside from building closer connections with current clients, the unit has also led to conversations with new contacts, Mr Desautels says.
The tables below rank law firms for the FT Innovative Lawyers Asia-Pacific awards
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