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An Interview with David Kerr, CEO, Bird & Bird

David Kerr is CEO of Bird & Bird, a position he took up in 1996. Since then he has led the firm through a period of international expansion and has pioneered several innovations in client service, ranging from enhanced case and project management tools to improved cross-border reporting.

In an exclusive interview, Who’s Who Legal finds out his role, the firm's values and prorities, and his future plans for the firm, including how it will maintain its market-leading position.

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What are the priorities of your role?

The main priorities of my role, from a personal perspective, are to provide a strategic vision and to make sure the firm is aligned in all respects to that vision. It is important that we have both leadership and management, so it is vital that there is a good team driving the firm forward, especially given the growth our firm has experienced in recent years and its international nature. So, having a solid structure in place to accommodate and drive development is key.

 

Tell us a bit more about the values of the firm and how these are reflected in your day-to-day role.

We are a friendly firm and we try to be experts in what we do. Above all, the most important thing is having strong mutual trust with our clients; this is our key value. We pride ourselves on listening to what clients want and responding to market changes. I spend much of my time talking and listening to our clients, as it is fundamental that we are continually adapting our services to meet clients’ needs. We value a relationship of mutual respect with our clients and they have the most impact on the firm’s direction.

 

What criteria are used to determine whether a prospective lawyer is a good fit for the firm? Do you have a strong younger generation coming up through the ranks or are you anticipating the need to recruit laterally?

The main criteria we use for determining whether an individual would be a good fit is that they need to be a great lawyer, and crucially they also need to understand what a client requires. Practitioners must be service-oriented, with the focus on the client; being an ivory-tower lawyer is no longer an option. Adaptability is also essential; the individual must be able to change what they do in order to meet changing demands, of both the client and the market. This is now a crucial component to the success of a lawyer, and indeed a firm, in today’s legal market.

There is certainly a need to recruit and promote individuals internally and our firm expends a lot of resources on developing talent and making sure people progress through the ranks. We also hire laterally and will continue to do this where it is strategically necessary, for example when we open an office in a new jurisdiction and there is the need for practitioners with strong experience of the local law.

 

Bird & Bird is extremely well known for its strength in the IP sector. How will the firm continue to build on this? Which practices are you currently expanding, and are there any sectors in which you anticipate being particularly busy in 2014?

We are undoubtedly strong in the area of IP but this because of our industry focus on technology, not simply because we like IP, although we do. We cover a broad range of legal areas and this drives our growth as our comprehensive interest in technology is fuelling and diversifying the areas we focus on. Recently we have built up our energy and aviation practices following changes in these sectors, which have seen their underlying assets being very much driven by technological advancements.

IP is very important and our specialists in this area have a crucial skill set which is needed in much of the work we do. Many of the significant technology and infrastructure projects we are involved in require not only huge skills in these fields, but also have IP assets involved, meaning it is vital that we have practitioners with exceptional abilities in this area. At the heart of many of the projects we undertake, there is a need for IP expertise.

As a firm we are not fans of the generalist approach to practice areas; rather, we encourage our lawyers to focus on key sectors, building on their preferences and backgrounds. This allows them to develop a deep understanding of the issues and challenges faced by specific industries and provide a more pragmatic, commercial response when helping our clients address matters, which are always unique and often very complex. We’ve found that our ability to “speak our clients’ language” means that we can get up to speed more quickly, and provide solutions which we are confident will work for our clients.

 

Recently it has been reported that the MINT countries (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey) will be the next economic “giants”. To what extent do you think emerging economies have transformed the global legal profession and has Bird & Bird recently opened new offices in overseas jurisdictions or does it have any plans to do this?

Emerging economies are becoming much more significant and as a firm we want to build up our capabilities in every country where our clients are active. Due to the nature of our practices as a firm we are not, unlike others, just focusing on those jurisdictions that are financial centres. Rather, our focus is on areas and industries where technology is driving changes; in particular, countries which score highly in the World Bank’s Knowledge Economy Index tend to have characteristics which are well suited to Bird & Bird. This explains why our global footprint is so large.

Out of the MINT countries you mention we are especially looking at Turkey and Indonesia as jurisdictions of interest. We also have plans to open in more markets in the future. We are particularly interested in these regional groupings, such as the ASEAN economic community and Latin America, and will be paying particular attention to them in line with our clients’ interests.

 

Tell us a bit more about the firm’s partnership model and the extent of your role in senior management.

We have a global partnership LLP model. We do not believe in loose, separate, quasi-partnerships; we do believe in doing it the hard way as a single business. This is more in line with the way magic circle firms have gone and we believe it works for us.

 

Bird & Bird has recently worked on a number of matters for major clients, such as Nokia, the European Central Bank and EE. How does your firm attract and maintain such an impressive roster of clients, especially as clients are becoming more and more demanding? How would you say relationships between firms and their clients have changed in recent years?

We put huge effort into listening to clients and taking into account what they are saying. Their constructive suggestions are a driving force for change and we look to be innovative in regards to what we offer clients. Nowadays it is a given that firms such as ours are good at the core legal services. The key is to deliver the non-core. We can do complex cross-border work, we can deliver on time and to budget; these skills are what clients want and expect. It is a constant process of moving forward and innovating; we need to be in tune with our clients and even stay ahead of what they want. The key is to be constantly furthering and diversifying what you offer in line with demand or predicted demand.

 

The firm is well known for its enthusiastic approach to pro bono work, with your lawyers from multiple offices getting involved in notable projects. What are the firm’s plans for the year ahead in terms of pro bono work?

We encourage lawyers to work for local communities and in legal forums on an individual basis and we also have a coordinated pro bono programme. We use our unique skills and areas of specialism to help where possible. Demand for help from the legal profession has increased not just in the UK with the legal aid crisis, but also in many jurisdictions where we operate. Our preference is to focus on providing help to charities and other worthy causes in the areas we are good at and have expertise in; members of our London IP department regularly attend the OwnIt clinic, at the University of Arts, to advise graduates on the issues they may face as they seek to exploit their own IP for commercial purposes. As a commercial firm I am not sure how much sense it would make for us to help with criminal law. As CEO, it is inspiring to see the efforts of our practitioners around the world making a difference in the communities around them. In the UK we work with Thames Reach, the South Westminster Legal Advice Centre and LawWorks.

 

Tell us more about why diversity is important for the firm and what programmes it undertakes in this area.

With regard to diversity, 70 per cent of our employees are outside the UK, making our firm probably one of the most diverse partnerships in the world. This diverse mix of nationalities, cultures and languages is core to who we are as a firm and a partnership. As an international firm, without diversity we would not be able to exist, let alone succeed in the market. We also have various programmes and schemes that aim to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter the legal profession. In 2009 we launched the Bird & Bird Bursary Scheme, a mentoring system with our current trainees offering support and career guidance. Our Pioneer Programme focuses on building relationships with students from the age of 14 upwards with the aim of having a positive impact on their development.

We maintain a high ratio of women throughout all levels of the firm and have a strong ratio of women in our management group, where we make sure they are prominent. We very much believe in having strong female role models at the firm who can show the way to younger generations. Also, being a very technology-oriented firm, working remotely is one of many tools that allow everyone at the firm to have a rewarding work-life balance.

 

As a large, international firm, what is Bird & Bird’s strategy for further growth and development in the next five years?

Certainly we will continue to grow over the next five years. We have grown every year for the past 20 to 25 years and have been one of the fastest-growing firms in the global legal market, percentage-wise, and this will not change. We will continue to expand our global footprint and enter into more jurisdictions that are important for our clients, as well as build up our practices in the jurisdictions we are currently in. The nature of disruptive technologies means we will most likely also be investing in serving new industry-focused markets and also in our people and use of technology to continually improve our clients’ experience of working with us.

 

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