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Interview with Wim and Andrew


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Jonathan Brayne and Shruti Ajitsaria

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Abi Silver and Shankari Chandran

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Andrew Brammer, Patricia Rogers, Jane Townsend and Kevin Oliver

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In the year since Andrew Ballheimer became A&O’s Managing Partner and Wim Dejonghe moved up to be Senior Partner, the word ‘Brexit’ became an ever-present part of the UK’s news cycle, Donald Trump moved into the White House and Apple launched two new iPhones. It’s been a similarly newsworthy, if less dramatic year at A&O.


Senior Partner
A&O: 2001-present


Global Managing Partner
A&O: 1987-present

You’ve been in your leadership roles for 18 months now. How has it been and was it as expected? read more

Andrew: I have to say, it’s not been at all as I expected. I had been co-head of the Corporate practice for more than six years, and I assumed it was like that, but bigger, but of course it isn’t. There’s a consistent intensity with this job. In the past there might have been peaks and troughs, but this job is relentless – but in a good way!

We operate in a competitive environment where there is also pressure to perform. Inevitably this includes ensuring that our bottom line is at least as good as our peers’, if not better. There are myriad decisions to make every day. And it’s all against a backdrop of incredible change, with Trump, Brexit and a volatile market.

Wim: I would agree with that. You’re never off duty. In terms of uncertainty, it’s reminded me of my first year as Managing Partner when we had the global financial crisis.

Andrew: It’s a volatile, uncertain world. We’ve done extremely well but, as a business, we can sometimes feel insecure. I feel we need to take a breath and realise that we’re actually situated very strongly in the legal market.

Following on from that, A&O has had a record year in terms of profits (up 27%). What do you attribute this to and how do you plan to continue this success? read more

Wim: It’s been an interesting year. Brexit really increased anxiety. Within that uncertain environment, we’ve outperformed the market and the nervousness has calmed down a bit.

We’ve had to concentrate on keeping calm and being on top of what the business is doing. The stellar performance across the board has brought confidence into every practice area.

Andrew: Yes, this time last year we were saying, “Our model is a hedged business. Yes, the future’s uncertain, but we are diversified and well hedged. Stay close to our clients and our firm will be successful.” People hoped it was true, and a year on, that’s been proven to be the case.

It really is a well hedged and resilient business with fantastic people.

Wim: We stay close to the clients, maintain the highest standards of quality and service, and challenge ourselves on the way we provide those services, such as through Advanced Delivery, which includes the Legal Services Centre (LSC) in Belfast, Peerpoint and aosphere.

We don’t take our position for granted, but I think if you stick to those core qualities – being collaborative, staying close to clients and maintaining a hedged business model – you can go a long way.

What sets us apart from our peers? read more

Andrew: It’s really the breadth of the offering across our product range in Corporate, Litigation, Banking and Capital Markets, and the fact that we are equally strong across all those areas. Our network is also much more extensive than those of our peers.

Wim: The big trick, though, is that our 44 offices are fully integrated. The clients see us operating as one team. It’s easy to build 100 offices if they all work independently, but that is just not a compelling proposition – our integration really makes us stand out.

How do you manage that level of integration? read more

Wim: It’s our culture and the fact that we bring people together in a single partnership with one profit pool. There are no ‘local’ partners – it’s lockstep across the world. If the Hungary office does well, we all do well.

Andrew: It’s also how you hire people. There’s a strong focus on people with a consistency of approach in terms of ambition, drive and values. It’s hardwired into the A&O DNA and it’s critical.

Wim: We never compromise on quality. We’ve just been asked, “Would you set up a local law office in China?”. We are open-minded about it, but only if we find people of the same quality as the rest of the partnership. If not, it could take years before we have a local law office there.

In what areas do you see an opportunity for major growth or gaining greater market share? read more

Andrew: In the U.S. we have around 220 lawyers now and we probably need to have around 500-600 as a minimum to be a major player in the domestic U.S. market, which would be a big opportunity. Our clients have operations all over the world and the international law of choice for commercial activity is either English or New York law. We therefore need to have an equally broad capability in both jurisdictions.

Wim: We’ve been expanding in the U.S. in the last 15 months, from 42 to 50 partners. We’ll continue to do that.

What are your greatest threats and challenges at the moment? read more

Andrew: As far as threats are concerned, the U.S. firms are hiring aggressively at the moment, in particular for both UK and U.S. lawyers. Talent retention is therefore a big issue for us. This is a people business, and you want the brightest and the best. People do leave, mainly for lifestyle reasons these days. Some come back, but only a few at the moment.

Wim: That’s why we introduced Peerpoint. We’d love people to come back so we offer them flexible working. It needs to work for them.

Another threat comes from the new entrants to the market, in particular the Big Four accountancy firms. To make sure we stay ahead of them, we need to engage with technology and big data. Our best defence is to do everything better than they do.

What are your impressions of the Brexit process so far and what kinds of work has A&O won? read more

Andrew: We’ve been doing lots of advisory work for clients, particularly banking clients, insurers and corporates, helping them with ‘scenario planning’, should they decide they have to move.

Wim: There are also examples of new work, such as fund formation in Luxembourg, but the big volume of work will come on corporate restructurings, if businesses start moving.

Can you tell us why A&O launched Fuse and what you hope it will achieve? read more

Wim: We wanted to introduce clients, tech start-up companies and lawyers to each other, to help them all share information collaboratively. The tech companies have the technology, but it may not be what the client wants or needs so we bring them face to face to have those conversations directly.

Andrew: They spark off each other. That’s how you influence each other. That’s how the best ideas will germinate and changes will happen.

Can you comment on A&O’s recent governance review and the new Executive Committee? read more

Andrew: Basically, it involves the creation of an Executive Committee at the heart of the firm which will essentially act as a management board and includes representations from the major practice groups and geographies. It is separate from the Partnership Board, which will be the conscience of the firm and have a supervisory role.

Wim: We started to think about how we ran the business and took a fresh look at the partnership deed. We realised that it provided for an Executive Committee which was never installed and which meant that the Partnership Board had to be supervisory and executive at the same time. We’re now streamlining our business units and support services, reducing management time and globalising finance functions, HR etc.

A&O is a partnership which means each partner is an owner and not an employee. In view of the size of the firm, how do you see the importance of a partnership ethos? Allied to this, what is done for younger partners particularly to feel real owners and thus encourage collegiality and loyalty? read more

Andrew: It’s critical that partners feel they’re owners of the business; that they’re both accountable and responsible but, most importantly, empowered in terms of going out and being an entrepreneur and running the business as best they can.

For younger partners, it is very important that they have a voice through having an equal vote from day one of partnership. We support them in being successful as partners through coaching and targeted development programmes which also encourages strong bonds to develop between partners. I believe that our collegiate culture means that our more experienced partners look for opportunities to help new partners be successful in their early years as a partner.

“We don’t take our position for granted, but I think if you stick to those core qualities – being collaborative, staying close to clients and maintaining a hedged business model – you can go a long way.”
There is increasing movement by partners from firm to firm. What does A&O gain by being a lockstep? read more

Wim: Having one lockstep across the world helps build a collaborative culture. It helps bring people together in a single partnership.

Andrew: It creates a sense of long-term, two-way commitment to sharing in the success of the collective contribution of all our partners.

Can you tell us about the success you’ve seen with Advanced Delivery? read more

Wim: If you added together all the revenues from Advanced Delivery, it would be our fifth largest office. And there’s more to come. Take aosphere, for example, which offers online legal risk management products. It’s a subscription service for clients, who may have got rid of teams that would previously have maintained the content covered by those products. For what is a small annual fee for them, they have a service which is always up to date and is very high quality.

Andrew: There are now 12,000 individuals using aosphere, and the attrition rate from subscriptions is around 1%. It’s a superb business model, and there are so many more products we can provide.

Where do you see the direction of travel for aosphere? read more

Wim: In all areas of our practice, there is an increased client expectation around the use of technology to deliver cost-effective legal service, and we are more than happy to meet that expectation. We are always looking proactively for new ideas to meet the challenges our clients face, rather than reacting when they come to us with a problem. It sets us apart.

Andrew: The aosphere team has also led the way in agile working. They’re based in locations ranging from London to New York, Belfast and Dubai and using technology such as FaceTime and virtual whiteboards to maintain good communication and collaboration. It works for everybody and we can definitely do more.

What skills will future lawyers need? read more

Andrew: Technology skills.

Wim: Coding. In the next ten years, the lawyer who knows how to code will rule. In the Finance space, re-papering of contracts is all about coding. The winners will be the lawyers who understand how to code to do all the transfers and changes to the agreements.

Andrew: Ninety-four per cent of our graduates have a law or humanities background in the UK. That’s staggering. That has to change in the future.

What are your thoughts on agile working? Could this affect our office space in the future? read more

Wim: We need to evolve from an employer/employee relationship to having a platform where people can work in whatever way suits them best. We need to develop a menu of employment options, rather than having a one-dimensional relationship with our employees.

Andrew: People do need face-to-face contact though – it’s the way to get the best out of people. Using technology to help people have the lifestyle they want should work together with the fact that we encourage people to travel regularly to meet each other.

How has Peerpoint and programmes such as ‘I’m Back’ helped people who want to have more control over their time, or who may have taken time out and want to return to the law? read more

Wim: Of the lawyers we lose, many leave for lifestyle reasons, and it’s a real tragedy. It’s a loss to us and to them. There’s a tremendous opportunity for both of us here.

Andrew: ‘I’m Back’ provides a route back to the workplace for those who have been on a career break. We encourage people to do this return-to-work programme, which is now in its second year, as a way to refresh their technical and core skills and to gain on the job experience by working within our practice groups. At the end of the programme, we help them find the opportunities that suit them, including working for Peerpoint as a consultant.

What else is A&O doing to attract/retain its best talent? read more

Andrew: There is not one single answer to that. It’s having a competitive overall package – the best work, the best support, our culture and the best environment.

Wim: Yes, with the best people to work with. We also aim to invest in our employees’ personal development and give them training in legal and non-legal skills. We provide exciting opportunities if they want to work internationally and we support agile working, if that is what they want.

There’s a competitive package in terms of salaries and benefits, but that probably comes lower down the list for our staff, typically.

Andrew: We’ve had more than 200 alumni returning to us in the past two years, but we want more, and we’re working hard to make that happen.

“It’s critical that partners feel as though they’re owners of the business; that they’re both accountable and responsible but, most importantly, empowered in terms of going out and being an entrepreneur and running the business as best they can.”