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The Zen of management

Eduardo Leite, global chairman of Baker & McKenzie, deals with the disruption presented by technology with collectedness and clarity.

'We have plans for aggressive growth in three key locations - London, because the London market and the city of London connect very well with Africa and the Middle East, with Europe certainly; New York because it is the centre for the Americas and the centre for business and capital and choice of forum for many international contracts and arbitration; and the third one is China.'

THERE are people in this world who have eclectic tastes and are outwardly animated and passionate about life and things. And then there is Eduardo Leite, the global chairman of one of the top law firms in the world, Baker & McKenzie, who lives his life "intensely" and "curiously", as he puts it, and emanates only Zen while at it.

This collectedness is perhaps what helps the veteran legal eagle (who is a citizen of both Uruguay and Brazil) deal with the rapid changes in the legal sector, which is now facing "a great deal of disruption", triggered by tech-led digitisation. The fourth industrial revolution, he says, is another factor.

As Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF) (of which Mr Leite is a member), says in a new book, The Fourth Industrial Revolution: "We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another". This latest industrial revolution is a digital one that has been occurring since the middle of the last century, "characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres".

All these are changing the way things are done, says Mr Leite, who's a fan of embracing technology.

He elaborates: "Artificial intelligence is going to disrupt a lot of what we do. It's hopefully going to simplify what we predict - you put a great deal of judgment and decisions and the computer will tell you with a better degree of certainty what may be the outcome of the case. This is already taking place."

Such disruption has already started to change the business of law.

"Clients in the legal sector are moving a great deal of their work in-house. The leadership of the legal department is closer to the C-suite (key management teams), much closer to the core business than it was 10 years ago and that creates a gap between the outside lawyers' understanding of the client's business and the in-house lawyers being so close to the core business." The way young lawyers review documents and prepare repeat contracts has also been affected. Clients who now want more bang for their buck also add pressure on improving efficiency, says Mr Leite.

That is why the law firm implemented worldwide the SAP (systems, applications and products) financial and data management system. He says the firm is "the only really global (law firm) that implemented this tool".

It also explains why in late 2014, the firm rolled out the Lean Six Sigma concept in its global operations and is introducing it into the practices - a move that he says "attracts young lawyers to an environment that promises to be more futuristic".

The 65-year-old, who has been with Baker & McKenzie for close to four decades, started as a summer associate before becoming a law clerk and then a partner.

"It's a story that, if I tell it to very young people, they don't believe that I've only had one job," he says with a laugh.

Born and raised in Uruguay, Mr Leite studied law there. He subsequently moved to Brazil - where his father's family hailed from - where he took the Bar.

There, he met a partner of Baker & McKenzie who was taking a masters' degree, "and she thought I had an interesting personality for Baker & McKenzie - dual nationality, spoke native Portugese, native Spanish, very good English because of my education", he recalls.

He had thought he would also become a judge, like his mentor, but the rest, as they say, is history.

"I can tell from my daughters they'd rather not have a formal job with a career but more of a crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, crowd-doing-everything, which I think is a very different model but it's working so nicely in today's mentality of startups, I think. We need to watch that more for our business model too in some fashion."

One major disruption in the legal world took place back in the 1990s when Arthur Andersen tried to diversify from auditing and tax, to consulting and law.

The Enron scandal took down Arthur Andersen in 2002 and the trend halted, but it has since been revived, with the Big Four accounting firms eyeing a slice of the lucrative legal pie.

"They are very organised and methodical... and this is what we are trying to do also when we are applying Lean Six Sigma. We are applying and investing in ways in Manila with our global service centre - today we have 800 employees there. Today, we are investing in another global service centre in Belfast where we have 150 (people), our target is 250, very soon. We learn from others all the time, particularly from clients and the Big Four who are very good examples of how much one can do."

But accounting firms have limitations, though he is quick to add that "you cannot underestimate anyone in this world". "You'll see that with the North American, the US rules, if you're an auditor, you cannot also be the lawyer for the same entity. So, that separation is a natural limitation on how much the Big Four can grow in the legal space and how much they can do."

His vision for the firm is to invest more in innovation, improve performances in key markets and expand its client relationships by 2020.

Under his watch, Baker & McKenzie reported growth in global revenue from US$2.27 billion in 2011 to US$2.43 billion for the fiscal year ended June 2015. On a year-on-year basis, global revenue in 2015 slid four per cent mainly due to currency fluctuation. Still, Baker & McKenzie can count itself as the first law firm to break the US$2.5 billion revenue barrier since the global financial crisis after reporting revenue of US$2.54 billion in FY2014.

Europe, the Middle East and Africa make up about 38 per cent of global revenue while the Asia-Pacific accounts for 25 per cent, with the remaining 37 per cent from the Americas.

Following Mr Leite's appointment in 2010 as the firm's chairman of the executive committee, Baker & McKenzie went on an aggressive expansion opening 10 offices worldwide, including in Istanbul, Casablanca and Yangon.

In April 2015, the firm unveiled its joint operation in Shanghai with FenXun Partners - the first and only firms so far approved by the Chinese authorities to provide clients with international and Chinese law advice. And in July 2015, the firm opened its second global services centre in Belfast.

"We have plans for aggressive growth in three key locations - London, because the London market and the city of London connect very well with Africa and the Middle East, with Europe certainly; New York because it is the centre for the Americas and the centre for business and capital and choice of forum for many international contracts and arbitration; and the third one is China."

Started in 1949, the firm now has footprints in seven of the 10 countries that form the Asean Economic Community. In 2001, Baker & McKenzie set up a joint law venture with local firm Wong & Leow, enabling it to advise on both domestic Singapore law issues and cross-border issues.

"We are today in 47 jurisdictions but our clients are sometimes in 200 jurisdictions, so there is room for it (further expansion), beyond my lifetime."

In the near-term, cyber security and compliance and investigation are areas of practice that offer tremendous opportunity, says Mr Leite, who is also the firm's first chairman from the Latin America region.

And while living out of a suitcase is a lament of many a CEO, he says candidly: "This job of travelling around the world is perfect for what I want to take out of life."

Describing his appointment to the helm as "a great recognition of one's investment of so many years", he believes it shows how the firm breaks many moulds.

For example, the firm has had a chairman from Germany as well as, in 1999, the first woman chair of a global law firm, Christine Lagarde, he says. Mr Leite was in the executive committee and in charge of Latin America while his predecessor John Conroy was in the same executive committee in charge of North America.

"There's a very clear and smooth transition and succession planning in Baker & McKenzie but what I was trying to highlight is, in the late 1990s, Europe and the European Union were the focus of the world. Everything was going to happen (there) and the future was Europe and the union was creating the largest market in the world beyond the US. So, the firm looked at Europe for leadership and we found it in Christine."

In 2004, North America came to the top of the agenda and the firm looked there for leadership, Mr Leite says. In 2010, it was the time of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), so the firm turned to the emerging markets for leadership, he says.

Even as Brazil faces economic and social problems, Mr Leite remains optimistic on the country's outlook.

"It has a combination of excellent things but did not take advantage of the commodity boom in 2005 till 2012, 2013... Organisations, countries, need to wake up and innovate all the time, be ahead of the events. So, that represented a missed opportunity," he says.

He goes on: "As surprising as it may be, Brazil has received a great deal of foreign direct investment and you could ask, for a country that is in turmoil, how it can attract so many foreign investments. That's because everyone knows that Brazil has a bright future and it's a matter of being opportunistic. The assets are cheap now compared to what they were five years ago, so it's a great time for those who have the patience, the money and understand the market."

Meanwhile, the country's political situation is what Mr Leite calls "the growing pains of democracy".

"Everything that is being done and discussed is within the constitutional boundaries... In many other countries you can see the democracy but the press is not free and aggressive as it is and has been in Brazil, and that creates a tension in terms of the future and the right way to do things and way to go."

The other difference is the judiciary, he points out. "Complete independence from any interference at any level, from trial to the Supreme Court, which I think is admirable too, and the prosecution and law enforcement.

"I don't think you can see the kinds of discussions and openness and transparency that we're (having) living in Brazil with all the headaches that it represents."

As co-chair of WEF's professional services industry group, Mr Leite is in tune with real world issues, and he will tell you that the forum is not just "a talk shop", that it brings people from all corners of the world to discuss delicate issues that would otherwise be difficult to do with so many stakeholders involved.

"In the times I did not attend the forum," he says with a laugh, "I looked at it from the outside. I thought it was a good gathering of personalities and celebrities, but now that I'm in, I have seen the hard work it takes to set agenda on key issues." But, he adds with a smile, "it's not like the Oscars - (the) Academy awards".

Ask about the highlights of his career and he says without hesitation: "I think I've inspired people to work more collaboratively in today's global world, connecting more. It's a very small thing but I started a blog helped by my communications division and the blog goes to everyone in the firm and connects them - which helps, I think, say the secretaries in the Middle East, who don't always understand the full picture of this global firm because they don't live it like I live it. That inclusiveness, I think, has grown as part of our culture, a lot."

The father of two says he's a man of few regrets and many interests, including reading and interacting with people. He is particularly appreciative of the influences of his daughters - a sculptor and a filmmaker - whom he says help him "use the right side of the brain that I'm not used to".

Perhaps, the key to staying unflustered in a fast-paced world, like Mr Leite seems to, is finding the right balance.

After all, his advice to budding lawyers is to stay healthy.

"If you take care of your health and have a balanced life, you're going to be a better leader and it's going to help you to enjoy what you do even beyond how much you may like your profession."


Chairman, Baker & McKenzie

1950 Born in Montevideo, Uruguay


1969 Instituto Politecnico Osimani y Llerena (Bachelor of Arts)

1972 University of Uruguay

1978 University of Sao Paulo (Juris Doctor)

1980 New York University (Master of Comparative Jurisprudence)


1979 Admission to the Bar in Sao Paulo, Brazil; joined Baker & McKenzie

1986 Partner specialising in energy, infrastructure projects, and mergers and acquisitions

1999-2003 Executive committee member; chairman of the Latin American Regional Council

2005 Chair, policy committee

2010 Elected chairman of the executive committee, the firm's first chairman from Latin America