Law: Looking through the eyes of a client: Sharon Wallach talks to Anne Marie Stebbings, who is bringing change to the way that her employer does business

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The Independent Online
The internal development of a law firm and the changing demands of the marketplace must go hand in hand, according to Baker & McKenzie, arguably the world's largest law firm, with 5,000 employees and 53 offices in 32 countries.

The firm has put this view into practice at its London office, with the appointment of a director of professional and business development, Anne Marie Stebbings, whose professional background is both legal and managerial. She previously worked for the City firm Allen & Overy, first as a corporate lawyer and then as the head of education and training. She represents the legal profession nationally on the Standing Conference for Legal Education.

The primary focus of Ms Stebbings' role at Baker & McKenzie is the changing needs of the client. 'What he needs is a service that is efficient, economic and effective,' she says. 'That means providing them with lawyers who are business people and who can act and contribute in both the national and the international marketplace. It is crucial that we see the world through the client's eyes.'

With this in mind, Baker & McKenzie instructed independent reporters to research clients' requirements. The resulting survey showed that clients expect their lawyers to have a sound knowledge of the commercial marketplace in which they operate.

'An example of the sort of deal in which the lawyer needs vision through the client's eyes is the Fortune Oil reverse,' Ms Stebbings says. 'This was the first 'red chip' company on the London Stock Exchange. (The phrase was coined to describe the method by which a small company reverses into a larger company and thereby gains Stock Exchange listing.) An existing oil trading business owned by the Chinese reversed into a company already listed in the UK stock exchange. That is an instance of the sort of thing the client is doing.'

The first stage in creating the link between the client's changing needs and the firm's own development is to monitor the client's economic marketplace. 'We also need to make sure we are up to speed with the political marketplace and social changes, and we need to be sensitive culturally - speaking the same language is not enough,' Ms Stebbings says.

The next step is to develop a relevant culture internally and train accordingly. 'What we aim for is a symbiotic relationship between the lawyer and the client, with development both ways,' she says. 'We need to understand the dynamics in the client's marketplace, with a view to helping him thrive in a very challenging context.'

Ms Stebbings views her role as having three divisions. The first is assessing changes in law and practice to identify opportunities and threats for clients in their own economic and political market places. 'We need to be very aware of what is happening in the law. My background means that I can read both the trade and the legal press, and spot opportunities for the benefit of clients,' she says.

One expanding area of opportunity is information technology. Baker & McKenzie has, she says, lobbied for the electronics industry in this country and is now doing the same in a European context. Another example of potential opportunity has arisen as Britain emerges from recession, with the rebirth of the finance industry on the growth, rather than insolvency, side. 'We are actively working on derivative-based financial products - that is, new methods of financing transactions,' she says.

The second area of her new role concerns the development of new services, and the enhancing of existing services to address clients' current concerns. 'Our watching brief on the economic and political arenas means that the client is tapping into the collective knowledge of the world's largest law firm,' Ms Stebbings says. 'I am trying to computerise some of that local knowledge and know-how to make it more accessible to the client.'

'The client wants a service from his lawyer that adds value. Many run-of-the- mill transactions are repeated, and if the client has access to a basic level of information from a database, he can merely copy what was done before.

'A system like this would be cheaper to use, for instance, if the lawyer and the client are on different time zones. A better job is done all round, and this way, the client can save his money for more complex transactions.' It is important to give the client support through training, so he can use the firm's resources more effectively, she adds.

Her third area involves developing training in-house, concentrating on particular sectors, as well as focusing on individuals with a common perspective - company secretaries, for example. 'I also want to provide library support,' she says. 'Law firms have access to a wide number of databases, as well as their own knowhow, and are able to pool together publicly available information. These are the new services I think we should be offering to give added value.'

A further incentive to the client is the enhancement of existing services. 'There is a feeling among clients that the meter starts running as soon as they pick up the phone,' Ms Stebbings says.

'We should offer a helpline if you like, a service by which you encourage clients to ring to get, for example, a steer on a legal problem, without the clock running.

'We need to link the training and development of in-house lawyers to the marketplace the client is in. So a law firm, when looking at its business plan and its clients' needs, should also think about the training it is giving. With my legal and management background, and my knowledge of the business plan, I can focus training on the particular client's needs.' This means not only purely legal training, but also legal training in a business context.

Clients are being involved in the training process, helping to build up a rapport as well as offering first-hand experience. Other skills, particularly those of communication and business management are also crucial.

'In summary, it is important in the current climate to recognise that we are now in an international market, and a law firm must offer an international service,' Ms Stebbings says.

'We must develop a mutual partnership with the client to the benefit of both, and we must develop lawyers who are businessmen. One way to achieve that is to ensure we have in place methods of collecting information, and disseminating it in the most user-friendly way possible, so that we develop internally a culture that is thirsting for change, rather than frightened by it.'

(Photograph omitted)