Global practice

By Yves Faguy September 2012

Norman Steinberg, Chairman of Norton Rose Global, discusses his new role and some of the challenges facing global law firms in today’s competitive marketplace.

Global practice Photo of Norman Steinberg by Spyros Bourboulis.

National: How are you enjoying your new role as Chairman of Norton Rose Group?

Norman Steinberg: I love it. I have enjoyed my career until now. I have been a very active practitioner, you know, in M&A and corporate governance, but I have always loved the business development side of my career. Having an opportunity to do this globally is about as good as it gets.
National: Where are we in terms of the legal marketplace as you see it?
Norman Steinberg: What we have seen in the last three years is enhanced stratification of the legal markets. So, we have some firms, like ours, becoming one of the global leaders and others deciding for their own reasons to either remain national firms or national firms with some international footprint — or even local firms where a firm can be really only relevant in a particular market like Toronto or London or New York. I prefer to be where we are, which is not only one of the largest firms in the world, but continuing with a view to maintain our position in that.
National: What does a global law firm like Norton Rose need to look at over the next five years?
Norman Steinberg: We have a very significant geographic platform now. You know, we are in 43 different cities around the world and in six continents. Our geography is unique, but we cannot stop there. We have to continue to regard opportunities sometimes ad hoc, sometimes as part of the strategic plan. At some point we are going to be in other major countries that we are not in now, like the United States and possibly in the BRIC community like Brazil (be­cause we are in Russia and in China). We would like to be in India at some point, but India has a very closed market, so we conduct our India business from other places. Right now we have about 150 lawyers in our China practice and hopefully five years from now we are at 500 lawyers or more.
National: How hard is it to operate in the Chinese legal market?
Norman Steinberg: It’s definitely a tougher market. It’s a developing market and, you know, the Chinese corporations do not have the experience of hundreds of years, as maybe we do in the West, of dealing with professionals. Do we have to be there? Of course. We cannot avoid one of the most important economies in the world. We are all there: law firms, accounting firms, investment banks; and we are all trying to run a profitable business with a view to the future.
National: What do you have to do to differentiate yourself from the competition in today’s global market? Is it branding? Is it talent retention?
Norman Steinberg: It’s all of the above. There is not one business model that suits all law firms. From our perspective, we think our geographical coverage is very unique — there is nobody that covers the geography that we do. Another thing is the focus on industry. We, for example, cover mining on an industry basis and we cover transport on an industry basis. So, we bring together teams from multi-disciplines and put them together on an industry focus. Now, this means, as well, that you can end up having the opportunities not only for great mandates and great clients, but you can also hire the best in the world. We find that our platform now is attracting people from all over the world, from various law firms in different countries, because they want to participate in what they see in our firm. All of these things are inter-connected.
National: It’s a bit of a struggle for law students looking for an articling position today. At the same time, people say there is actually going to be a big battle for talent in the coming years once we get through these tougher economic times. How do you see it?
Norman Steinberg: It is a concern that not all of the people graduating from law schools in Canada are going to end up with appropriate jobs. There just are not enough (jobs) available and I think we are graduating too many law students. On the other hand, every law firm in Canada and every law firm in New York that recruits in Canada wants the top students of every class. The fight for talent laterally means that, around the world, everybody wants the best mining lawyer in this jurisdiction or the best banking lawyer in that jurisdiction. So, we are all fighting to attain and attract the best talent. I look at it very simply, and maybe I am not objective. But if I was a student graduating from a Canadian school today and I had the choice to go to a great Canadian law firm with no international exposure or a great Canadian law firm like ours with an international platform, why would I choose the former? Students want to be involved in an international practice not only to work on it, but also to have the ability to move around the world as we offer the people in our firm.
National: So does Norton Rose have an international brand?
Norman Steinberg: In Canada, it is a very interesting situation because in Canada we had two brands. We had the Ogilvy Renault brand and the Macleod Dixon brand both in their respective markets and really well known. We recently commissioned a study as part of a global study of where our brand is and we think our brand is now the number one brand in Canada according to this independent study. Now, that is a result, I think, of a great marketing campaign by our marketing people both here and internationally, but also proactively working with our clients to ensure the transition from Ogilvy Renault and Macleod to Norton Rose is well-regarded and well-accepted by our clients.
National: It must have been quite a challenge to get over that hump to the Norton Rose brand?
Norman Steinberg: It was a challenge, but I always refer to the situation of the accounting firms. Twenty and 30 years ago all of the accounting firms around the world re-branded and merged into Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG and Ernst & Young. Quite frankly, we are following that model and a lot of our clients were quite disappointed that our brand was disappearing. But at the end of the day, it was well accepted. We could only have one global brand.
National: Norton Rose operates using a Swiss Verein structure — or separate profit centres. How do you respond to the assertion that you are really just a collection of different regional firms?
Norman Steinberg: Those are ill-informed views or sometimes sour grapes or jealousy. Quite frankly, we are a global firm. The back office is all being totally integrated and we are moving to a global IT platform, global branding, global training, we are bringing the best of the best from around the world as part of the great resources of having basically 6,000 people as part of Norton Rose. The only thing that matters at the end of the day is what our clients think. Our clients see a seamless delivery of legal services at the top calibre anywhere around the world, and that is what counts.
National: We have not seen many major Canadian firms follow your firm’s lead in merging with an international giant. Why is that?
Norman Steinberg: Well, it is just a question of time, I think. Our business model is not necessarily the right one for everyone.  So, I am not going to predict that every Canadian law firm is going to end up merging. What I will predict is there will be more mergers like ours.
National: Some suggest one of the reasons international firms are not necessarily flooding the gates here in Canada is because the whole issue of profits per partner is making elite firms think twice about coming in here. Is there any truth to that?
Norman Steinberg: I think that is an issue. There are certain international firms that are much more profitable than any Canadian law firm. So, the question is do they want to come into Canada because it is an important part of the strategy of being global and in a way that is not going to be dilutive to the profits per partner and their global platform. One way to deal with that issue is the way the accounting firms have dealt with it and then the global law firms. It’s this Swiss Verein [structure].
National: What about the partnership model. Is it outmoded or is it really still the best way to ensure long-term growth for a firm?
Norman Steinberg: Well, I am still a big believer in the partnership model, but the partnership model has evolved tremendously. You know, when I joined our firm in the 1970s, it was quite a different partnership model. Now, it is a combination of partnership, but we are also managed more as a corporation. When I joined the firm there was no such thing as a marketing department. Today, we have the infrastructure of a corporation. We have marketing teams, IT people and so forth. I believe we will continue to evolve that way, but I think we will continue to be a partnership in essence.
National: But to those who say the partnership model is outmoded, what is your best defence in favour of it?
Norman Steinberg: Well, I think the partnership is a great way of bringing diverse people from around the world together to work for a common goal; better than a simply corporate model for our type of business.
This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

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