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Bakers ‘well poised’ to be the definition of a global law firm, says chair

EXCLUSIVE: In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, the global chair of BigLaw firm Baker McKenzie discusses the firm’s vision, post-pandemic approach and the place of Australia in its future plans.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 13 October 2022 Big Law
Bakers ‘well poised’ to be the definition of a global law firm, says chair
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At the completion of his studies in the United Kingdom, in the late 1980s, Milton Cheng “had a bunch of offers from all the usual suspects”. At the end of each of his interviews with those top-tier and magic circle entities, he would ask them if the firm had any plans to open an office in Singapore — his native country.

Almost all of those firms, he recounted, said “no”. Only one firm had a different answer: the firm he has spent the entirety of his career with (save for his period of national service, as a Singaporean citizen), and now heads up.

‘Truly global’


In conversation with Lawyers Weekly, Mr Cheng — Baker McKenzie’s global chair — said that what attracted him to the firm in the first place was its ethos of being “truly global”, whereby local presences were driven and led by local presences, together with a global culture.

This approach from the firm, Mr Cheng reflected, “still holds true” today, decades after he first opted to work at Bakers.

“We are a firm that invests locally across the globe, in a way that is deliberate and strategic, in terms of building our platform,” he explained.  

“Our biggest, deepest client relationships are with those who want to be local champions, and grow to become regional and international champions. And we follow and support them across the world.

“That is still the case, just as it was in the 1980s when I first applied.”

Partly as a result of this, Mr Cheng feels “very strongly” that Baker McKenzie is “well poised to be the definition of a global law firm”.

Clients tell the firm, he said, that there remains a place for such cross-border entities, particularly if those global practices can offer specialised, local advice.

Globalisation not going anywhere

The world is a much more complex place than it has been in years gone by, Mr Cheng noted, and in light of such evolution, listening to — and believing — one’s clients is critical.

Bakers’ clients, he told Lawyers Weekly, say that “globalisation has not ceased to be a thing”.

It takes different forms now, and with changes in trading capital flows, we actually think that — at this point — a firm like ours is even more important than it was before,” he proclaimed.

“With our broad practices, we are able to follow the capital flows, even if there is decoupling, or changes in supply chains, and so on. We are also able to cater to different needs at different points in the economic cycle, whether it’s up-cycle or counter-cycle.

“What we are trying to do is get ourselves organised to make sure that we stay close to our clients, hear what they’re doing, and partner with them to deliver solutions, rather than sell products. I think most people want to do that.”

While other law firms may be more anchored to one particular market or one particular region, he said, Bakers has “always taken the long game”.

“There is a place for a firm like ours that has close ties with the local community and is prepared to continue to make investments in talent, in our infrastructure, riding out the cycles,” he said.

Australia’s role

For Bakers, Mr Cheng noted, Australia is a key factor in the firm’s future success.

Australia, he said, “punches above its weight” in terms of the firm’s global platform (including by way of over-representation in its leadership).

“The Australian team, like many of our big teams across the world, punches above its weight. A lot of the stuff we do is cross-border, or high-end, multi-market work for clients that could be headquartered here in Australia, and there are many global and regional businesses that have their bases here. But there’s also capital: superannuation funds, investment banks, private equity, [and] financial sponsors, with capital across the world.

“So, Australia has cross-border strength, which plays to our strengths,” he said.

Moreover, Mr Cheng went on, there’s an “incredibly talented pool” of lawyers in Australia, proportionate to population size.

“We see many centres of excellence that we leverage here for sector expertise,” he said, which the firm will continue to do in the future.

What emerging lawyers want

Such an approach from larger firms, Mr Cheng believed, is what those coming through the ranks are looking for.

“As I see it, the legal services sector has got a lot of talented, young people coming through, who I think — in many cases — want more than just a place to bill 3,000 hours per year and get paid a ton of money,” he mused.

They want, instead, a firm that displays certain values, he said.

“I think the values that we have, together with our global set-up and mindset, are quite distinct. And there is a significant and growing piece of that talent market that we speak to,” Mr Cheng said.