The Philippines has legal pedigree – law firms could send more than their admin there.
Back-office staff are the focus of global firm Norton Rose Fulbright’s announcement that it will open a ‘global service centre’ in the Philippines.
In reality, if NRF is looking to save money and improve processes without compromising on quality, it’d be mad not to consider shifting legal work to Manila too.
That’s not my national pride as a half-Filipino talking. By UK and US standards the Philippines has the most sophisticated and advanced legal community in Asia. I’ve met the lawyers in the leading firms, seen their CVs, and spoken to their clients.
International law firms might have better business reasons to set up or have partnerships in Hong Kong, Singapore, mainland China and Bangkok, but the Philippines' home-grown legal talent is unmatched.
ACCRALAW, Romulo Mabanta, Picazo Buyco Tan Fider & Santos, SyCip Salazar Hernandez & Gatmaitan, Quisumbing Torres – folk who know these firms and others will be well aware of this.
The reason lies in the country’s close links with the US. The Philippines was a US colony for half a century. Its supreme court is all Washington-inspired pillars, and the links to the US remain strong, with many lawyers going to leading US universities and returning to the Philippines after time spent in US and international law firms.
By contrast, a lawyer was not traditionally a high-status job in Chinese culture – for years their number in Taiwan was kept artificially low through absurdly high pass marks in legal finals.
It’s just a shame for the lawyers of Manila and Cebu that the economy and politics of the country don’t measure up. (More recent growth figures and a well-performing stock exchange not withstanding.)
For major finance deals and IPOs, international firms commonly fly in and fly out of Manila and use Philippine counsel for domestic law elements. But taking work from the former is not where the potential lies for the Philippines’ lawyers.
Look at the way the business and conduct of law is heading: elite firms under pressure from clients are stripping out activities that don’t need to be performed in high-cost locations like the City. They are sending work to regional firms — setting up in Belfast, Manchester, Birmingham, Warsaw, using LPOs in India. Anywhere that is cheaper but with a well-educated work force.
Work going to Manila can be sent at the end of our working day and be back by morning. English is the language of business law in the Philippines – I’d choose it over Warsaw, and to be honest, over India too.
Baker & McKenzie, which has a member firm in Quisumbing Torres, put its global services hub in Manila years ago, and judges it a success. The surprise would be if more firms don’t follow.
Law is in the culture of the Philippines – law firm partners often serve stints as technocrat government ministers, and law graduates are numbered in the thousands.
On a visit to Manila in 1999, lawyers I met were quietly amused by a survey by a business magazine that found the Philippines had the best lawyers in Asia but the worst judges.
The latter is the sort of issue that holds back the economic development of nations – but in a legal globalised market, it would be a missed opportunity if international firms didn’t look at Manila seriously as a place to do more than their admin.
I suspect Norton Rose Fulbright will have some seriously over-qualified admin staff working in Manila. Once up and running, it might wonder what else they could be doing.