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Small world

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You may think it out of your reach to take on international work, but, argues Sally Azarmi, small to medium-sized firms are often well placed to take this step – and it can enrich your professional and personal life in the process

The ability to operate internationally is usually associated with large firms. The perception is often that opening and practising in international markets requires an investment in time, finances and manpower at a level that is beyond a small practice. However, my own personal experience is very different from this; in my view, being small is an asset if you want to practise internationally.

Ultimately, while it is possible to make initial contacts fairly easily, to truly succeed as an international practice, it takes time, patience and commitment, and just a little bit of a sense of adventure and daring

In these challenging times, small firms have had to adapt to many of their traditional areas of practice – criminal law, personal injury, legal aid – shrinking or even disappearing. Small firms are, by their very nature, better able to change, being flexible and adaptable. We can move into new areas of law, and we can build new relationships easily as we work on a more personal level. As such, we can also look to export our services to new markets, bringing in fresh sources of income for the long term. And in my experience, we can do this on a shoestring and also find our working lives hugely enriched by the experience.

One of my most striking memories is of finding myself sitting next to the senior partner of a firm in Kuwait at an office party with many local lawyers, enjoying an evening feast during Ramadan. I had never met any of them before that day, had never been to Kuwait before, and did not even speak the same language. The only reason I was there was that we were lawyers and I had bothered to write to them and introduce myself as an English lawyer before a business trip. People across the globe can be incredibly kind and welcoming.

This article sets out my reasons why I would encourage small firms to export their services and my tips based on my experience over 20 years of how to go about being international on a small budget.

Are there really enough opportunities?

The short answer is yes. Demand from clients for firms in England to undertake work internationally is significant, and rising. And small firms are often best placed to undertake this work.

English law is one of the world’s most respected and utilised systems of law. I have found that introducing myself as an English lawyer has been enough for complete strangers across the world to welcome me into their offices and homes, and share their problems, their working practices, their legal systems and clients with me. I have always considered this an honour, and one of the greatest advantages of being an English lawyer; as lawyers practising English law, the world is our oyster. So many international commercial contracts are subject to English law and jurisdiction, even if the performance of the contract has nothing to do with the UK. We are equipped to advise on these contracts. Who deals with these contracts? Small and medium-sized foreign law firms which need good English law advice and with which we are well placed as small firms and individuals to build good long-term relationships.

The UK is a magnet for international business. Vast numbers of small and medium-sized businesses from practically every country in the world want to do business here and need English law advice on all aspects of their business and on their personal affairs. Small firms here are well placed to advise those businesses on every aspect of their dealings, from securing visas to entering into commercial contracts or purchasing property.

There are many British citizens living and working abroad. Their needs for English law advice on private client matters continue wherever they may be living. They appreciate English lawyers going to them in their adopted country.

Finally, there are numerous English businesses wanting to export their goods and services across the globe. A law firm’s experience of a particular jurisdiction, or trusted local contacts and lawyers with whom they may be put in touch, can be an invaluable service to the client.

It’s the client and their needs which define international work for me, not the location of my firm’s office. I have clients from Holland to Iran, from Vietnam to Dubai. I can meet them in London, in their country or on Skype. I consider mine to be an international practice.

Is it right for me?

Given that the opportunities do exist, the answer is more about your appetite for the work. Ask yourself the following three questions. If the answer to all three of these is yes, taking on international work could be a great choice for your business.

Do you want to be international, and are you willing to learn how to make it happen? This means being willing to look for new markets and seeing the opportunities they offer, looking outwards into the world, and wanting to understand and work with clients in a particular country who need English law advice.

Do you have a passion for new places, seeing different ways of working, understanding other cultures and, above all, building new long-term relationships?

Are you prepared to develop a deep understanding of the business culture of the country you are dealing with? You may think you need a second language – in my case, that is where my involvement with other jurisdictions first arose. But although this can be an advantage, in my experience, if you are interested in working with a particular country, the English language alone is enough to open the door. What is far more important is an understanding of and respect for a country’s culture and business etiquette. Every country’s is different, and it is crucial to be educated on this and approach contacts with knowledge and respect for that particular culture. What works in one country may be an insult in another.

How do I get started?

Working internationally may seem like a daunting undertaking. Fortunately, there is a world of advice and encouragement out there, helping firms with their market research and finding different ways of approaching contacts and potential clients in a particular country. This support and information is also crucial once you establish yourself internationally; it’s one thing securing work, but another making sure that you protect your firm against common pitfalls in order to ensure payment is made for your services, avoid dealing with clients and countries subject to sanctions and so on. I have used all the following resources in setting up my own international practice.

UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) is the government arm which helps businesses to export and grow into global markets, and also helps overseas companies to locate in the UK. It provides an excellent starting point if you have thought about exporting your legal services but do not know where or how best to start. UKTI runs workshops, schemes, trade missions, events and webinars, all of which provide invaluable information and advice, and many of which are free. It is also able to assess a particular market and make new introductions on your behalf (this is a paid service). Trade missions set up by UKTI provide not only an opportunity to form new contacts in a new country, but also, from my own experience of several missions to the Middle East, to find new clients among other members of the mission. They are a safe way to travel to a new country, or to a country which may be difficult to travel to on your own. It is certainly worth signing up for their newsletters and information about upcoming events (see tinyurl.com/uktiinfo).

It’s one thing securing work, but another making sure that you protect your firm against common pitfalls, so that you can ensure payment is made for your services, and avoid dealing with clients and countries subject to sanctions

Joint chambers of commerce and private trade organisations are an excellent source of information on culture and the economy, and help with making new contacts. Although they may not immediately lead to a stream of new clients, membership of these organisations gives a firm credibility and visibility within a particular market and shows commitment to growth in that market. For instance, I have been a member of the Arab International Women’s Forum for many years. I am not an Arab and nor are many of the other members, nor are many of them women; I am a member simply because of my interest in working with clients in the Middle East. I have attended events held by the forum in Washington (at the World Bank), in London (at 10 Downing Street), in Malmo, and in Alexandria, and as a result made numerous contacts with whom I have worked – some of whom have also become good friends.

LinkedIn and other social media provide an immediate and vast international network at no cost. It’s obviously important to research your online contacts, but if you find a firm with common areas of practice whose clients may need your services in the UK, there is nothing to be lost by simply emailing them and offering to meet with them. You will often find that their partners travel to the UK and are very willing to meet. If I’m travelling on business (or even the odd holiday – I have a very understanding family!), I often arrange to meet for an hour with contacts I have made through LinkedIn. Arranging to meet law firms abroad while on holiday may be many people’s idea of a nightmare, but it is certainly the cheapest way to meet with new contacts abroad – if you can bear to give up an hour or two on the beach!

Conferences abroad in your area of expertise are a great source of foreign law firms and intermediaries wanting to build new relations. For instance, the annual conference of the International Bar Association, which is held in a different country every year, is an excellent forum for learning about international legal trends, and making extensive new contacts across the world.

Take the leap

Ultimately, and most importantly, while it is possible to make initial contacts fairly easily, to truly succeed as an international practice, it takes time, patience and commitment, and just a little bit of a sense of adventure and daring. A taxi ride halfway through the desert to get to a potential client should be viewed as exciting rather than worrying! There has to be a genuine interest and desire to work in and with other countries, and nothing proves this more than the willingness to meet with clients and contacts in their own country and to persist in building good relations over time. The rewards in the form of long-standing business relationships – and sometimes friendships – are well worth the investment. 

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