Senior PartnerA&O: 2001-present
Global Managing PartnerA&O: 1987-present
Allen & Overy has changed enormously over the last 25 years. Wim Dejonghe and Andrew Ballheimer, A&O’s senior and managing partners, discuss the firm’s transformation and the opportunities and challenges ahead.
A&O has had an immensely successful year in 2019. The firm has delivered a strong set of financial results and invested significantly in innovation, in developing its people and in further strengthening how it serves its global client base.
These strategic investments may be the building blocks for success, but the foundations for our current achievements were laid more than 25 years ago.
What did A&O look like in 1994? Top banking partner Bill Tudor John had just been appointed senior partner. There were 13 international offices run out of the main base at New Change in London and it would be another five years before A&O took on a team of banking and finance lawyers in Paris from Gide Loyrette Nouel, its ally at the time.
As 2019 draws to a close, A&O has more than 5,000 people working in over 40 offices in 30 countries. The firm now covers all regions and economic markets across the world. In one sense, it’s the same A&O – the same culture and innovative approach to solving the world’s most complex legal problems – but it now operates on a much larger scale for many more clients on their most challenging national and cross-border issues.
“A&O has always been at the forefront of the evolution of our industry,” Andrew says. “Our fantastic people, excellent client relationships and good market standing have given us a platform for innovation, expansion and investment.”
Those attributes come partly from the firm’s culture, which is as strong as ever. Even in the 1970s, the partner in charge of recruitment, Geoffrey Sammons, described the ideal A&O recruit as being “someone with a good degree and the better it was, the better”. But what really mattered, he said, was the personality. “We did not want just highly intellectual people coming into the firm. We wanted people who were intelligent but who could communicate.” It’s a picture of A&O that many can still recognise in 2019.
Added to that emotional intelligence is the confidence that A&O now has through its international growth. This increase in the firm’s self-assurance is something Wim has experienced first-hand.
“The merger we did with Loeff Claeys Verbeke (the Benelux law firm with which A&O merged in 2000) changed the balance of the firm a lot,” he says. “Since then, we’ve really become a global player rather than a London firm with international offices.”
Growing the international network has positioned A&O better to meet client needs. “They no longer come for a single product,” Wim continues. “Now they’re more likely to present a problem and, given our wide range of offerings, we can serve them globally.” This is borne out by the fact that the top 50 clients have each worked with an average of 23 A&O offices.
Both Andrew and Wim are determined, however, that the lean towards globalisation should not be at the expense of the culture which, as any alumnus will testify, is something very special. “We care a lot about the partner ethos of friendship, cohesion and a sense of joint history,” Wim says.
The building blocks of success
A&O is investing heavily in the partnership by developing its next generation of leaders. As part of that investment, the firm has developed a leadership training programme for partners at INSEAD Business School.
Wim believes key partners will benefit from being taken away from their day jobs and having the space to think not just about how best to service their clients, but also more strategically about the firm. “It’s an opportunity to look at our business as an owner, rather than as a lawyer,” he says. “Our leadership needs to look at the risks of standstill and the opportunities for moving forward. The INSEAD leadership training helps the partners learn that. It’s good for them to have time to analyse opportunities. There’s a real benefit for the wider partnership.”
The INSEAD leadership initiative is just one of the components that has helped A&O achieve such excellent results and continued growth. But what other factors does A&O owe its success to? Andrew sums it up: “First, there’s the breadth of our network. You can see that by the fact that revenue grew in every region. Then there’s the strength of each of our practice groups. Our sweet spot is complex, cross-border matters where few other firms can compete. In 2018, we advised on five of the ten highest-value cross-border deals.”
“We care a lot about the partner ethos of friendship, cohesion and a sense of joint history.”
How, though, is A&O going to keep the growth going into 2020 and beyond? As Wim says: “Even if you’re very successful, you have to continue to challenge the way you do things. That’s our partnership mind-set. Our people constantly look for better ways to deliver services.”
Clearly people at A&O remain very proud of the firm and ambitious for it. “It’s about the clients first, then the firm, then the individual, in that order,” Andrew says. “You keep that at the forefront of your ethos and it’s motivating – it drives you ahead.”
One result of the challenge and drive to innovate is the success of the Advanced Delivery & Solutions offering, which has seen revenue growth of 20% over the past year. In 2019, as part of the overall strategy of diversification, the firm launched A&O Consulting. This is the first regulatory-focused consulting practice at an elite global law firm, born as a direct response to requests from financial institutions and corporations to help them address regulatory scrutiny and adapt to new environments.
The diversity agenda
Diversity and inclusion continue to be at the top of the firm’s priorities. As Wim says: “We’ve made great progress in a number of areas, but we still need to do more. And rightly there is increasing client pressure for law firms to act, as we saw earlier this year with General Counsels signing open letters calling for action on diversity.” The letter in question was signed by more than 170 General Counsels from industries including technology, retail, media, hospitality and financial services. It called for an end to partner offerings which were largely white and male, and stated that legal spend would be directed towards law firms which showed results on diversity and inclusion.
However, improving the partnership gender balance has long been on the firm’s watch list. As Andrew explains: “One of our key strategies to help create a gender balance in the partnership is Wim’s talent pipeline calls which he makes every six months.
“Our sweet spot is complex, cross-border matters where few other firms can compete. In 2018, we advised on five of the ten highest-value cross-border deals.”
“We use these calls to speak to all the offices and practices to discuss who might be coming up to partnership in the next five years.
We’ve imposed a requirement that every practice group has to put forward a slate of partnership candidates, at least 30% of whom are female, by 2021.”
There have been positive results. This year 24% of new partners were female and that figure looks set to improve in the future. That said, the requirement is only to put the female candidates forward for selection. All candidates still need to pass the same partnership tests.
As an organisation, A&O wants to broaden its representation among different races and ethnicities, particularly at senior levels.
At a graduate recruitment level, our team works in a number of ways to ensure that we recruit from a diverse candidate pool. This includes partnering with external organisations to provide access, opportunity and assistance to candidates from underrepresented groups. We also invest in programmes targeting black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Internally, we’re focused on having conversations that offer us the best chance of making A&O a truly diverse and inclusive place. We have a number of network groups aimed at promoting inclusion and diversity at the firm, including BAME network groups.
A&O has also been recognised for its work supporting the LGBT+ community, having been included in the top 40 of Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index 2019, and being one of Stonewall’s Top Global Employers for the second year running. “Having an inclusive environment is critical,” Andrew says. “We want to have the best and brightest who are able to work in an environment where they can thrive, irrespective of their orientation, gender or ethnicity.”
Although there have been many new initiatives, some of the older ones continue to bear fruit. For example, in 2019 Smart Start, an award-winning work experience programme to tackle social exclusion in the legal profession, had its tenth anniversary, and was rolled out in India, South Africa and Hong Kong. Every summer in London, the scheme gives 200 students from state schools, who might be the first of their family to go to university, a high-quality work experience programme and access to the legal profession.
Wim and Andrew also recognise the importance of open discussions across the firm about mental health. The Minds Matter programme is a key initiative which aims to foster a culture in which employees can speak about their mental health. The scheme provides support to those who need it and champions working practices which facilitate positive mental health.
Forty-three partners and senior support professionals are helping deliver Minds Matter globally, and there’s a mental health advocate in every department.
Aware that looking after your mental health cannot begin early enough, Andrew has some good advice for young lawyers entering the profession: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so don’t burn yourself out and, if you’re feeling under pressure, make sure you ask for help.”
Wim agrees: “A lot of mental health issues come from people feeling they don’t have control over their lives. Sometimes you don’t, when there’s client and deal pressure, but when you do, make sure you take control. Don’t feel guilty about it.”
Pro bono and community investment
A&O continues to invest heavily in pro bono and community investment work, with the firm contributing 132 hours every single day. It’s clear that the most crucial measure of success is the positive change that the projects can make, both in their countries and across governments. “As a larger organisation, we have to pool our efforts to try to make a real difference in society,” Wim says. “It’s not just about how much money you collect, but about the impact it can have on people’s lives, too.”
A&O’s charity partner for 2018-2020 is Hope and Homes for Children. With a fund-raising target of GBP1 million, our lawyers are also using their legal skills to help the charity lobby the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and the UN to change the law around the world to help orphaned children.
About this time in 2018, A&O was looking to merge with another firm which is based in the U.S. – a merger now not going ahead. But this hasn’t changed the overall strategy in the U.S. “We never depended on this one merger,” Wim says. “It was a good opportunity, but we’ve always said that lateral recruitment is the alternative and we’re now redoubling those efforts.” Andrew agrees: “A&O is in the leading pack of international firms in the U.S. This merger was an opportunity to accelerate away from the rest. There are other ways to achieve our growth objective.”
Similarly, Wim and Andrew are equally confident about the firm’s prospects after Brexit. “Our business has a natural balance, as we’re as built up on the continent as in London,” Andrew says. “For the UK part of the business, it’s not a positive as, according to the commentators, the economy will shrink, but that said, the trade wars and anti-globalisation are also counter-forces for business. A&O is well-hedged to deal with the vagaries of financial markets and political instability.”
Looking to the future, some commentators believe that artificial intelligence (AI) is likely to be the next big trend to affect the legal industry and A&O is well positioned to take advantage. As Wim says: “A&O has embraced AI and, having completed the research and development phase, is now commercialising it.” This has been demonstrated through A&O’s innovative development of regulatory re-papering known as BrexitMatrix™, which was awarded a ‘standout’ rating in the new products and services category at the FT Innovative Lawyer Awards Europe 2018.
However, it’s not just the technological innovations that Wim and Andrew are proud of. “We’ve pushed ourselves as a firm to be the most dynamic and ambitious of the global elite law firms,” Andrew says. “We now have world-changing pro bono activities. We champion diversity and innovate like no other law firm. Our focus on clients is better than ever. Our people maintain the standard of excellence our clients have come to know and expect.
“The risk of success is that it’s followed by complacency. That’s the continuous challenge for people in our roles.”
With a basis like this to grow from, here’s to the next 25 years.