What's the point of Baker McKenzie? (And does Paul Rawlinson have an answer?)

Published: 16 Nov 2017 By Alex Novarese

Ever wonder what Baker McKenzie is waiting for? The firm once had a crystal clear market position as the only major commercial practice that got anywhere near being truly globalised. And while the sprawling nature of the network meant a 20-year battle to shrug off the franchise tag, Bakers has long achieved polished mid-market credibility in many key jurisdictions. While it was never a threat to the US and London elite, the logic for an emerging giant to handle the mid-stream work for global plcs speaks for itself. Yet Bakers has continually fallen short of its own rhetoric.

Having been an international trailblazer, growth has been pedestrian for a decade now and there is too little evidence of the oft-promised push up the value chain.

In the meantime, its global reach has been challenged by a string of firms deploying verein-backed consolidation, while top-tier deal and disputes shops have further widened the profitability gap.

Bakers’ much-touted leadership of Acritas’ brand index – which surreally concludes the firm has a stronger reputation than Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy, Linklaters, White & Case and Latham & Watkins – is a function of being everywhere, not respected. The Client Intelligence Report, which draws on more than 9,000 respondents, found the firm ranking towards the bottom of the global top 20.

Bakers has an image problem, never getting near achieving the prestige of a Linklaters or the iconoclastic dash of a DLA Piper. The pitch to clients is indistinct. Having gone to the huge trouble and expense of building a vast global network – managed while maintaining a collegiate partnership – Bakers has often squandered its considerable assets to pursue the path of compromise and least resistance.

As can be seen from this month’s analysis, the firm’s popular and ambitious new chair Paul Rawlinson (pictured) is aiming to change that. The good news is that the basic strategy is sound, promising a heavy investment in core money-centre hubs, improvements in profitability and a sharper focus on global clients. The first of these aims is particularly overdue. While Bakers has had a more-than-respectable London practice since the 1990s, its failure in the last decade to build on its pioneering efforts has seen a string of more potent and focused rivals outpace it. There has been a similar story in Hong Kong, the firm’s German practice is still underweight and it is downright bizarre for a 4,500-lawyer practice to have barely 120 lawyers in New York. No-one achieves the kind of global aspirations Bakers has without making a far greater impact in these global hubs. There is also bold and overdue talk of pushing the firm towards effective operational integration by 2020.

The sentiment is welcome but getting there will not be easy. In fact it will be exceedingly difficult. Bakers is a hugely complex beast to marshal, while its fondness for consensus has often tipped over into bureaucracy and outright inertia. And for an operator with widely-cited communication skills, Rawlinson at times makes heavy going of articulating what is a coherent game plan.

The new chair should not be too concerned with preserving the status quo or diplomacy. Bakers has just about held its position over the last decade but no more. It is time for something more daring.

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