Business law goes global: an introduction to the international legal services landscape

Law, like business, has gone global. Although each jurisdiction enacts its own laws, in some cases the laws of various jurisdictions have been harmonised by treaty (intellectual property law is a prime example). In other cases, the laws of various jurisdictions must be taken into account before a transaction can take place. Conflicts among the laws of different jurisdictions are frequently in need of resolution.

  • Last updated Mar 17, 2020 10:45:29 AM
  • David Carnes

Most common areas of international practice

Space simply does not allow the listing of all possible sub-areas of law that might include an international component. Some of the most common, however, are:

- Foreign Direct Investment

- Formation of business entities such as corporations

- Immigration law

- Intellectual property protection (international patent registration, for example)

- International contracts (drafting contracts to comply with the laws of more than one jurisdiction, for example) 

- International real estate (especially when real estate is sold to or inherited by a foreign national in a country, such as Thailand, that does not allow foreign ownership of land or that restricts foregn ownership)

- International trade

- International debt collection

- Maritime law

- International litigation (serving a subpoena overseas, for example)

- Alternative dispute resolution (a contract between a UK and a Taiwanese company that specifies arbitration of disputes in Singapore, for example) 

- International tax law (the application of tax treaties, for example).. 

The major players

Once upon a time, it was nearly accurate to say: “There is no such thing as international business law—only domestic law representing overseas clients.” That state of affairs began changing a few decades ago. Even by the 1990s, however, “international law” meant mostly deals in a few established markets, plus a handful of law firms who were able to boast of “our [unprofitable] China office.”  The situation is different today, however. 

Following is a list of some of the major international law firms, along with indicators of their geographic distribution. Expansion is occurring so fast that this list is likely to be outdated by the time you read it.

Dentons: 183 offices in 75 countries;

Baker & McKenzie: 77 offices in 46 countries;

DLA Piper: 90 offices in 40 countries;

Hogan Lovells: 48 offices in 26 countries;

Allen & Overy: 44 offices in 31 countries;

Clifford Chance: 36 offices in 23 countries; and

Linklaters: 30 offices in 20 countries.


The locations of these offices are not restricted to the economic powerhouses in Europe, North America and Japan, either—Dentons, for example, recently announced plans to merge with five firms located in Angola, Morocco, Mozambique, Uganda and Zambia, respectively; meanwhile both Dentons and Hogan Lovells maintain offices in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Only Antarctica has remained untouched by the global firms—for now. 

Nevertheless, international work is not at all restricted to the major players. Imagine, for example, a small firm in Derbyshire (home to a major Toyota manufacturing facility) establishing subsidiaries for auto parts suppliers with parent companies located in Japan. Early in the 21st century, few areas of law remain untouched by international practice. 

Law firm networks

Suppose you are on the verge of closing an important deal with a major corporate client when, at the last minute, the client presents you with a German language legal document that needs to be reviewed for compliance with German law (Articles of Association, for example). What do you do? If you are a member of a law firm network, the answer might be to contact a German member of your network and ask for a document review. 

The law firm network is one of the main ways that small and medium-sized firms manage to compete with the major players in the global marketplace. Law firm networks are no bit part players—the 20 largest networks include over a quarter of a million lawyers qualified to practice in every country on earth. 

Brexit: The joker in the deck?

A backlash is brewing in the midst of the long-term worldwide trend towards globalisation. One of the symptoms of this backlash is Brexit. This move, although problematic in some respects, is unlikely to wreak havoc, and it may even open up certain opportunities for global law firms.  

- As a consequence of Brexit, the UK will:

- Leave the Single Market and seek a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU;

- Establish bilateral free trade agreements with non-EU countries;

- Terminate the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU;

- Exercise autonomous control of immigration from Europe to Britain; and

- Set its own external tariffs.

Opportunity is becoming a necessity

Up until recently, an aspiring solicitor could be assured of numerous opportunities for global practice, provided they actively sought them out. Under current circumstances, however, these opportunities are becoming impossible to avoid. The ability to practice law in a global context is quickly becoming a necessity rather than an option.


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