An extraordinary and transformative year

Read Time
10 mins
Published Date
Dec 11, 2023
 Senior partner Wim Dejonghe reflects on a game-changing year for A&O, culminating in the transformative merger with Shearman & Sterling, record full-year revenues and progress across many other strategic areas.

Let’s start with the big news – the merger with Shearman & Sterling. Why is this such an incredible opportunity for A&O?

It starts with our strategy. We want to be the world’s first fully integrated global elite law firm, serving the most sophisticated clients in their most sophisticated work.

To do that, we have to have the best people and excellent capabilities in key practice areas, which for us links to our strategic priorities: technology transformation, private capital and energy transition.

But doing business globally has become increasingly complex. Regulation is getting more complicated, the world is much more fragmented and the uncertain geopolitical environment has a direct impact on the law.

These days clients increasingly look to partner with a legal adviser that can handle all their cross-border matters across multiple markets, rather than work with many different firms in different jurisdictions.

To be a truly global firm, we also need to be equally fluent in English law – highly relevant in a lot of cross-border finance and M&A work and in arbitration – U.S. law, the only other exportable legal system, and the laws of the world’s most dynamic markets.

While we’ve been growing our presence in the U.S. since the 1980s and have built a top quality practice across six offices, A&O lacked bench strength and brand recognition. The merger with Shearman & Sterling delivers that.

A&O Shearman will have recognition in U.S. boardrooms and access to a first-class corporate client base in the world’s largest legal market. In a highly litigious commercial environment, our litigation practice will be right up there with the best.

And with nearly 4,000 lawyers across 48 offices, A&O Shearman will have unparalleled global reach and local depth that clients increasingly demand.

Is this a trend others will follow?

We expect to see greater consolidation in the industry and we know others want to build a great transatlantic law firm.

But it’s not easy to pull off. You need cultural fit, client fit and a brand that is equally strong in both firms. There aren’t many that meet those requirements.

A&O reported strong revenue growth at the full year point, although profits were flat. What do you attribute that to?

Our revenues climbed 7% to GBP2.1 billion – breaking the GBP2bn barrier for the first time. We’re a secondary industry.

We follow the market. These numbers show we’re growing faster than our competitors because we’ve read the market correctly and picked the right strategic priorities.

Profits remained level at GBP892 million, partly reflecting the impact of high inflation and interest rates at a time of great economic uncertainty.

But mostly it’s down to salaries. There’s an intense war for talent in our industry and we need to pay at the top of the market to attract the best. That’s had the biggest impact on profitability, but it’s a trend we see right across the legal sector.

People are making an ever-bigger contribution to social impact work. Why is that so important?

Hours dedicated to this work have increased by a fantastic 56% over the last two years, in large part due to our programmes of work to support displaced people, for example Afghan and Ukrainian asylum seekers and refugees stranded on Greek islands. Last year, our lawyers volunteered 78,000 hours in support of access to justice, social finance, education, and employment around the world. In addition, partners contributed GBP3.9m to charitable funds, including GBP2.4m via the A&O Foundation.

Our global charity partnership with Street Child was a huge success and we’ve now chosen Women for Women International as our new global charity partner. This great organisation invests where inequality is greatest by helping women who are forgotten – the women survivors of war and conflict. I know we can make a huge difference to their work, not just with funding but through practical support and advice.

It’s important to remember bringing our skills to bear in this way links very closely with client work. In fact, we’ve renamed our Pro Bono and Community Investment team as the Social Impact Group, reflecting our clients’ growing focus on sustainability, which has seen social impact legal work increase sharply.

The Alumni Network goes from strength to strength. How do you regard the network?

I care about it very much. I look at other successful networks such as McKinsey’s and Arthur Andersen’s (which continues to grow even though the firm went bust years ago) and what strikes me about our programme and those other successful ones is that the members of the network are like a huge family. For A&O it means helping each other while at A&O and after leaving it.

That’s what we’ve created and like any family it’s important to keep investing in it to keep this great community of ours together. Given the number of people who are members of our network and attend alumni events across the world, I think it’s a shared ambition, which I'm so pleased to see.

In September you were honoured with a lifetime achievement award for innovative leadership by the FT and again at The British Legal Awards. What fantastic accolades!

It was very humbling to receive these awards, but, actually, I was in two minds about accepting them because innovation is never about one person, certainly not at A&O.

So, I accepted them on behalf of the whole firm. I saw them as a way of thanking all the people, hundreds of them, who are committed to making A&O a success by putting innovation at the heart of how we operate. Innovation should be a constant focus for any successful law firm in a rapidly changing world. It certainly is for us.

Looking ahead...

You’re coming to the end of your term as senior partner. What do you cherish most about your time at A&O?

The thing I cherish and am most proud of is our culture – the desire to help each other and the care people show for colleagues, which is so much a part of who we are as a firm. In a very competitive and sometimes aggressive environment, that’s something that’s easy to lose, but we still have it. I hope it will always be there.

And what does the future hold for you personally?

I’m not going to spend my life on a golf course – I’d be bored within a day!

I’ve never taken a sabbatical, so I may take six months off to review my options. I’ve also decided not to have any conversations about what I might do before January 2024.

I enjoy working and have lots of energy, with five, seven, maybe ten years of working life left in me, health permitting. I believe one of the secrets of staying young is remaining physically and mentally active, both professionally and socially.

Although I’m keen to keep working, it won’t be as a lawyer, and I don’t think I can work for another law firm. My loyalty to A&O and the joy I’ve had being part of this great firm wouldn’t allow it.

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Content Disclaimer
This content was originally published by Allen & Overy before the A&O Shearman merger