Until the dawn of the internet, small law firms were limited to their local market. To grow their firms, attorneys had to move their practice to a larger market or offer new services.
For John Joy, managing attorney at New York City-based boutique whistleblower firm FTI Law, today’s tech offers another option: maintaining your firm’s specialized focus while expanding the number of regions your firm serves.
FTI represents clients from across the globe, Joy tells Above the Law, with the majority of the firm’s clients coming from Europe and East Asia. Below, Joy outlines some of the challenges and rewards of FTI’s global growth strategy.
Seeking Opportunity Abroad
“Our geographic expansion was motivated by the need to serve clients who need our services most,” Joy says.
He notes that the type of whistleblower matter his firm focuses on, violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act, makes FTI a particularly strong candidate for pursuing global expansion while maintaining its small size, preserving the benefits of life at a small firm.
“The law is specifically aimed at U.S. companies that pay bribes overseas, i.e., outside the U.S. As a result, it is no surprise that most of the people who witness FCPA violations are located outside the U.S.,” he says.
“These are the people who need our help, and it was with a view to serving those clients that we knew it was imperative that we operate globally.”
In addition to simply expanding the pool of potential clients for FTI, Joy says the firm’s activity across cultures has given the firm opportunities to spot new potential legal risks and business opportunities.
“Clients from one country might verbalize a concern or idea that clients from another country do not verbalize. Even though clients in both countries have the same worry or concern, only clients from one of the countries will be comfortable bringing it up,” he says.
“This is just one example, but the more you learn about clients from different backgrounds and cultures, the better you are able to anticipate what is important to clients.”
The Challenges of Going Global
Joy highlights several main challenges of operating a small firm on a global scale, including language barriers, time zone differences, and the need to maintain the aura of established, professional excellence clients expect from law firms despite being in a digital-first environment.
Any professional services firm looking to reach clients on a global scale would likely run into similar challenges, but FTI faced a unique problem when expanding overseas: attorney licensing.
Because the firm has a focus on FCPA violations, FTI needed attorneys with knowledge of foreign cultures and legal systems who were also licensed to practice in the United States.
The firm’s solution? A combination of effective ad hoc hires with the right language skills and strategic permanent hires in multiple time zones.
“In terms of hiring new attorneys, the key motivation for us is to be able to serve clients who do not speak English. Given we operate a very small firm, the first approach we used was to hire attorneys on an ad hoc basis who had specific language skills that we needed for a case,” Joy says.
“As our business has grown, we are now looking to make permanent hires with language skills that can serve various jurisdictions. Ideally, we hope to cover the majority of the globe by ensuring we can serve clients in English, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese.”
According to Joy, the true challenge of time zone differences isn’t scheduling meetings with current clients or between FTI attorneys located in different regions. Even more difficult, he says, is making sure prospective clients who have reached out to FTI receive a response from the firm as quickly as possible.
While automatic or AI-assisted options do exist for responding to potential clients, Joy says, FTI continues to rely on human employees to handle these tasks.
“We simply ensure coverage using efficient scheduling among staff,” he adds.
Delivering a Quality Digital Client Experience
As a whistleblower firm, FTI also faces an imperative to not only deliver reasonable outcomes for the cases it handles, but also to make sure clients feel secure from the moment they reach out to the firm to report a potential violation.
“One of the key aspects of a law firm is that it needs to be credible and give clients a sense of security. In previous generations, this was done by renting large offices with marble-clad lobbies, plush furniture and impressive physical surroundings,” Joy says.
“As the majority of our clients want to be able to meet via video-conference, we need to adapt the model to give clients the same sense of credibility and quality, but in a digital way.”
A key factor in polishing FTI’s digital client experience is the use of professional-level visual and audio equipment during video calls, according to Joy.
“We need to make sure that when clients call us, they are seeing the same standard of quality they are used to seeing which means taking the same steps of using professional microphones, lighting and camera to ensure they feel the same quality and credibility meeting us online as they would walking into an office,” he says.
Putting this level of emphasis on clients’ digital experience doesn’t just help keep the business out of logistical trouble. It also all but eliminates the need to pay for office spaces outside the United States, according to Joy.
“Only when you have the right infrastructure in place should you start actively advertising in a region. Given how well videoconferencing can work when done professionally, I would caution against opening an office or hiring a person in a region until it is absolutely necessary and warranted,” Joy says.
Ethan Beberness is a Brooklyn-based writer covering legal tech, small law firms, and in-house counsel for Above the Law. His coverage of legal happenings and the legal services industry has appeared in Law360, Bushwick Daily, and elsewhere.