Belfast Telegraph

'If a deal is to be worldwide and it's highly significant, then it will involve our team in Belfast'

This Week: James Richards

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.

Chester-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 it is very much a global centre. It's not off-shoring for services in London but our global clients."

Under a half of the 260-strong workforce 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 documents 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."

That's included some high-profile deals but James won't say what they are.

However, over the last year the firm 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. But Belfast has not been involved in any of those transactions.

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.

"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 Suffolk. 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 last couple of weeks.

"I do go back to London a lot of weekends."

Belfast Telegraph

Weekly Business Digest Newsletter

This week's business news headlines, directly to your inbox every Tuesday.

Popular