The International Bar Association has been battling a perception that it focuses too much on the needs of large law firms. But its new president -- a partner with one of those self-same global giants -- explains why that view is outdated
New Year fireworks came a few days late at the International Bar Association, but there has been plenty of ballyhoo nevertheless after Allen & Overy European competition law partner Michael Reynolds began his presidency last week with a pledge to take on an issue of no lesser significance than the health of the planet.
Mr Reynolds – who has more than 30 years’ experience at the magic circle firm – boldly stated he would be tackling legal issues around climate change as he assumed the organisation’s top slot in an uncontested election. He succeeds the two-year stint of Akira Kawamura, a partner at Japanese firm Anderson Mori & Tomotsune, and as well as pressing his plans to bolster climate research, Mr Reynolds said he would continue to strengthen the association’s activity in developing jurisdictions.
While global heavyweight legal practices and national bar associations maintain a strong relationship with the IBA, the association faces claims from some that it is less interested in smaller regional players, who can get lost in the in the global law firm hubbub. But the new president has plans to bring more players to the international table. With specialised, regional conferences and culture-preserving measures taking root, regional lawyers will be able to do more than simply make up the numbers, claims the A&O man.
Meanwhile, the IBA’s ever-popular annual conference – which last year attracted 5,000 delegates to Dublin and this October heads to Boston -- retains its place as the jewel in the association’s crown. But with a major regional conference occurring almost every week this year, bringing together leading lawyers of specific sectors to share their knowledge, the IBA may be edging towards actually becoming the global voice of the legal profession that it has always claimed to be.
What is the appeal of the IBA, from the perspective of a global law firm such as A&O down to individual lawyers?
Even though we [Allen & Overy] have our own international network, we still think that the IBA is hugely important – that’s why I have been supported along the way to becoming president, which is a long haul.
A&O has 42 offices in 29 countries, but that means we don’t have offices in the other 100-odd countries around the world. The IBA is an organisation that covers bar associations from more than 140 countries. In fact, we had a meeting with [UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki-Moon who said the IBA seems to cover more countries than the UN.
There are many new jurisdictions emerging in Africa and Asia where the links we make through the IBA in specialist areas are hugely important to us.
A lot of our own international development was aided and assisted through the IBA, for example, after the Berlin Wall came down we wanted to set up operations in Prague and Warsaw among other places, and it was the IBA who organised conferences and was very active in those areas. It’s through those conferences that we met the contacts which enabled us to enter those regions.
As a global firm, we very much want to be at the centre of IBA debates. What’s unique about it is that you have bar associations as members, individual lawyers as members and we now have 170 group firms as members. All lawyers in those firms are automatically members as well. I don’t think there is another method for bringing firms of that calibre together.
We also see the IBA as very important to our younger lawyers to develop their careers internationally. To become visible internationally is very important. It doesn’t apply to all practices, but for lawyers to be able to meet their peers around the world is a key feature.
Why did you want to take the top job?
It’s a progression. I became chairman of the anti-trust committee, but the jobs at the IBA are limited in time, so when I finished that I decided I wanted to continue to be active in the organisation and I put myself forward as a candidate for one of the offices of the divisions. Eventually I became chair of the commission, and then had to decide if I wanted to run for one of the top offices.
It’s a hugely interesting and challenging role, and when you’ve specialised in one sector it’s refreshing to become involved in a much broader dimension.
Some view the IBA as a vehicle for global firms – specifically US and UK headquartered firms – to meet and do business. What does the organisation offer firms outside of these parameters?
It offers a lot. We have a number of regional forums; take Latin America, for example, where we have set up a forum -- which is now a major event -- where firms from the region can meet. Nothing on that scale existed before. We have one coming up in Lima, where you will see the leading lawyers from top firms having a conference.
A similar scenario applies to Africa and Asia. It’s important to understand that a tremendous amount of business goes on between firms in the same region -- it doesn’t all go on a spoke to New York or Washington. Our regionals forums enable that.
Again, young lawyers from developing regions can broaden their knowledge, when before they may have been cut off from such experiences. And look at Russian lawyers, who were never allowed to leave Russia until a few years ago, but now they take full part in the IBA and are making up for lost time.
Lawyers from outside the US and UK, especially the Brics [Mr Reynolds make a specific point of including the ‘s’ for South Africa, as part of the group with Brazil, Russia, India and China] countries, are seeking to be more international, they want to be involved in international deals. The IBA is fulfilling a demand as a meeting place, as a centre for lawyers to improve their skills and for law firms to market themselves and make alliances.
One of my priorities is to bring cultural diversity to the IBA. For example, we have introduced much more use of foreign languages. When we have a conference in Brazil, it will be in Portuguese because that is what most of the people there will speak.
We also have a very important women’s interest group that has done a lot for female lawyers, especially in the Middle East. We have a gay and lesbian group that is doing a tremendous job in providing a home in the IBA for whoever wants to take part.
The IBA claims its annual conference is becoming more and more popular, but is there too much emphasis on the event?
No, the annual conference is very important but what gets forgotten is it’s a bit like an iceberg. You see the annual conference but there is a lot going on elsewhere. We have 50 regional and specialist conferences throughout the world, throughout the year. Obviously, the annual conference is a big event – it’s a week long and attracts a lot of people – but the IBA has a lot more to offer, and not just the other conferences. We have several publications, the committees all produce journals and a lot of the committees are involved in making submissions to governments.
Is the IBA doing enough regionally around the world, especially in developing jurisdictions?
We’ve got lots of new economies that are going to be hugely essential. The IBA has a very strong African membership; we have an African forum as there has been an explosion of interest in the region.
China is another example. We work with a lot of Chinese law firms because of the way the rules play out. Again, the IBA has been very important in making, and sustaining, contact with those firms.
Look at Myanmar [Burma], an area with very few lawyers that is going through very rapid change. There’s a nascent bar association that is gradually getting off the ground and the government is looking for help, in particular from the IBA. I’m going in February to meet with various government officials there.
The IBA has a reputation as a human rights campaigning body. Does this accurately reflect the needs of its membership?
It’s a very important part of the IBA, but lot of our members are involved because of the specialist aspects of the organisations such as the business law committees. Having said that, a lot of people are interested in the human rights issues we cover and it is an especially visible part of what the IBA does. Law firms are now getting very interested in human rights issues. Having a rule of law in developing regions goes hand in hand with making sure businesses can properly operate.
Given the focus on human rights, was it a wise decision to hold recent annual conferences in those jurisdictions that some describe as having oppressive regimes, such as Singapore and the UAE?
The IBA would not be doing what it should be doing if we just chose to go to safe European cities like Vienna or Paris every year. We need to be reaching the lawyers in all jurisdictions around the world as much as we can. When we went to Dubai, the IBA had never had a Middle East conference and it turned out to be particularly important to be having it at the time of the Arab Spring. It was a hugely successful conference.
The IBA will not put up with censoring of its programmes in any way. We now carefully assess the situation in a country where we are planning a conference from every point of view from security to stability. But even in countries where there are challenges to human rights, the IBA has a message and it will deliver that message.
We’re careful as to where we go but at the same time we don’t hesitate to have events in controversial places.
In the statement you made when appointed to the position of President, you said you wanted to focus on climate change and ‘the disadvantaged’. How will that pan out in practice?
We’ve set up a task force called Climate Change Justice because we think there is a distinct link between what is happening with climate change and its effect on particular sectors of the world population. If you look at examples of where climate change has caused damage, it’s been in countries such as Bangladesh that are the least able to protect themselves. At the latest IBA conference in Dublin, Mary Robinson – former President of Ireland – raised this issue for the IBA to get involved in because we are uniquely placed with our specialist committees on the environment and our human rights institute. We can bring the two together to protect human rights where they are being damaged by climate change. We are going to study this in great detail, from a scientific and legal point of view, bringing together experts in the field to complete a report.
CV – Michael Reynolds
Prior to becoming IBA president, Michael Reynolds held several senior positions at the association, including vice-President, secretary general, chairman of the legal practice division and chairman of the antitrust and trade law committee. He is a director and founding member of the IBA's Global Forum on Competition and is the EU co-ordinator for the IBA.
Mr Reynolds opened Allen & Overy's Brussels office in 1979, where he has since been based, and has more than 30 years’ experience in European competition law with the firm.
He is also a visiting professor in European law at the University of Durham and a member of the International Competition Network's cartel and merger control working groups. He represents the IBA at the network’s annual conferences as well as at the annual meetings of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Mr Reynolds’ term as IBA President runs until the end of 2014.