The power of embracing change

Some 18 months ago, I was asked to share my thoughts with Canadian Lawyer readers on how Canadian law firms can compete successfully in a rapidly changing global legal market. At that time, our firm was embracing transformative change by combining to form Dentons, dramatically expanding our footprint, and creating a global platform to better serve our clients.

Within this context, I highlighted both the tremendous challenges and prospects that changes in the legal practice and market offer our profession, and how scaling the challenges to seize the opportunities would require redefining and reinventing our world through the lens of our clients’ aspirations - casting off our traditional, comfortable, and arguably outdated perspective as part of this process. I suggested that, more than ever, Canadian firms need to own their destiny: start with a blank page, listen to their clients, respond quickly, and persevere through the discomfort and risk that come with change.

I have been asked again to share my perspective and the backdrop is, once more, a time of dramatic change at our firm. We have embarked on the next chapter of our transformation: very soon, Dentons will combine with ?? [Dacheng], the largest law firm in China - a historic first combination of a leading Chinese law firm and a leading global firm. We welcome more than 4,000 new colleagues; lawyers and professionals across 51 offices, including offices located in 44 of China’s current and emerging commercial centres and all 34 of China’s administrative divisions.

Why China? Why now, and why so big and bold? At both Dentons and ??, we are fully aligned in goal and vision: the answer is our clients. We listen carefully to understand where our clients will need and want to invest and grow their businesses, and where some of their most promising opportunities will be. China is at or near the top of the list for Western clients, as Chinese business aspires to expand globally.

We anticipate where our clients will most need our expertise and require our lawyers to be situated - in many jurisdictions but working as one team. For our clients, we decided to navigate the risk that uncharted territory can bring and to create a very different global law firm.

China has undergone incredible change over the past few decades, changes that have completely altered the country’s position in, and relationship with, the rest of the world. Its formidable size and population create a huge market with unparalleled potential. Today boasting the largest and fastest growing economy in the world, China increasingly attracts our clients, with more and more businesses looking to invest there.

Concurrently, more Chinese businesses are pursuing growth opportunities beyond their borders and expanding operations throughout the world. Indeed, last year marked the first time China’s outbound direct investment surpassed inbound investment. All of this is supported by the Chinese government’s stated commitment to the commercial rule of law, and the emergence of a young but dynamic and entrepreneurial legal profession ready to take the global stage.

As a global firm, we cannot ignore the client imperative driven by this kind of growth and opportunity.

For Canada, the pull east is particularly compelling. China has become our second-largest trading partner and with investments between our countries steadily rising, both countries see the rich potential and benefit of continuing to develop this powerful trading relationship. China’s population has a burgeoning demand for energy, natural resources, agriculture, technology, and service products, and Canada has the resources and the skills to meet that demand.

The Canadian legal profession, with our common and civil law, bilingual proficiency, and cultural diversity, can also be an effective bridge between China and emerging markets, such as Latin America and Africa, in some of these key sectors.

Of course, law firms need to consider more than geography: delivering excellence and value to clients is as important as being where they need us. For successful global firms, delivering seamless and efficient service is paramount; the promise of consistently high-quality services across the globe is a primary feature our clients seek.

For Dentons and ??, we have found the synergies necessary to answer our clients’ needs: we share the same commitment, approach, and vision for excellent and innovative client service. With ??, we also recognized the powerful fresh perspective this relatively young firm in a relatively young legal marketplace will bring to our practice as we embark together on the globalization of the Chinese legal profession.

As I wrote 18 months ago, globalization, the ascent of technology, economic uncertainty, mounting client expectations in a buyer’s market, changing demographics, and a host of other factors are altering the legal landscape profoundly. And I still believe the best way to meet change is to embrace it.

To compete and succeed, Canadian firms need to remain completely focused on clients and anticipate their needs; we need to watch what they are doing, see where they are going, and listen to what they are saying. Our clients expect us to keep an eye on and engage new technologies, creative approaches, and new service lines, just as they are doing.

To compete and succeed, Canadian firms need to reframe our world through the lens of our clients’ needs and aspirations. We need to recognize that this evolutionary stage in our conservative profession presents massive opportunities to reinvent the practice of law. At Dentons, this approach has resulted in our new firm.

When creating Dentons two years ago, we committed to maintaining our distinctive polycentric approach to both serving our clients and building our firm. This means no head office or national flag and no dissipation of our rich, diverse culture; this means being “in and of the community” in all the markets we serve.

This commitment holds true in our ?? Dentons combination. We started as firms rooted in our local communities. As we expand and offer more to our clients, we ensure we continue to maintain and grow those roots - our local histories and connections, our local insights and service - while at the same time creating a solid one-firm identity and client experience across all our offices around the globe. A tall order indeed; but, we have learned it is by no means impossible and, more importantly, it is well worth the effort for our clients. Simply put, this is who we are.

What is next as we continue to listen to and follow our clients? Ask me again in 18 months.

Chris Pinnington is Canada CEO of Dentons. This is the first in a year-long series where law firm and law department leaders will share their thoughts on the practice and future of law.

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