‘If it’ s a highly sig­nif­i­cant deal, it will in­volve our belfast team’

James Richards, Baker Mcken­zie’s di­rec­tor in Belfast, tells Mar­garet Can­ning about how its of­fice here is help­ing the firm achieve global am­bi­tions

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - @Mar­garet­can

James richards, North­ern ire­land di­rec­tor of Baker Mcken­zie, tells mar­garet can­ning how its of­fice at city quays is help­ing the firm achieve its global am­bi­tions

It can be a jet-set life if you work for an in­ter­na­tional law firm like Baker Mcken­zie, which em­ploys 260 peo­ple on in­ter­na­tional, highly con­fi­den­tial le­gal work in its global ser­vices cen­tre in Belfast.

York­shire-born James Richards (51) was ap­pointed ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor in Belfast ear­lier this year. “I’m just back from Hong Kong for our an­nual part­ners’ meet­ing, so I’m slightly jet-jaded,” he says.

“Ev­ery year one of our three ge­o­graph­i­cal mar­kets — the Amer­i­cas, Asia Pa­cific and Europe — will host the meet­ing, so this year it was Hong Kong. It’s al­ways a big deal and very client-fo­cused.”

And in­ter­est in the work of the Belfast of­fice was strong. “We held the first an­nual meet­ing just a few weeks after we started here (in 2014), and the mes­sage now is to give ex­am­ples of what we’ve done, and what’s worked well. There’s an in­sa­tiable in­ter­est in what we’re do­ing in Belfast,” said James.

“The pro­file is higher than you would ex­pect, given that it em­ploys only 260 peo­ple out of a global firm of 13,000.

“Peo­ple are very pleased with what’s been hap­pen­ing and Belfast has been gain­ing recog­ni­tion.”

The le­gal pro­fes­sion around the globe has seen dras­tic change in the last decade or so and Belfast has been a ben­e­fi­ciary.

Ma­jor in­ter­na­tional firms like Baker Mcken­zie — which was founded in Chicago — and the other, Lon­don-based firms have set out to cut costs for the clients.

That has prompted them to set up cen­tres to carry out le­gal work and other sup­port work in cheaper lo­ca­tions.

And with North­ern Ire­land pro­duc­ing hun­dreds of ea­ger law grad­u­ates ev­ery year, and hav­ing lower op­er­at­ing costs, it has be­come a pop­u­lar lo­ca­tion. Eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment agency In­vest NI has lured firms like Baker Mcken­zie with fund­ing for their job cre­ation.

Baker Mcken­zie, which has an­nual in­comes of around $3bn, set up in Belfast in 2014, with plans to take on around 250 staff in to­tal. It opened its City Quays 1 of­fices in 2015. The com­pany’s chair­man, Ed­uardo Leite, said that the ex­pan­sion would help it “lead our pro­fes­sion glob­ally and of­fer our clients ex­cep­tional ser­vice wher­ever they are in the world”. In­vest NI sup­ported the ex­pan­sion with £1.3m. James says there are no cur­rent plans to in­crease the size of the work­force. “Belfast has be­come very much part of our struc­ture... and we will con­tinue to grow. But we’re cau­tious to recog­nise that growth in head­count isn’t the only mea­sure of suc­cess,” he adds. Im­proved tech­nol­ogy can also ac­count for growth, he says. “But we are here to stay in Belfast.”

James has worked in the pro­fes­sion for around 30 years and the size and scale of Baker Mcken­zie is a far cry from his stint as what was once known as an ar­ti­cled clerk with law firm Pret­tys in East Anglia.

“It’s a re­ally good lo­cal com­mer­cial firm where I did a broad range of work. There was some com­pany and com­mer­cial work, some em­ploy­ment and crim­i­nal lit­i­ga­tion,” he says.

“I al­ways felt it was a re­ally good ground­ing for work­ing in the City. You were pick­ing up gen­eral skills like the at­ten­tion to deal and break­ing down com­plex con­cepts.”

He joined Baker Mcken­zie in 1994 and be­came a part­ner in 1998.

“My job has changed pretty dra­mat­i­cally and con­stantly through­out my ca­reer. When I was ap­ply­ing to do a law de­gree, if I’d known I’d end up do­ing what I’m do­ing to­day, I would have been very sur­prised,” he says.

“Peo­ple who don’t work in law will think the job is all about know­ing what the law is. There is an el­e­ment of that but it’s very small.

“A fun­da­men­tal part of what we are do­ing is help­ing clients nav­i­gate com­plex con­cepts and is­sues, given our ex­pe­ri­ence of dif­fer­ent ju­ris­dic­tions and cul­tures.”

He adds: “I think we were the first firm to set up a sig­nif­i­cant off-shore non-prac­tis­ing cen­tre around 17 years ago.

“That was in Manila in the Philip­pines. Manila was at the fore­front of that trend and Belfast has been built on the back of our ex­pe­ri­ence in Manila and has picked up on the lessons from there.”

And while the rest of the pro­fes­sion has learnt from Baker Mcken­zie in Manila, it’s ben­e­fited from other firms like Allen & Overy and Her­bert Smith Free­hills, which set up le­gal cen­tres in Belfast be­fore Baker Mcken­zie. Her­bert Smith Free­hills set the ball rolling in 2011.

“It val­i­dates the business model that there’s a pool of peo­ple here al­ready deal­ing with this and the work­force is fa­mil­iar with what we do,” says James.

“But Baker Mcken­zie in Belfast is very much a global cen­tre. It’s not off-shoring for ser­vices in Lon­don but look­ing after global clients.”

Un­der a half of the work­force here work in le­gal ser­vices. Many oth­ers work in sup­port roles for the business of Baker Mcken­zie, such as com­mu­ni­ca­tions for its 77-strong of­fice net­work.

It also car­ries out business ser­vices for the firm, in­clud­ing IT and billing. And some of its lawyers work on the firm’s ‘ knowl­edge man­age­ment’, help­ing shape the firm’s re­sponse to big global is­sues.

Those work­ing in le­gal ser­vices “are sup­port to the prac­tis­ing lawyers around the world”. James says: “A big part of what we do is ma­jor doc­u­ment re­view projects, where per­haps a client is tak­ing on an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of its own ac­tiv­i­ties to meet reg­u­la­tory com­pli­ance re­quire­ments.

“We might have hun­dreds of thou­sands or mil­lions of emails to look at to con­firm how op­er­a­tions have been con­ducted. So we use very so­phis­ti­cated doc­u­ment re­view tech­nol­ogy to re­view docu-

❝ Peo­ple are happy with what’s been hap­pen­ing and Belfast has been gain­ing recog­ni­tion

❝ We might have mil­lions of emails to look at to con­firm how op­er­a­tions have been con­ducted

ments very quickly or ac­cu­rately...

“Al­most by def­i­ni­tion th­ese are in­ter­na­tional cross-bor­der mat­ters — it does tend to be world­wide if it’s to in­volve the team in Belfast. The mat­ter has to be very sig­nif­i­cant.”

The firm does not, how­ever, dis­close any of the deals which Ble­fast has worked on. But over the last year the firm as a whole has ad­vised Ab­bott Lab­o­ra­to­ries on tax mat­ters in its cash-and-stock ac­qui­si­tion of St Jude Med­i­cal, a man­u­fac­turer and whole­saler of med­i­cal de­vices. That deal took place in April last year and was worth $31bn.

It also ad­vised Ab­b­vie on tax mat­ters on its ac­qui­si­tion of can­cer drug maker Stem­cen­trx.

Ear­lier this year, it ad­vised Post Hold­ings on its ac­qui­si­tion of the en­tire share cap­i­tal of Weetabix in a deal worth $2bn.

How­ever, with global clients, it’s in­evitable global geo-po­lit­i­cal fac­tors such as Brexit and the elec­tion of the pro­tec­tion­ist Don­ald Trump a year ago as US Pres­i­dent have an im­pact on its work.

But nei­ther have a di­rect im­pact on Belfast, James says. When it comes to Brexit, “the im­por­tant thing to re­mem­ber is that a very, very sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of our business as a firm is out­side in EU”. “Work is for clients and of­fices in North Amer­ica or Asia Pa­cific.

“There hasn’t been an im­pact on what we do here in Belfast but there is an im­pact around mar­ket con­fi­dence. Uncer­tainty has an im­pact on the vol­ume of trans­ac­tional work out there.”

It hasn’t led to cuts in staff in Belfast as he said the firm was still in growth mode when the ref­er­en­dum took place in June 2016 but “it’s clearly front of mind for many of our clients”.

“There is uncer­tainty at the mo­ment and the one thing they hate above all else is uncer­tainty. The sooner there can be some clar­ity around fu­ture ar­range­ments, the bet­ter.”

James’ fa­ther was a sur­veyor and his mother a pri­mary school head­mistress. Both are now re­tired and liv­ing in Nor­folk. James had no pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence of Belfast be­fore com­ing here to work as di­rec­tor of le­gal ser­vices in 2014. He suc­ceeded Ja­son Marty as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor in March this year.

The move to its new of­fice in 2015 was an­nounced by then Fi­nance Min­is­ter Ar­lene Foster.

But James now downplays the ab­sence of a de­volved gov­ern­ment. “Col­leagues and con­tacts from North­ern Ire­land are con­cerned about the im­age it paints of NI but from my per­spec­tive it’s not some­thing that’s had a ma­jor im­pact,” he says. “We have had very good, cor­dial re­la­tions with the Ex­ec­u­tive but clearly we don’t have that at the mo­ment.

“We’ve also got very strong re­la­tion­ships with In­vest NI and they’ve helped us nav­i­gate the en­vi­ron­ment.”

He says the firm’s of­fices at City Quays 2 — a de­vel­op­ment led by Belfast Har­bour in a build­ing shared with IT firms Cayan and Golf Now — have been a great fit.

And Belfast has been a pleas­ant ex­pe­ri­ence, not least be­cause of echoes he’s found with his child­hood.

“I knew noth­ing about Belfast be­yond what I’d seen and read grow­ing up and I re­ally like it,” he says.

“I grew up in the north west on Mersey­side, in the Wir­ral. Peo­ple were fam­ily-ori­ented — down to earth plain spo­ken but there’s a warmth there, too.”

He says he’s found the same qual­i­ties among peo­ple in North­ern Ire­land but adds: “It’s very hard to say where home is when you travel as much as I do though I just moved to Holy­wood in the last cou­ple of weeks.

“I do go back to Lon­don a lot of week­ends.”

❝ It’s hard to say where home is when you travel as much as I do, but I’ve just moved to Holy­wood

Next week, Small Business Can speaks to Trimedika and Cin­ema Cof­fee Project

The City Quays 1 of­fices of Baker Mcken­zie where 260 staff are em­ployed

KEVIN SCOTT

James Richards of Baker Mcken­zie in his firm’s HQ

Last year Sarah Fowler (right), Baker Mcken­zie’s se­nior re­cruit­ment man­ager in Belfast, joined Dr Sharon Mil­ner of Ul­ster Univer­sity to present a le­gal stu­dent of the year prize to Karen Wray from En­niskillen

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