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The Big BDLN Interview: Paul Rawlinson, global chair of Baker McKenzie

Paul Rawlinson, the 55-year-old global chairman of Baker McKenzie, is one of those leaders who crept up to lead the field from the outside lane and then just carried on accelerating. His background contains no clues that he’d end up where he is: he went to a Manchester state school and his mother’s parents arrived in the UK from Southern Italy in the 1930s as economic migrants to start a new life. His Dad left school at 15 and he didn’t even ever set out to be a lawyer. Yet today Paul chairs the world’s second-largest law firm by revenue and headcount – the first-ever Brit to hold the role. So how exactly did this affable, down-to-earth Mancunian, grandson of an Italian immigrant, come to lead one of the world’s largest and most successful law firms? 

“I remember talking to my careers advisor at school,” he says. “This was the 1970s! Careers advice was, er… rudimentary. But, in fairness, the chap did very well for me. ‘If you like French,’ he said (and I did – I felt drawn to European culture by my family’s heritage) ‘there’s this English & French law course you can do.’ So I went for it. But it was my love of European culture and my strong family ethic that drove me, not law.”

Paul made his first contact with Baker McKenzie in 1986 after university, where he studied in Kent and Paris. As he recalls, it was love at first sight: “The first thing they said was: ‘English & French law – interesting choice – tell us more.’ The conversation felt natural. Other firms hadn’t been unfriendly, but they’d focused on the technical, legal side. Baker McKenzie were keen to talk about cultural and linguistic elements, as well as law. It felt like I was connecting with people who thought like me.”

He was offered a job in the intellectual property department (“I’d never picked up a book on IP in my life”) and began to specialise in brands, working with clients such as L’Oréal and Ralph Lauren. “I was nurtured, encouraged, and given every opportunity to visit clients, even as an associate,” says Paul. “I remember getting on a plane to New York – my career just four years old – and being trusted to speak to the IP counsel for Ralph Lauren. Not many firms would do that.”

Paul also tells a story involving fashion designer Calvin Klein that perfectly demonstrates how a client-facing career can put you in some interesting situations. The young lawyer was enjoying a post-flight beer in a Greenwich Village hotel bar, explaining to the barman that he was here on business to see Calvin Klein. The barman promptly put a phone on the bar and said: “Call him. Call Calvin. He’s on the fifth floor.” Paul explains: “I came out in a cold sweat. ‘What do you mean?’ I asked. The barman replied: ‘Calvin’s having his apartment done. He’s here as a resident…’

“I told the chap that I’d come to see the company’s lawyers, not Calvin personally! And for better or worse, I did not take up the chance to give Calvin a buzz. Doing so could have been the best – or worst – move of my career!”

That New York trip was memorable for another reason, too – for teaching him lifelong lessons about generating business and building client relationships. “I tell this story to everyone at the firm who’ll listen,” he explains. “I wasn’t in New York to sell my skills as an English IP lawyer. I was there to say: ‘What’s your problem? How can we help you? Let’s put a plan in place.’ That’s the magic formula. Offering UK legal advice was secondary; far more important was connecting with the needs of the client. In professional services, you build client relationships by helping people with real business issues. Lawyers often forget that clients are under pressure to deliver solutions. To succeed, they’ve got to think a little more broadly about what keeps clients awake at night. Then clients start opening up about their issues and lawyers gain more understanding. If I’d gone in and simply asked, ‘Can I do your English IP work?’ I’d have got nowhere.”

After showing commercial nous – as well as building a fine reputation in the fast-growing IP branding sector – Paul became a partner in 1996 shortly after a two-year secondment to Hong Kong.

Ever wondered what it takes to make partner? Paul provides clarity: “You need to be a great lawyer just to survive,” he says. “To pass the partner test you need to bring something extra to the table on a business level. Can you develop relationships, nurture colleagues and build a practice that makes a difference to the firm? That’s what it takes to become partner. To get there you need the confidence to get out of your comfort zone, to put yourself in situations with clients where you need to think on your feet. That’s quite an ‘un-lawyerly’ thing to do.”

In 2004, Paul became global head of IP, and, in 2013, London managing partner. In both roles, especially the latter, he was able to take insights gained from the IP/branding world and apply them to Baker McKenzie. “Working in branding taught me a great deal about differentiation,” he says. “In law, legal talent and expertise does not differentiate you. There are tons of great lawyers in London. What differentiates you is how those lawyers collaborate and whether they can come together and work for clients effectively.

“We also differentiate our brand by what we regard as our unique purpose. First: to simplify and navigate a complex world for our clients. Second: to serve our communities. If you don’t fundamentally value your people, you can subconsciously treat them as less valuable than clients. And vice versa. So you’ve got to get the balance right.”

Tied in with this is Paul and Baker McKenzie’s view of profitability as an ‘enabler’ rather than an objective: “Higher profitability allows us to achieve our purpose and attract talent, but it is not our primary objective. If you prioritise profit above all else then your thinking becomes short-term and you can toxify your culture.”

In action, these words have led to Baker McKenzie’s inclusion in the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work for for the sixth time. The Top 100 is powerful because it is based on honest and anonymous employee feedback – firms that make the list become targets for graduate talent. Paul puts his firm’s regular inclusion in the Top 100 and other accolades around the world down to the hard work of colleagues. But how has the firm got there?

We have 700 equity partners,” says Paul. “We invest an awful lot in face-to-face meetings with each other. That’s grown up over years. When people say that maybe we should cut back on meetings it’s almost like the firm gets an electric shock. This is why we are who we are – because we know each other. We work together. The notion that you build a brand and organisation through bonuses and remuneration is valid – but creating that bond of friendship, partnership and trust, especially in such a big organisation, is far more important.”

Paul then explains the nuts and bolts of how they have achieved such consistent recognition as an outstanding employer: “The process starts with surveys so you really start to understand your people. You look at the work-life balance, employee benefits and question what you’re doing right and wrong. You take negative feedback on the chin and start to see pockets where people are doing things really well. You then start to generate a narrative about how you can improve, and set standards of best practice. Before long, you gain momentum and partners start to understand that this is what people value and why they stay.”

Paul suggests that building a ‘one team’ culture has been critical, too: “Partners have a tendency to think clients come to the firm because of them – because they’re great lawyers. There’s something in that, but clients are actually attracted to the organisation as a whole – to the IT department, to HR, to marketing. The firm is about more than the lawyers alone – it’s about the whole infrastructure.”

Paul concludes the interview by outlining what he calls Baker McKenzie’s “vision of the modern lawyer”: “The sort of lawyers we want to attract in the future ties in with our long-term strategy. They are multi-talented, not just with legal skills but with people skills, too. They’re smart at analysing data, comfortable with technology, agile, work across cultures and markets, and ideally are multilingual. They embrace innovation and are not afraid of change.”

That vision will be helpful to both people with ambitions to become lawyers, and to current professionals keen to move with the times. However, perhaps greater inspiration will come from Paul Rawlinson himself – a man who reached the summit at Baker McKenzie through commercial acumen, a talent for developing client relationships, loyalty to his firm, and a passion for team building. Not to mention making the right call when given the chance to phone Calvin Klein…