Business development (BD) managers who have experience of working in leading UK law firms are an attractive source of talent for overseas law firms. Sophisticated BD skills, honed by experience of working in a large UK firm, often boasting multinational clients and offices, can give such managers an edge over local candidates who may lack the same breadth and depth of expertise.
Nor is the prospect of working abroad too awful either. We increasingly interview candidates who are prioritising overseas opportunities, and not just because they want to broaden their horizons and see the world. They think it’ll deliver a healthy boost to their CV too.
But if BD does tend to be more sophisticated in UK firms, how much of a career advantage is it really to accept a BD role in a law firm overseas? And what are the challenges of working as an expat in a law firm far from home? We sought the answers from three BD managers, formerly colleagues at Pinsent Masons, and who have since set out for different distant shores – Australia, Singapore and the UAE.
For Daniel Smith, the allure of an overseas post is obvious. His role as Business Development Manager for Baker & McKenzie in Singapore exposes him to a wealth of different cultures, as he works day-to-day with partners from across the Baker & McKenzie Asia Pacific network. ‘My practice group heads have been based in Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines,’ he says, adding that he gets the opportunity to work with lawyers from countries as culturally different as Japan, Indonesia, Myanmar and Taiwan. ‘The regional BD team in which I sit is also extremely international. Many of us have different language skills and come from various cultural backgrounds… To work with so many colleagues who have such an international background makes for a really exciting and dynamic workplace.’
But it’s not just a cultural adventure that’s on offer to expats. BD roles abroad appear to be evolving rapidly too – promising candidates better day-to-day challenges and more career development opportunities long-term. All three managers, for instance, play a role in helping to shape their firm’s strategy and culture – a distant cry from the days of old when, they all agree, BD managers would often be relegated to producing marketing brochures and events.
The evolving world of BD
Chris Blakeley, Business Development Manager at Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) based in Melbourne, says he is lucky to work with partners who ‘get BD’ and expect it to be strategic, proactive and deliver value to the business. ‘Much of this involves managing fairly significant change projects around how we do business to meet client expectations,’ he says. ‘This empowers the team to work on initiatives that I know many BD professionals in the sector don’t get access to.’
Specifically, he is part of his Global Head of Practice’s management team which gives him a voice at the table on BD, marketing, people and finance issues relating to the group. ‘This allows me to have an influence on strategy development and not just be utilised to execute an already developed strategy,’ he says.
Both Blakeley and Smith have taken roles in large international firms, where you might expect a relatively sophisticated approach to BD. Martin Bragg chose a different route, however, accepting the role of Business Development Manager at independent UAE firm Hadef & Partners. While it’s one of the largest firms in the UAE, it is small by UK standards. A concern might be, therefore, that it can’t offer the same opportunities as some of the global firms. Bragg, however, thinks that there have been distinct advantages to taking a role in a smaller firm.
‘The benefit of that for me is that I am not dictated to by an international head office. As such I have been able, to a certain extent, to set my own agenda, and my colleagues in Dubai and I play a key role in driving the culture of the firm,’ he explains. ‘That has extended beyond traditional BD boundaries and we are instigating changes in areas like learning and development that will benefit our lawyers and ultimately clients.’
He also enjoys considerable access to the firm’s clients, a point which he contrasts with his experience in the UK, where he thinks client interaction is still the exception rather than the rule. ‘When I first joined I met many GCs and in-house lawyers to get a feel for the perception the market had of Hadef & Partners. Encouragingly the reaction I got from clients was 100% positive, many making the point that other firms do not encourage this kind of conversation with clients… It is great to work in an environment where I am trusted to have those conversations.’
Blakeley agrees, saying the opportunity to have a lot of direct access to clients was one of the key factors in his decision to take the role at HSF. ‘HSF has long established “care for the client” and “client listening” programmes. BD are at the forefront of these initiatives and we meet with clients (independently of the partners) to discuss HSF team performance, opportunities to work together in other legal disciplines, legal project management, pricing and general relationship management.’ This too differs to his experiences in the UK, in which he says access to clients was more limited or done in conjunction with a partner.
Small world – growing opportunity
Globalisation has no doubt played a part in developing the sophistication of these BD roles. An example, for instance, is where international business is impacting legal services pricing no matter what the size or location of firm. As Blakeley says, ‘the globalisation of the legal sector and law firm mergers have seen the legal markets and subsequent client expectations on price and price certainty more closely align.’
More specifically for the BD role, this has meant that Blakeley has had the opportunity to get far more involved in pricing initiatives at HSF. ‘I have, along with one of my partners, led a national pricing and legal project management initiative which has seen us train the majority of our lawyers in LPM and developed work type specific offerings for clients that deliver certainty, clarity and efficiency,’ he says.
Even in many countries in Asia, which Smith says have been resolute to the idea of hourly rates, things are changing. ‘Clients want cost certainty and not surprises everywhere,’ he says. With that, he adds, all firms will need to get better at ensuring efficient and cost-effective delivery. By implication the BD role will also need to grow.
The challenges of change
There are clearly real opportunities for UK business development professionals seeking roles abroad – some of which may even challenge the sophistication of roles in the largest UK firms. ‘[My move] has allowed me to work in an environment where I have been hired on the basis of my ideas and, in general, been given the room to implement them,’ says Bragg. ‘This is in stark contrast to many firms in the UK where in many BD roles the primary requirement is to "keep things on track".’
Smith agrees. ‘I now manage a team of six and the portfolio of practices I help manage have total revenues larger than most UK law firms outside the top 15. These are opportunities I doubt I would have had if I had remained in the UK four years ago,’ he says.
Of course there are always challenges in moving abroad – not least in understanding different cultures and languages. Getting to know the local business market can be a steep learning curve too. ‘You take for granted when growing up in a country how much you automatically know about clients, which all changes when arriving in a new country,’ says Blakeley.
Differences in team sizes may also require some adjustment. In moving to Abu Dhabi, for instance, Bragg knew he would be working alone a lot of the time. He says he works very closely with his opposite number in the Dubai office, and gets on with the lawyers well, but he still misses the day-to-day camaraderie of working with a ‘good, close BD team’.
This may be avoided by moving to an international office of a global firm – as Smith did with Baker & McKenzie. But this may of course just raise the opposite concern. ‘One of the challenges for me is actually the sheer scale and size of Baker & McKenzie,’ he says. ‘Although I have experience of a Big 4 accountant, the international nature of my role at the firm means constant collaboration and communication across national teams, regional teams (and sub-regional teams at times) and global teams. Sometimes things fall through the cracks.’
For these three BD managers, however, these are clearly relatively minor challenges compared to the many opportunities that they have enjoyed from moving abroad. As ever, candidates seeking roles in other countries will need to think carefully about the kind of role and firm that will suit them, but the good news is that there appear to be ever more options to explore for ambitious and skilled BD managers.
We leave the former colleagues of Pinsent Masons promising each other a reunion in their old London drinking hole, the Sekforde Arms. When they get there, they will no doubt revel in the familiarity of the setting and the memories it evokes. And in that moment, perhaps they will also realise just how far their lives have permanently and positively changed because of their overseas adventures.