Celebrating 10 years With a Full Service Offering and a Long-term Strategy
Bird & Bird celebrated its tenth anniversary on the Hungarian market this year. It is a significant moment for any law firm, let alone one launched in the teeth of the financial crisis. But it also caps a year of major landmarks for the Budapest-based office.
Siegler Bird & Bird Ügyvédi Iroda, to give the firm its full title, opened new offices on June 25 in the capital’s Víziváros district on the Buda side at the corner of Csalogány utca and Kapás utca, just below the curtain walls of the royal palace atop the Castle District.
That move into the LEED “Gold” certified Víziváros Office Center was made necessary by perhaps the most significant development for Bird & Bird since its launch in Hungary. From February 1, it was joined by two partners, three senior counsels and a team of 15 lawyers from Weil, Gotshal & Manges, which pulled out of Hungary on the same date.
The combination of the two teams provided a significant and strategic boost to Bird & Bird’s Hungarian offering. Since opening ten years ago, the Budapest office has developed strong expertise in intellectual property, technology and communications, commercial, dispute resolution and data protection matters. These were complemented by the new team’s market leading expertise in corporate, competition, dispute resolution, regulatory and finance work, with key clients in the energy, banking and finance, telecom and media sectors.
The new combined Bird & Bird team totaled just shy of 30 lawyers, and also created a strong presence in the sports sector and real estate market. This has enabled it to offer a far broader range of services to its existing clients in Hungary, and in the wider Central and Eastern European region.
As the year comes to an end, the most obvious question is this: how has the merger of the two teams worked? “The most interesting development, the most significant [in the past ten years] was when the people joined from Weil,” says partner Bálint Halász, who heads the intellectual property group in Budapest and has been with Bird & Bird since it opened in 2008.
The Weil, Gotshal & Manges team brought with them experience and, perhaps just as significant, additional resources in areas where the Hungarian Bird & Bird office may have been perceived to be lacking, says Halász.
“If someone suddenly needed M&A advice, we might not previously have had the numbers to put together a team of ten, say, to work on it overnight,” he says. “We had the experience, but we lacked the resources, I would say. We had clients who before had said to us ‘I will contact you with IP and data protection issues without question, including transactions where these are the core issues, but you do not have an M&A team with enough people to deal with a larger transaction.’ Now we are being invited to pitch for M&A jobs where we would not have been previously.” Equally, commercial clients of the former Weil team will now contact them on IP- or IT-related issues, where that was not seen as a strength, before.
If that has been a welcome development, it is probably trumped by the way the two teams have managed to dovetail.
“You never know what is going to come with such a change. Over all it has been extremely positive; everyone has been supportive of each other. I think the flexibility of the joining team was the biggest surprise, for me,” Halász recalls.
Pál Szabó, another partner and head of the corporate/M&A group, was among those who joined from Weil, Gotshal & Manges. He points out that, though far from an everyday event, it is not unknown for international law firms to pull out of a market. That, in turn, often leads to teams moving firms, but it is rare that they can do so in their entirety, given the overlap of practice areas.
“In our case, it was different,” says Szabó. “It was very useful for us since we did not really have a very strong and well-established IP, technology or data protection practice such as Bird & Bird has. Now that we have come in-house, we collectively have a fully-fledged full service firm. [.…] So far we have not had any negative experiences. The client feedback has been really positive.” Szabó, who started his career at Allen & Overy, says he has been impressed with the way Bird & Bird operates.
“It is such a flexible firm. Here we can really feel that this is an integrated platform. We are divided by industry sectors, not by jurisdictions. In these sectors, lawyers from various practice areas and jurisdictions seamlessly work together on specific projects or just brainstorm on how we could develop our services to fit our clients’ ever-changing needs better.”
Litigation expert László Nanyista, is another of the Weil joiners, and was made a partner in the dispute resolution practice group in November. He, too, references the “perfect match, because there are no overlaps” and judges the way the two teams have come together as a genuine success, both for the firm and its clients. Given that the Budapest office of Bird & Bird was a relatively small firm in Hungary, he had wondered how the Weil unit would fit in.
“Although there might have been different approaches and views, there were no hardships in terms of working together. It has been as smooth as you can get. That really has been a high point. [….] Both personally and professionally it has been the similarities that have been striking for me, and particularly the attitude to clients is huge in this, because we have the same approach: how can we best help our clients.”
That theme, the strategic philosophy behind the firm, is something the three partners return to again and again over the hour and a half that we spoke. Bird & Bird is an old firm (for more on this, see box), but it is not one of the “Magic Circle”, the five London-based law firms with the largest revenues (a somewhat nebulous term, the members are generally taken to be: Allen & Overy; Clifford Chance; Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; Linklaters; and Slaughter and May, although The Lawyer, the magazine that coined the phrase in the first place, no longer considers Slaughter and May to be a Magic Circle firm). Nor is Bird & Bird one of the U.S.-based “White Shoe firms”. How, therefore, does it seek to differentiate itself?
“What I really admire about Bird & Bird, one of the reasons I joined and stayed at the firm, is that the management takes a really long-term view of business. Bird & Bird is not a law firm that likes to close offices,” explains Halász. It also has a “client first” attitude, he says. “I can pick up a phone and talk to someone in Dusseldorf, or London, or Paris to ask them for advice, and their first question is not ‘What is the matter number?’ [so the time can be billed], but ‘How can we help the client?’ We are working for the same firm. What is good for the firm in Budapest is also good for the firm in Germany. This working method makes sense, I think.”
Szabó agrees. “Bird & Bird is a real one-firm platform. All the big firms call themselves integrated, but are they really? Here, people are happy to help because they understand that it is an investment in personal relations with their colleagues, with their clients, or just because they are simply nice people. But it is genuine, and I think that in the long-term success will rely on this.”
All three partners talk about the “commodity phenomenon”, where everything is reduced to billable hours. That is, in part, driven by the clients. “The legal market is not so mature in Hungary,” says Halász. “Procurement departments are obsessed with rates.” But Nanyista adds that law firms themselves also contribute to this, by putting less experienced attorneys on a job, to lower prices, or forgoing quality for quantity. “We try to compete on quality and user experience,” Halász says.
Szabó agrees. “We live in times where we face a real price challenge with clients, but what we cannot compromise on is quality. We try to come up with alternative fee arrangements. We openly discuss what is fair, and what we cannot cut costs on. We work very hard to understand what the client needs, rather than what we can sell them.” Bird & Bird sells itself as being a firm that uses technology to find the best solutions that are creative and focused on problem solving, he says.
Halász adds that a Bird & Bird characteristic is cultivating long-term relationships with clients, which becomes a win-win for both sides. “We recently had our annual partner retreat where the CFO made the point that long-standing clients usually generate more profits. A lot of people – and certain law firms – are obsessed with finding new clients, new work, and sometimes they forget the existing relationships.”
Nanyista identifies this client-first approach as “another area of striking similarity” between the two groups that now form one team. “There is a big value put on relationships between colleagues and with clients. You build a relationship, and sometimes you see your role as helping these individuals solving their day-to-day tasks, not only a general corporate interest, which is naturally also important. But you need that human point of contact, and in the end you are trying to help your contact as much as the client. You have to be very careful about looking after the client’s interests, and not seeing them as a commodity. I think that is the way forward,” the litigation specialist says.
But he also says this attitude is a two-way street, a place where common ground can be found between client and service provider. “In the past ten years, clients’ focus has been almost exclusively on price; I think the pendulum is swinging back over time to where real quality will be what matters more.”
What comes across is that Bird & Bird is committed to a long-term game plan. It invests in its offices, in new technologies, in client relationships and its people, in particular in its junior associates, who will be the future of the firm.
Szabó says it is important that senior lawyers of his age accept and understand that junior associates are no longer interested in working 20 hours on the trot just because that is the way it has always been. Flexibility and balance are the new watchwords.
“I tell the juniors they should have an entrepreneurial spirit toward the law firm, rather than act as employees, because one day it will be their law firm. For juniors today, time spent out of office hours is important, they want more balance. And it is important law firms recognize that if they want to be here in the long-term.”
So juniors are taken along to client negotiations, asked to provide their opinion, given opportunities to work on varied projects, even to go abroad on trips or secondments. “From the beginning, we try to treat juniors as if they were already qualified attorneys; I think that is the best way to build for the future.”
Nanyista agrees. He joined the interview after the others because he had been involved in an internal seminar, organized by the junior associates for the junior associates. “We try to help them understand how to build a presentation, how to talk to a group.” The seniors also run a one on one mentoring program, where they cover issues such as how you deal with criticism when it comes your way. It is all part of a comprehensive package to help the next generation navigate their way around an international law firm, he says.
A Story of Two Birds (Abridged)
With its vision to be the number one law firm in the world for organizations impacted by technology and digitization, Bird & Bird (www.twobirds.com) somehow feels like a young firm, and yet it was founded in Dickensian London, in 1846 to be precise, just nine years into the reign of Queen Victoria. The initial founder was one William Frederick Wratislaw Bird, who was joined by James Moore to form Bird & Moore. The second Bird, appropriately William Bird II, joined in 1875, and was made a partner in 1880. (He only retired from running the firm shortly before his death in 1950.) A cousin, Ernest Bird, joined in 1905 and the name changed to Bird & Bird. The following years saw a series of small but significant mergers, with the first international office opened in Brussels in 1992. Paris followed in 2000, the Netherlands in 2001, Dusseldorf in 2002 and Milan in 2003. Beijing was added in 2004, and Spain in 2005. In 2008, Bird & Bird was awarded the title “International Law Firm of the Year” by The Lawyer, and opened offices in Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Warsaw. From 2010 onwards offices and partnership arrangements opened in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region.
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