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Focus or trickiness?

I’ve had almost 30 years to recover from the misfortune of taking a college degree in Philosophy. Still I feel an impulse to find in everyday life some manifestation of the abstractions I learned in school.

For instance, I tried very hard to find the underlying philosophical significance when Chelsea’s Fernando Torres – after years of being unloved in England – scored against Barcelona. Or when Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero won a well deserved championship after almost everyone had given up. I’ve had to conclude these were feats too grand and glorious to make their mark within philosophy’s fusty confines.

But on the subject of global law-firm strategy – seemingly beyond philosophy, like football – a famous philosophical metaphor strikes me as perfectly apt.

The question is ‘Which approach will win the day?’ – The Wall Street law-firm strategy of globally exporting essentially one type of product to a particular set of clients? Or the UK/City strategy of exporting a wide spectrum of loosely relevant products to a wide variety of clients in a wide variety of places?

Isaiah Berlin may have had something like this contrast in mind when he wrote ‘The Hedgehog and The Fox.’ On this schema, Wall Street firms would count as the hedgehog – focused on one big thing – while UK/City firms act more like the fox.

At present, it’s hard to say conclusively which has proven the better approach. I’m not even sure the word ‘approach’ reflects what UK firms do, as they don’t have much of a choice. Wall Street firms can live well enough on the US market alone. UK firms, if they want to bolster profitability, pretty much have to go outside of England, outside of Europe, and into the Asia.

Most people, based on visuals, may conclude that the Wall Street firms have the upper hand these days. There are almost no native Mandarin-speaking partners left at the major UK firms. However, as with Manchester City’s magical finish to the season, it’s just too early to tell who will win, hedgehog or fox.

As I’ve thought about different approaches to lawyering in Asia, I realize Berlin’s critterly contrast applies as well to search firms. Having been recruiting lawyers since around 1990, and beginning to focus in Asia in 1995, I’ve developed a specific approach. To switch to a culinary metaphor, that approach is not to throw a lot of spaghetti up to the ceiling and see what sticks, but rather look at the spaghetti, make sense of the entire meal, and determine the most suitable and delicious sauce. This is a slower process that requires more than rolling the dice. It frequently means putting one’s own interests on hold until the right mix is found. The hedgehog’s nature is more prone to keep the client’s interest front and center, to move deliberately on the client’s behalf, to act smartly with less movement more action. The hedgehog is introspective and checks what it does, making sure it works.

Headhunting as a hedgehog means representing not more than 5 or 6 law firms at any given time. That allows the hedgehog to look at the broadest possible spectrum of lawyers at other firms, the better to learn whether a particular candidate is the right candidate. (The fox, on the other hand, may want to represent a lot of firms, and by virtue of non-solicitation agreements, is left with a very narrow spectrum for seeking possible candidates.) The hedgehog’s natural deliberation helps to isolate the small moving pieces that together makes the whole – details often decisive to the overall success of placing a candidate.

For example, the phrase ‘portable business’ generates excitement, but it’s not an answer in itself so much as a cascade of new questions. Can the hiring firm execute those specific pieces of the new business well enough, at the same cost, and at the same realization? Moreover, what synergies can the new firm bring to the table to so that the incoming practice can multiply its volume at the same or higher realization? When that happens it’s electrifying, and the hedgehog smiles.

I write this blog delighted to have seen the Asia market mature in the last 15 years into a world-class lawyers’ market. Asia enjoys a bigger legal brain trust today than ever before. It’s no longer a backwater, and soon we’ll likely see law firms’ global standing made (or broken) because of Asia. With a market so developed and fine-tuned, mature, professional headhunting is called for. Recruiting at this level requires thoughtfulness and an intellectual architecture behind it more than hoping for the best, sounding good, and acting badly. Of course the hedgehog – for all his careful nature – can act badly. But bad behavior is easily spotted when the speed is deliberate.

I’m hopeful then that my colleagues will be worthy of their clients and contribute in some way in making Asia a world-class market. Not without some philosophical basis, I say ‘Go hedgehogs!’