2021: all networks are not equal

Let’s be honest: people don’t really know about networks – legal networks, that is. Ostensibly, they are groups of firms that come together to achieve a common goal: in Multilaw’s case, that is providing greater reach, capabilities and broader expertise to our members, so they can provide better services to clients. But while some lawyers and even the occasional client claim to know a thing or two about networks, they often don’t know what they are or what they do.

Of course this is reasonable when you consider that networks can be (and often are) very different to one another. There are hundreds of networks out there, but even among the biggest and best-known, there are important structural and cultural differences, differences that are important to understand for any firm that is considering joining a network for the first time. This need is particularly acute for firms looking to navigate a fast-changing world still struggling with Covid-19, a period that has seen Multilaw become more active, modern and interconnected where other networks have struggled to adapt effectively.

First: networks have vastly different goals, methods, and levels of vitality. This network, Multilaw, counts 90 independent law firms in over 100 countries and counting, with a tireless focus on quality and quality growth. Facilitating referrals and helping our members to grow is of course key. However, it is also a non-profit organisation, owned and run for and by its members: our members decide what to do and how to do it for themselves (we trust members to make the best decisions when it comes to client work – a fact that might surprise the uninitiated). This is not the case for all.

Such facts may surprise some with a cursory knowledge of legal networks. However, even among the nine global networks ranked by Chambers in its ‘elite’ (of which Multilaw is one – one of five in its Asia Pacific guide), all networks are not equal. Some are profit-seeking, privately owned enterprises. Others have outsourced their management to events companies. Some even claim to be ‘exclusive’ – i.e. member firms are meant belong to that one network alone. Yet, run a finger through their respective directories and you will find firms affiliated with not just one network, but several more (including this one). Multilaw is not exclusive. Indeed, we makes no pretences about exclusivity: we believe that any network should be a powerful component of a firm’s international strategy, but never the whole. This is a notion that would seem unrealistic to anyone with a basic understanding of the demands placed on law firms in the 21st century: any firm needs to be free to refer their clients to the firm of best fit. But any firm can (and should) seek to benefit from a formal, professional network it can rely on: to refer, collaborate and seek guidance.

However, not all networks can be relied on: some have become messy multi-disciplinary minefields that failed to effectively fuse the worlds of accountancy and law. The referrals between the two rarely materialise. Other networks have what seems to be an impressive reach through the number of firms they count as members (impressive until you realise many are composed of smaller provincial firms, often weighted towards one country such as the United States). Meanwhile, Multilaw puts huge emphasis on quality control and professional fit, during both the admissions process and through a follow-up appraisals system. Some older networks have simply withered through a lack of an appraisals process, and today linger on as outdated catalogues of former ‘best friends’ no longer in keeping with professional standards or fit for purpose. They boast no platforms or meaningful initiatives designed to promote the next generation, as does Multilaw with its Young Lawyers Group, and ever-popular Multilaw Academy.

There are even misperceptions among those that interact with networks on a regular basis: one poll of blue-chip general counsel found many believe that networks act purely in the interest of their members (however it can surely be said that the same ‘dichotomy’ exists for law firms – or any firm or association).

The reality is that as long as a network is focused on the right things by helping its members, this in turn helps clients: there is no way that a network like Multilaw could ever intervene in a matter to steer proceedings away from their best interests, or ever wish to. The best networks survive (and thrive) this way while the rest fade away by a process of economic selection.

Sometimes misperceptions are even borne from within: even members of networks can have with a limited understanding of their promise and potential. To give an example, a partner at one Multilaw firm lamented to our Executive Director that they were not receiving enough Fortune 500-type work from other member firms. The firm in question certainly punches above its weight for size and is clearly capable of quality work for major corporate clients, and they expected that a network would automatically provide a stream of work of this calibre – but a look on the firm’s website showed a firm positioning itself for the mid-market: skilfully so, but a huge turnoff to any Fortune 500-type client.

The Multilaw Global Office worked closely with this firm on its positioning, helping and offering advice with their website, brochures, and making sure all the partners, associates and staff of the firm were on-message. This resulted in a significant increase in the kind of high-end work they desired. Thus through a better understanding of what a network can offer, and what a firm must do for themselves, the network has become a more effective tool, and in turn, that firm has become a better law firm.

Of course one could go on for days counting the myriad ways that each individual network is different to the next. But the bottom line is, especially when choosing a network, remember that all networks are not equal. So do your homework, and choose wisely.