Baker & McKenzie turns to Belfast for second support centre

Baker & McKenzie has become the latest firm to open a legal and business support centre in Belfast, its second global services base.

The Belfast operation – which follows the opening of its support centre in Manila in 2000 – will go live next month, and is expected to add around 120 professionals in its first year of operation.

Initially around a third of staff in the office will offer legal support services, providing 24 hour assistance to the firm’s lawyers around the world and reducing the firm’s dependency on a single location.

Legal support will be provided for cross-border transactional matters, as well as projects and disputes work.

The firm expects the office to grow office headcount to between 200 and 250 within three years, by which point Bakers expects the office to cost £8m a year.

Lawyers and support staff will be placed on a career development framework, but the firm currently has no plans to offer training contracts.

At first, the operation will be headed by the firm’s global director of operations Jason Marty, who is relocating from Chicago to Belfast to serve as the initial executive director of the centre.

Bakers said the decision to open in Belfast was driven by client demand, with Northern Ireland chosen “for a variety of social, economic and business reasons”.

The firm is also set to receive just under £1.3m of public funding from Invest Northern Ireland, as an incentive.

Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s enterprise, trade and investment minister, personally travelled to Chicago to meet with senior Baker & McKenzie figures including global chairman Eduardo Leite, prior to the office’s launch.

“We have been centralizing a range of front-line and back-office services in Manila over the past 14 years,” added Leite.

“This has given us great experience in off-shoring back-office support services and mid-office support for practice groups… [and] has given us an opportunity to develop our ideas for clients in other practice areas in a way which is truly innovative.”

Global M&A head Tim Gee added: “We are planning on building global centres of excellence in Belfast in the areas of due diligence and deal closing, which will be an integral part of our transactional team.”

Firms to have already launched support centres in the Northern Irish capital include Allen & Overy (A&O) and Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), as well as virtual law firm Axiom.

HSF’s Belfast base opened in April 2011 with a team of lawyers focused on reviewing documents related to major contentious work, notably in litigation, arbitration and regulatory investigations.

The aim was to reduce the cost base for the firm, which in turn means it can charge lower fees to clients for disputes work – which is typically charged at an hourly rate.

The Belfast team has grown to 150 staff, 146 of which are fee earners and half of those qualified lawyers. In 2012, the office also began offering training contracts.

A&O also launched a business and legal support centre in the city in the same year, in a deal which saw the firm promised £2.5m of public funding from Invest Northern Ireland, in return for creating 300 new jobs.

Branching out – more on how top law firms are looking further afield to cut costs.

Click here for the latest Baker & McKenzie briefings on Legal Week Law.