In our latest Q&A, Tim Bugg, chairman of the International Legal Services Advisory Council, reflects on the role of the council and how it helps law firms flourish in an expanding regional legal market.
Can you tell us about your role and the makeup of ILSAC?
"I'm chair of the council, which has a membership of 20. That membership is made up of a combination of lawyers in practice, usually with considerable experience in high-level national and international legal services; a number of law deans because part of ILSAC's brief deals with our law schools and international legal education; and also senior people from government departments and agencies such as the Attorney-General's department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). So it's a blend of very strong experience from the public and private sectors. The council is appointed by the Attorney-General. The term of the current council members is to June of 2013. My role is to chair the council and have day-to-day contact on ILSAC issues. ILSAC has a secretariat within the Attorney-General's department and it's run by very capable people who are a great support to the council."
What is the body's chief focus?
"We have four committees which concentrate on our main areas of focus. Those areas are global legal services and market access; international legal cooperation; international legal education and training; and international commercial dispute resolution."
They sound like highly technical areas of the law.
"They can be. We also have three specialist working groups which concentrate on areas of particular interest, notably in the global legal services and market access area but also with international legal education. Those are the China working group, the India working group and the recently formed Indonesia working group. It is very stimulating work and the people on the council are terrific contributors and give their time willingly and philanthropically because members of the council aren't paid a sitting fee. They bring with them a great amount of experience and ability."
When it comes down to the ground level, what impact does ILSAC have on individual lawyers or law firms?
"The main focus of ILSAC is to enhance the international presence and improve the international performance of Australia's legal and related services, and we believe that in the 20 years approximately since ILSAC has been in existence it has been instrumental in opening markets to Australia and lawyers. It has a very strong reputation internationally and is quite unique, as I understand it, in that jurisdictions with which we are more familiar - such as the United Kingdom and the US - don't have anything like ILSAC. Indeed, in Australia we've been very successful in blending the public and private sectors to work in this area. We work closely with the Law Council of Australia, we work closely with the Council of Australian Law Deans and we work closely with other government departments and agencies. For example, DFAT uses ILSAC as its main source of information on legal services issues and export strategies and the secretariat liaises very closely with the department when it comes to negotiating free-trade agreements and the professional services components so far as they relate to lawyers."
We understand that ILSAC also produces industry data that assists the profession?
"Yes. Every couple of years we do a statistics survey of international legal services, and the last one covered the 2008 and 2009 financial years. The results of that survey were circulated early last year and they are very useful in showing how the markets are developing and where our main areas of work are. Our large national and international firms contribute information very freely to the survey so that we can produce statistics of worth. They show that, for example, Asia is our main area of work and the data is a very useful tool to help firms craft their projects and plans."
The former federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland asked ILSAC and his department to identify the key legal services markets in which Australia should focus. How is that study progressing?
"The study seeks to identify opportunities for Australian legal service providers to grow business and to enhance our presence in what is an increasingly globalised market for legal and related services. It is aimed at giving Australian policy-makers and business a very sound base for decision-making to enhance Australia's strategic global engagement generally. I don't expect the results of the study to become known until early (in 2012). It is becoming obvious that Australia itself is now a truly internationalised market with the advent of leading international law firms here. We welcome that because we've been very strong on opening up overseas markets and in providing, in return, access on a reasonably liberal basis to overseas qualified lawyers to Australia. So the advent of these better-known international firms to Australia is much welcomed by ILSAC."
How do Australian firms rate overseas?
"They rate very highly and are up there with the best of them and they operate in a way which is very well regarded by the jurisdictions they operate in ... It's interesting. Four or five years ago I was at an American Bar Association annual conference and the topic of discussion was access to foreign markets by other countries' lawyers. A Beijing lawyer spoke and said she would like to see other countries approach this in the same way Australians have; that is; coming through the front door, not trying to come through the back door. I think that gives more than a hint at how well regarded Australian firms are. They are well known for their expertise in a multitude of areas. They are regarded as being leaders in resources and mining law, international trade and investment, information technology and IP generally."
What is ILSAC doing to promote liberalisation of trade in transnational legal-related services?
"That's really the raison d'être of ILSAC. It's always been a very strong promoter of trade liberalisation (and) eliminating unnecessary barriers. ILSAC was behind the development of the general principles as to how one should be allowed to operate when working internationally. Our regulation of overseas qualified lawyers in Australia reflects the ILSAC approach. Regulation of overseas qualified lawyers shouldn't be onerous. Overseas qualified lawyers can practise in Australia on a fly-in, fly-out basis and without the need to establish an on-the-ground presence, but if they choose to do that they can do so with minimal regulation and employ Australian qualified lawyers. That doesn't happen in many jurisdictions."
China is clearly viewed as a significant market for Australian lawyers, but what about other parts of Asia?
"Other Asian countries are important markets, but India is seen as a very important emerging market for our lawyers. At the moment foreign lawyers aren't entitled to any form of presence in India, but it certainly happens. There is fly-in, fly-out work done by foreign lawyers in India. We've had strong engagement with India over the last couple of years. That was highlighted in June of (2010) by a visit by the then chairman of the Indian Bar Council and a strong delegation. The Bar Council of India signed a memorandum with the Law Council of Australia, ILSAC and the Council of Australian Law Deans with a view to working on projects together. We're hoping to pursue that further."
If the barriers come down to these growing regional markets, it must represent interesting times for Australian law firms.
"That's true, (but) I don't think China, for example, is going to move much more than it has for some considerable time. That's the message we keep getting, but with the relationship building we engage in we hope for their development of a better regulatory situation for foreign lawyers there in the not too distant future. For example, at World Expo in Shanghai in 2010 ILSAC was involved in a number of seminars at the Australian pavilion to show Chinese lawyers and business leaders Australian capabilities first hand. That sort of promotional work is really important."
What else is on the agenda at ILSAC?
"Another project that's looming is a major education symposium in March this year. It's a symposium that's going to concentrate on the issue of the internationalisation of our law degrees across a number of aspects. One is, of course, to ensure that we're equipping our own lawyers for international legal practice. Another is to explore what we need to do to make our degree courses attractive for overseas students. Attracting overseas students to study here is an important part of our legal education system. As mentioned, we are also working on better access to the markets in India and China. The other area we're going to work on significantly is better international recognition of our arbitrators and mediators. We've got some highly capable people who already work internationally in this area. We're keen to see Australia better recognised for those skills and we'll seek to showcase those whenever we can."
You have a full agenda with your role at ILSAC and also your private firm duties with Dobson Mitchell & Allport Lawyers. How do you manage it?
"There is a lot on ... but it is very stimulating. It is a balancing act, but I have very good support to say the least with the ILSAC secretariat, so that makes a huge difference. Time wise it can be time consuming, but I try to do these things around weekends so that there's as little interference as possible with day-to-day practice, but that can't be avoided entirely. There are many people in the legal profession, like me, who have these sorts of roles and contribute to the general wellbeing of the legal profession."
Ultimately, the networks you develop through such roles and the cross-fertilisation of ideas must be good for you and your firm.
"I like to think so and you meet in the process such excellent people who are so committed to the cause of furthering the interests of our lawyers on an appropriate basis and there's such great support from the government departments and agencies, the Attorney-General, other ministers and people who are very willing to give of their time and enjoy doing so."
Tim Bugg is chairman of the International Legal Services Advisory Council and principal at Tasmanian law firm Dobson Mitchell & Allport Lawyers. A former president of the Law Council of Australia, he has recently been appointed as a member of both the Council of the Section of International Law of the American Bar Association and the Standards Committee of the Council of Australian Law Deans.