Senior Partner;A&O: 2001-present
Global Managing Partner;A&O: 1987-present
Given that 2018 was another year of record success for A&O, capped by winning its sixth Most Innovative Law Firm in Europe title at the Financial Times Innovative Lawyer Awards, Wim and Andrew could be forgiven for starting to take it easy. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Now you’re two years into your respective terms, how is it going?
Wim: Is it only two years? As a leadership team, we’re having a lot of fun. Our working relationship is very intense. There’s a lot happening at the moment, but it’s great to have a ‘partner in crime’. Frankly, you need one in an organisation like ours, where you have a lot of strong personalities.
Andrew: This is, of course, because our colleagues are passionate about the business and the firm.
WD: Yes, it comes from a very high level of emotional engagement, which is a strength, but it doesn’t make leadership any easier. That’s a good thing though – if people didn’t have that emotional engagement, you wouldn’t have such a strong and stable business.
And what happens if you disagree?
AB: We shut the door and we talk. But it doesn’t happen very often.
Is it easier now you have worked together for two years?
AB: It does get easier. Wim is ‘big picture’ and conceptual, and I like to get into the detail. We tend to meet in the middle. We’re also both very ambitious for the firm. In the past, there were headlines in Legal Business of ‘Allen & Overly Cautious’. These days, no one thinks Allen & Overy is too cautious any more.
WD: We both have the ambition to make sure that the next generation has the best platform possible. That makes life much harder. We could take it easy but we’re wired in a different way! That means the firm may need to make some big decisions.
AB: We’ve worked hard to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. Our network is more extensive than our peers’, innovation is a core strength now, we’re ambitious for the future and we have the opportunity to pull ahead of our peer group.
WD: Success over the last ten years is no guarantee for success for the next ten years, so we need to continue to challenge the way we do business, look at how we can improve and keep on driving in the right direction. That way, we can build a better business for the next generation of partners and, equally, for the clients, as well. That’s what I think is the definition of being advanced.
Last year you announced changes to the firm’s governance, with the launch of the Executive Committee (ExCo), Clients & Markets Group and regionalisation. What has their impact been?
WD: The change has been positive. It’s an evolution, but I think we’re travelling in the right direction. Some elements are more advanced than others. One good example is regionalisation in Asia, where we’ve organised the Asian businesses basically as one business, rather than by jurisdiction. They operate as a single team across products, so if you’re doing M&A in Indonesia, the team could comprise a partner from the Singapore office with an Indonesian associate on the ground, helped by Australian trainees. It works really well and is highly efficient.
AB: ExCo has been interesting. Historically, the central operational decision-making body of the firm was the global practice group heads with the Senior and Managing Partners, almost all of whom emanated from London, so it felt very London-orientated and a bit tribal on occasion. ExCo, on the other hand, has a practice group head from each of the four big practices together with four people from varying regions, and then the two of us. The regional overlay has led to a much more nuanced approach in terms of the quality of the decision-making, which is in the best interests of the firm at large. It’s also 30% female which has improved our decision-making.
Did you have a quota of women you wanted to be part of ExCo?
WD: Yes, we wanted ExCo to be at least 30% female – the same as for the independent partner directors on the board.
Ensuring more women progress into senior positions is proving a significant challenge for law firms. How does A&O’s recently refreshed gender strategy try to address this?
WD: We’re not where we want to be on this and have a lot of initiatives to address the issue. There’s no silver bullet, but we need to keep on moving the agenda forward. Driving for a more diverse partnership should not come from just us – it needs to be owned by all the partners. Every six months, I get on the phone with every office managing partner and practice group head around the world to discuss how they’re holding on to female talent and, where they aren’t, what the reasons are. We share best practice and learn from each other.
AB: ExCo has now introduced a new requirement. If a practice group fails to put forward at least 30% female candidates for partnership consideration from 2021, they’ll be at risk of losing partnership slots. We recruit roughly equal numbers of men and women, so there’s a good pool of potential, but clearly there’s a problem in converting them to partnership candidates.
WD: All partnership candidates (whether female or male) will of course still have to pass the same tests on merit.
AB: There are other initiatives in place such as increased profiling of role models, and we’ve also introduced reverse mentoring. Both of us have been involved in reverse mentoring – we’re on our second cohort. My first mentor was a 28-year-old HR professional from Northern Ireland. Her perspective on how the leadership team comes across in the firm and on the language we use was very useful – it was a complete wake-up call.
WD: My first mentor was a Counsel with a working husband and two children. She organises her life in a pretty clever way, but she still had a long list of things that we could improve as well. In fact, I invited her on a partners’ diversity away day and she came up with a lot of good ideas, most of which are now part of our policy.
“We need to evolve and challenge ourselves all the time. Complacency kills the business.”
You’re also making strides in other areas of diversity: LGBT+ with the progress of A&Out and the launch of Race and Ethnicity@A&O Network. Where did all the new initiatives come from?
WD: A&Out has existed for a long time now and it works well. On LGBT+, there’s always more you can do, but it’s led by people who are really engaged and who make it work. We have LGBT events with clients and there’s a lot going on. For instance, we were delighted to be named as a Stonewall Top Global Employer in 2018.
AB: We had a fantastic exhibition of LGBT in English art history over the last 100 years which was organised at Tate Britain. Race is equally important, and we had a big event for our Race and Ethnicity@A&O with Trevor MacDonald, the well-known British broadcaster speaking. It was great.
Turning to results, 2018 was another year of great results. What’s the driver of that success?
WD: Great management!
AB: Being a big improvement on my predecessor – although I’m totally held back by the senior partner! Seriously though, it’s a series of things. It’s the breadth of our network of offices, the quality of our people and our client focus. We provide an integrated offering with real client alignment to serve the best interests of our clients. We’re at home in all jurisdictions while also having an international offering. It’s now even more important to have that breadth, given increasing protectionism around the world.
WD: That protectionism doesn’t mean that businesses will retrench to their home market though. It just adds complexity and so, in a way, if you want to keep going as a global business you probably have to go more local. A local presence in the market is a huge competitive advantage compared with firms who have a fly-in, fly-out model.
AB: Another key part of the success is that while historically we tended to have some departments which were stronger than others, now if you look at our M&A, Capital Markets, Banking and Litigation practices, they’re equally strong. Our firm is much more hedged and balanced than most others. In addition, we have our Advanced delivery businesses which are growing and generating increasingly significant revenues. No other firms have that scale.
And what are your plans for growth?
WD: There are more things we could do to build out and increase the balance of our firm. If you look at the emerging global elite, we have a smaller Litigation practice and we’re light on U.S. capability in comparison. We have strengths that they might not have, such as better local presence, but the best firms will have English, U.S. and local domestic law in the relevant markets, with a balanced mix of finance, corporate and litigation work. No one has got there yet, but our main competitors are investing in whatever their relative weakness is. We should do the same.
AB: On the competitive landscape, we’re probably the leading non-U.S. firm now. There are three markets: the New York market, the international U.S. market and the international non-U.S. market (where English law is prevalent). The New York market is shrinking, and the two international markets are converging. A&O is at the forefront of the global firms in terms of ambition, focus and execution, but there’s stiff competition with a number of the U.S. firms.
The pace and scope of financial regulation continues to be challenging for your clients. What steps have you taken to remain competitive?
WD: We listen to our clients. They told us that they didn’t just want legal advice – they wanted us to help implement it, too. So we created the A&O Strategy Group. Now, when we give clients legal advice on a compliance matter, we can use our own management consultants who we have recruited externally to roll it out.
AB: We’re providing an integrated offering between law and management consultancy. The consultants sit within our regulatory team and work with the clients to help them implement our advice.
Speaking of looking forwards, have you seen the anticipated volume of work for Brexit?
WD: We’ve seen some work, with clients starting to move from planning to implementation as we get closer to Brexit itself. In particular, we have seen a very large part of the funds industry work move to Luxembourg.
AB: The banks are moving operations onto the continent, but at the moment it’s more back office than anything else. To help them, we’ve set up BrexitMatrix, which is a scheme to repaper outstanding documents and make them compliant with the new jurisdiction to which they’re moving.
WD: There are tens of thousands of contracts that then need to be compliant in the law of the new EU member state jurisdiction. BrexitMatrix gives an escalated solution to solve the main part of the work with technology backed up by a document review team that does the next level of verification.
“A future successful lawyer will need more leadership skills.”
To continue looking into the future, what skills will lawyers need, and how is this addressed in your recruitment efforts?
WD: As well as being good lawyers, to be really successful they’ll need to have insights in technology, big data and artificial intelligence (AI) – so it will help if they have a scientific background. AI and tech are going to have an increasing role in our industry and will change the legal model. Inevitably they’ll take ‘process’ work such as due diligence and discovery away from junior lawyers. With AI, in particular, the first draft of a document is done by a machine which can self-learn, improving its own drafting over time. These were the areas where junior lawyers would cut their teeth, so we’ll have the additional challenge of ensuring those lawyers get equivalent training.
AB: But using AI has huge benefit in that our lawyers can do more interesting work. Part of the privilege of being at A&O is that it’s a scaled business, so we have the balance of power to really embrace this opportunity.
As far as the lawyers themselves are concerned, 98% of our graduates have a background in humanities and yet tech is increasingly important for our client offering – look at BrexitMatrix. In fact, for its precursor, MarginMatrix, a couple of our senior associates taught themselves to code, to bridge the gap between law and IT. We have therefore launched ‘Advanced Delivery Graduate’ to help us reach tech talent that we have historically struggled to attract.
WD: The other thing a successful lawyer of the future will need is more leadership skills. They will need to be able to lead a team, lead client relationships, understand where the market is going and what that means for their practice. That is one of the reasons we have launched the A&O leadership centre. We’re also delivering mini-MBAs to senior associates, an annual programme for future leaders for the partnership and coaching for more senior partners. We want to be the best at everything and that should include leadership skills, not just legal skills.
AB: We need to evolve and challenge ourselves all the time. Complacency kills the business.
WD: Success in the past is no guarantee for success in the future. This is what we’ve been saying from the start.