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Conference examines impact of globalization on the legal profession

global law

Trevor Faure, general counsel for Europe, Middle East & Africa, Tyco International, offering his perspective on the Global Law Firm.

Hundreds of American law firms have expanded their operations overseas in the last 20 years to meet the needs of clients in an increasingly global economy.

The largest firms now span the globe, some with thousands of lawyers practicing worldwide in geographically diverse offices. Large corporations seek to create and maintain common identities among in-house attorneys practicing in a multitude of jurisdictions that typically report upward to a single general counsel resident in one nation.

On Nov. 21, the Harvard Law School Program on the Legal Profession and the American Society of International Law sponsored a conference—titled “Globalization of the Legal Profession” —at HLS to examine the growing internationalization of the practice of law.

Click here for the coverage in The American Lawyer.

Panel discussions focused on the impact of globalization on law firms, international and domestic regulatory frameworks, and a case study—led by HLS Professor and PLP director David Wilkins ’80 (at left) —on the legal profession in India. A broad range of speakers offered the varied perspectives of private law practitioners, government lawyers, academic scholars, government officials, consultants, corporate counsel and the judiciary.

James Jones, managing director of Hildebrandt International, a legal consulting group, insisted that globalization is an “irreversible phenomenon.”

Jones was the managing partner of Washington, D.C.-based Arnold & Porter from 1986 to 1995, during a time when he said American firms were “dipping their toes” into the international market.

“But today, US firms have become truly global,” he said. “They have international offices that are increasingly staffed by nationals of that country. The old idea of ‘We’re just here to practice American law’ has become a thing of the past.”

Recent research by Citi Private Bank has born out the competitive advantage held by law firms with significant international presences, Jones said.

Peter J. Kalis, the chairman and global managing partner of K&L Gates, a 1,700-lawyer international firm, agreed with Jones that the practice of law is changing dramatically.

“Scale matters and scope matters because even modest-sized clients these days can be in global markets,” he said. “That’s what is driving what law firms are doing.”

Kalis pointed out that of the 50 biggest global law firms, 47 have offices in London, 47 in New York, 43 in Washington, D.C., and 36 in Hong Kong.

“Clearly, this is the template that’s emerging,” he said. “If you want to run with the big dogs, you have to be arrayed in a way that matters.”

Not all panelists shared this assessment, however.

U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns ’76 said that the current global economic decline cannot be ignored.

“You have to ask yourself how much there is going to be an international practice of law if the disintegration of the world’s economic order continues at the rate at which it’s been accelerating in the last two weeks,” he said. “At the end of the day, there may not be much for international lawyers to even contemplate.”

Stearns, who serves as a rule of law advisor to the U.S. Defense and State Departments and to NATO, predicted that continuing economic decline will mean a rise in nationalism and protectionism, which would not bode well for globally focused enterprises.

“The impulse to reject international regimes is a strong one,” he said, “and it raises the question of how relevant the topic being discussed today may be in another decade if the world does not right itself.”

But other panelists suggested that increasingly strong international organizations and protocols will support the continued growth of global law firms. Laurel S. Terry, a professor at Penn State Dickinson School of Law, provided an overview of various trade agreements, anti-trust initiatives, and regulatory bodies.

While such mechanisms provide a framework for global legal practice, however, they also raise questions about lawyer regulation. Serious conflicts exist between American procedural rules for lawyers and those in other countries, said panelist Catherine A. Rogers, another law professor at Penn State Dickinson School of Law (see photo above). 

“Our adjudication system is predicated, I believe, on an assumption that we sometimes not only want to allow, but oftentimes require, U.S. lawyers to violate foreign law,” she said.

In 2007, she said, an American lawyer working in France was criminally convicted and fined 10,000 euros for interviewing a witness in that country to obtain information for a proceeding in the U.S. She suggested that the American Bar Association’s Rules of Professional Conduct be amended to address issues of global obedience to laws in other nations.

Terry said that lawyers must be cognizant that globalization may change the manner in which they will be expected to practice law.

“There is a growing international regulatory framework and regulators are going to be benchmarking us cross-professionally and cross-culturally and if we deviate they’re going to want to know why we think we need this deviation,” she said. “They may be skeptical of our existing regulations, and I don’t think we can necessarily assume that we’ll get much deference.”

--Dick Dahl

© 2015 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.