Legal Business Blogs

Comment: The limits of culture – WLG needs more than common ground to fulfil its ambitions

Let’s get this out of the way up front. The least expected new entrant to the Global 100, Gowling WLG, is going to have to work very hard to avoid being the classic 2 + 2 = 4 union when its tie-up goes live in January.

Yes, it’s hard to see much downside given the hand WLG was playing, after a necessary and credibly integrated union between Wragge & Co and Lawrence Graham last year. The Gowlings fit is close enough to be acceptable, if not beyond debate. But the relative lack of interaction between the UK and Canadian economies, and the awkward realities of a dual-hub structure mean it will be perilously easy to settle into two firms existing under the same brand, rather than becoming more than the sum of its parts.

Such a fate has, to varying degrees, faced most multi-profit-centre unions – who would bet that WLG, composed of two legacy firms striving to put periods of drift behind them, will buck the trend? Perhaps ominous is the lengths to which both firms have gone to emphasise the (apparently genuine) cultural common ground between them.

As Gowlings’ Scott Jolliffe (pictured left) puts it: ‘Culture trumps strategy.’ Perhaps. But it most certainly does not trump execution or the willingness to address awkward issues when they occur.

On paper, Gowling WLG looks like an industry play and there is certainly common ground to the client base. But in discussion, it is clear that partnership affinity, similar positioning in respective markets and two influential intellectual property teams were more the driving force in this union.

As such, the combined firm will have to quickly demonstrate that it can build on the progress that legacy Wragges had made in recent years in streamlining and improving decision-making.

That said, the sniping over the choice of a Canadian suitor looks wide of the mark. It is hard to see how a US deal was a realistic option for either firm and both have substantial referral business out of the States.

Ruling out a US move for the medium term looks pragmatic for a firm rightly planning to focus its investments in several key international markets, such as Germany and Asia Pacific.

Given that Gowling WLG has evolved in an opportunistic fashion, getting the message right for what will be a very distinctive but widely-spread law firm will be important.

Leaving aside the debatable decision to ditch the Wragges brand, the firm would be well advised to remember the lessons from the legacy Birmingham firm’s glory days. A collaborative culture, quality of life and an engaged but creative approach to client service were hallmarks of Wragges back when City rivals laughed such PC nonsense out of town.

In the age of New Law and northshoring, the firm needs to rediscover its progressive credentials, especially as it now must compete with a City mid-tier in far better shape than the 1990s.

The potential is there for a distinctive place for Gowling WLG in the global legal market… if it can claim it. But the firm should have no illusions over the scale of that task, and that culture only takes you so far.

Subscribers can read more in this month’s feature: ‘The road to Ottawa – why WLG believes Gowlings can put it on the global map.’