September 19, 2011 | last updated June 1, 2012 10:45 am

Local law firms leaning on global affiliations | Alliances give regional firms the reach, expertise to compete with big firms

As legal problems go global, Greater Hartford's law firms increasingly rely on decades-old referral associations to serve local clients branching out internationally.

Born in the 1980s, legal associations were used by local law firms as a reliable way to refer clients who needed legal representation somewhere not served by the local law firm. A Hartford firm could dial up a law firm in Denver if the Hartford firm's client needed some Colorado legal work.

As big law firms get bigger and open up international offices, small and mid-size regional firms retain clients in the global marketplace by relying once again on the legal associations for reliable referrals. Instead of Denver, the Hartford firm now is dialing up an association member in Brazil, France, China or India.

"It continues to allow us to serve our mid-size business clientele as they move into the global marketplace," said Henry Beck, partner at Hartford firm Halloran & Sage LLP, which is aligned with global referral network ALFA International. "While there are no legal ties to make us one big law firm, it ends up working that way."

Making referrals to members firms of ALFA International is nothing new for Halloran & Sage, Beck said. But over the past five years, international referrals have increased drastically as more businesses encounter international problems.

"Even the small start-ups are out on the Internet, and they want to register their trademarks in places like China," Beck said.

When working with members across a legal association, member firms know who they are dealing with, so they know the quality of work that will be done on behalf of their client, Beck said. There's also a level of trust among member firms.

"Our firms know those lawyers are going to be doing a very, very good job," said Dick Hetke, CEO of ALFA International. "They also know the law firm they make a referral to are not going to try to steal the client away."

Legal networks are comprised of only a handful of law firms per region, so referring firms know who they are dealing with in each geography. Lex Mundi, the largest referral association, has one member law firm per state and then one per foreign country for a total of 160 member firms. ALFA International has 80 U.S. member firms and 60 firms based in foreign countries.

Hartford firm Murtha Cullina is the Connecticut member of the global Lex Mundi alliance. When the firm first joined Lex Mundi 20 years ago, it was almost exclusively for domestic referrals, as the lack of e-mail and the Internet kept lawyers tied to their regions, said Elizabeth Stewart, Murtha Cullina managing partner.

"At the time we joined, we didn't have the technology we have now, and lawyers didn't do a lot of traveling," Stewart said.

Today, most Lex Mundi member firms in the U.S. are larger and have a multi-state presence, so the need for domestic referrals has been reduced significantly, Stewart said.

But Murtha Cullina's local clients want to expand into established and emerging world markets, and the firm's top Lex Mundi referrals are to members in China, Europe, Brazil and India, Stewart said.

"It helps us keep out Connecticut-based clients happy without being a huge firm ourselves," Stewart said.

Unfortunately, the door rarely swings both ways as Lex Mundi referrals from international firms to Murtha Cullina are few and far between.

"The reality is Connecticut… is not a big capital market," Stewart said. "Companies in China aren't saying, 'Let's build a plant in Connecticut.'"

Nearly every major firm in Connecticut is a member of a referral organization of some kind, said Houston Lowry, chairman of the international law section of the Connecticut Bar Association and managing partner of Meriden firm Brown & Welsh, P.C.

Some larger law firms will have their own referral networks, while others rely on associations such as ALFA International or Lex Mundi, said Lowry. Associations can be helpful when a firm is dealing with a new region, but aren't as necessary once a region becomes familiar.

"We do a lot of business internationally, and in the places we do repeat business, we know the firms fairly well," Lowry said.

The associations themselves try to get their various member firms to know each other before they start referring clients, Hetke said. ALFA International hosts eight to 10 seminars annually so lawyers from member firms can learn on a certain topic, but — more importantly — meet other ALFA lawyers and get prospects for new business.

"It is a wonderful way of building these relationships," Hetke said.

Halloran & Sage will bring clients to these events as well, allowing clients to know the lawyers they are being referred to, Beck said.

Murtha Cullina doesn't worry about negative issues arising when referring clients to Lex Mundi firms, such as firms stealing clients, doing poor work or mistreating people, Stewart said.

"One of the reasons we are so happy with the service is because we do so well with it," Stewart said. "It has been a very good service for us, and I have nothing but good things to say about it."

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