News & Views

Diversity, GCs and directories – learnings from IBA Seoul

‘Legal directories Part 3: why do law firms and general counsel (GC) work with legal directories?’ saw a prominent panel share their diverse experience and insights from across the legal sector.

A globally representative room of over 180 delegates, heard chair Paul Marmor (LFMC & Sherrards Solicitors) and speakers David Burgess (The Legal 500, UK), Jeff Davis (Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, Canada), Melissa Davis (MD Communications, UK), David Delman (Samsung Engineering Company, South Korea), Stephen Denyer (The Law Society of England and Wales, UK) and Hyunjoo Oh (Lee & Ko, South Korea) discuss candidly the relationship between GCs and their private practice counterparts, the influence legal directories can have on that relationship, and the ways in which GCs are influencing and driving change in the legal sector on diversity and other key issues.

Feedback from across the panel, and as indicated by the full attendance in the room, underlined the continuing influence and value of legal directory rankings and editorial, which are produced after months of detailed research. This perspective was shared by partner, Hyunjoo Oh, from one of the host city firms, commenting on the impact of rankings in the Asian market, “the directories are the best intelligence to have that objective knowledge and cross-border understanding of firms.”

Drawing on his former role as regional managing partner (Europe) for a global elite law firm, Stephen Denyer discussed the value of directory rankings to alliances and firms’ global growth strategy. With clients increasingly demanding global solutions, larger firms in particular use rankings to assess firms in target jurisdictions that match their values, as part of a long term strategy of engagement with global clients.

Clients, particularly GCs, turn to the directories as a source of credible market information, providing validation that their external lawyers are what they need them to be – whether that is a global leader with strong local rankings, the leading team in a specialist area, and increasingly a firm with shared values.

Firms were also reminded to use the directories process as a chance to take the temperature on client relationships and the health of their teams.  Time spent researching and compiling submissions should be used by the savvy firm to take stock, reviewing rankings and editorial to assess where their teams really sit in the market, the health of client relationships and pipelines.  An important observation from David Burgess, “researchers want to find out something different about your practice, something that stands out.”  This is no different to how clients assess firms – they want to find out what makes you stand out.  If you struggle to narrate this to the directories, it’s a good indication that a team needs to get to know and understand their market and clients and develop their offering.

While every delegate in the room was under no doubt about the importance and value of paying attention to their rankings, insights shared generously by Jeff and David, provided a unique opportunity to hear the learnings and ask questions of two leading GCs.

Between them, they are responsible not only for millions of dollars of spend on legal services but also for shaping positive outcomes for the companies they represent, helping their organisations to make better decisions and playing a leading role in evolving the culture that makes their businesses what they are.

While both confirmed that directory rankings are used to validate choice of advisers, cross reference referrals and to ensure that they work with the right teams across multiple jurisdictions on “ every commercial issue you could think of”, there was a wider message for delegates.

Chair Paul Marmor asked Jeff and David Delman if GCs take diversity and inclusion into account when selecting law firms.  More than an emphatic yes, both gave a clear explanation of why firms must pay attention.

David Delman commented “It’s a scientific fact, diversity produces better outcomes. In negotiations, people hear and see different things. In disputes, fact finding is essential and getting people to talk can be difficult. We need diversity of people to gather and interpret facts and apply them.”

Jeff’s view “the focus on inclusion and diversity at the [IBA] conference is great. GCs want to help implement and shape the profession in this way. Diversity of thought leads to better ideas.”

However, there is a stark difference between ‘diversity for optics’ and ‘showing up’ and GCs are past just testing a firm’s commitment.  Jeff now requests all firms to discuss their Inclusion & Diversity programs – in fact, a number of firms bill in gender dollars and gender hours, although this initiative is in early stages.   Jeff’s view is when GCs ask their firms to “understand our business better” that they truly mean “understand me and how we feel about this matter better”.  Of course he seeks firms with top legal skills, but he believes that advisors that can demonstrate empathy, the capability to be vulnerable and authenticity are the top performers.  Jeff summed this up “if I have a complicated deal which is important to our fund, rather than simply saying ‘we are the best’, if you can demonstrate your ability to put yourself in our shoes, from an emotional angle, understand how we feel, that is how to develop trust with clients.”

Underlining the importance of these themes, Melissa observed the wider shift and cultural change within the profession especially in terms of discussing and addressing mental health issues and openness to discussing and sharing their vulnerabilities in a safe work space and mutually supportive environment.

With the potential to have significant impact on relationships with current and new clients, retention of talent and developing cultures that are aligned across client and adviser, the values that underpin all of our relationships – diversity, wellness, protecting mental health –  must be at the top of law firms’ agendas as advisers and employers.

Paul wrapped up the session confirming the importance, when it came to the submissions process,  of providing good and responsive referees.