WHEN the management board of international law firm Pinsent Masons met in Glasgow last week, Prime Minister Theresa May had yet to show her hand on Brexit.

But for senior partner Richard Foley, whose internal mission is to ensure the firm’s eight UK offices – three of which are based in Scotland – are seamlessly connected with its international network, the UK’s impending withdrawal from Europe was at the front of his mind.

Though he admitted while sitting down with board colleagues Richard Masters and Rainer Kreifels that Pinsent Masons is “naturally quite careful about making political statements”, Mr Foley said there is no escaping the fact that Brexit is a cause for concern for the firm and its clients.

“Everything that creates economic uncertainty at the very best causes people to pause and when that happens things take a bit longer and deals don’t happen as fast,” Mr Foley said. “As a business we have been pleasantly surprised at the robustness of the real estate market across the UK and the corporate and financing markets, but the sense is that in the last quarter or so we’ve started to see signs of more than just caution.”

Speaking before the Prime Minister had made the terms of her proposed withdrawal agreement public, Mr Foley said he believes that “the UK economy will ultimately survive Brexit”. However, he added that for the domestic businesses Pinsent Masons serves, which are based across the whole of the UK and represent the full spectrum of political views, “the least amount of change that comes about the better”.

“Businesses will deal with the changes but what we are hearing is the concern that some businesses won’t be able to flex,” he said. “If you look at it at the macro level, the economy will survive because economies do survive. But particular sectors will be hit hard.”

He added: “We haven’t had a single conversation with a client who has said this will be brilliant for them.”

Although Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement received the tentative backing of her cabinet this week, the chaos that ensued with the mass resignation of ministers means the UK’s course from here is far from set. Having walked clients through a range of different scenarios to see how they would impact on their operations, Mr Foley said the view of businesses in general is that “the worst case scenario is no deal”.

“That would immediately throw up issues around movement of people and movement of cash, but the far bigger thing is the economic shock,” he said. “I haven’t heard anyone saying that if there’s no deal it will all be fine.”

Nor is it just Pinsent Masons’ UK network, which stretches from Aberdeen to London and takes in Belfast on the way, that is being impacted by the spectre of Brexit, with the nature of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union causing concern for the firm’s lawyers and clients across the Continent too.

Indeed, while Mr Foley said that lawyers attending a firmwide partner conference in Munich in June pointed to a number of more pressing concerns - with those based in Spain preoccupied with the political situation in Catalonia while those in Germany highlighted the issue of instability in their own country’s government – he noted that “Brexit was very much on everyone’s shopping list”.

Mr Masters, who runs the firm’s operations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, said that as far as Ireland goes “it’s hard to see the positives”, while Mr Kreifels, who heads the firm’s German practice, said the desire to know how things will play out is a recurrent theme for both clients and staff.

“When I have interviews with lateral hires or candidates for young lawyer posts this is the most relevant question I’ve been exposed to - what impact will it have on our business and our clients’ businesses?,” Mr Kreifels said.

For a firm like Pinsent Masons, which has offices in South Africa, Australasia and the Middle East as well as in mainland Europe, one of the key motivations of Brexit - to stop the free movement of people into and out of the UK - goes against what it is trying to achieve as an organisation.

Just as the firm’s board, which meets in a different part of the world four times a year, was in Glasgow with the specific aim of strengthening connections with colleagues here, a key priority for the firm is to ensure its staff have the opportunity to meet with each other by travelling around its network.

“We feel very strongly, and our experience is, that you don’t really understand your network unless you spend time with your network,” Mr Foley explained.

From the management team’s point of view, travelling to meet staff is important because it shows that those running the firm are, Mr Foley said, “accessible to the whole business and are listening to the whole business”.

For employees, the opportunity to spend time overseas is seen as vital for career development, with a programme that sends junior lawyers around the network designed to help forge relationships that should ultimately lead to greater collaboration between colleagues.

“Businesses do shift people around but that tends to be reactive,” Mr Foley said. “In order to properly connect our business we need people to create connections with their counterparts in other offices.”

This is clearly an attractive proposition for the individuals involved, with the firm recently receiving 45 applications for the 14 places available on its latest round of placements. It gives the firm a competitive advantage too, Mr Foley said, with individuals in local markets being wooed by the ability to engage in work that is not defined by their own country’s borders.

“The war for talent sits at the heart of professional services firms generally but law firms in particular,” he said.

“If you look at the revenues generated by lawyers based in Scotland they are now about 20 per cent higher than the entire revenue generated by McGrigors [the Scotland-headquartered firm taken over by Pinsent Masons in 2012] six years ago, but it’s not from doing just Scottish work.

“What we are trying to create is an environment where we can bring talent into the business without them feeling constrained by location in terms of the work they can do. We’re trying to create an environment where lawyers who prefer to live and work in Scotland don’t have to make a choice about the work they are doing.”

Though the prospect of Brexit, in whatever form it takes, would appear to be about creating barriers between nations rather than knocking them down, Mr Foley and his colleagues believe that in the legal services sector at least there will be more, not less, connectivity in future.

Having had direct experience of consolidation as a result of Pinsent Masons being formed via a series of mergers, Mr Foley said it is inevitable that such activity will continue to alter the legal sector.

“Clients are reducing panels and looking outside law firms for some legal services; firms need to react to that,” he said. “When you look at those indicators it’s difficult to say that there won’t be more consolidation.”

For Mr Masters, the Scottish market, which has changed hugely since he led McGrigors into its own deal with Pinsent Masons, will not be immune.

“Despite Brexit, Scotland is part of the global economy and global connectivity is so important,” he said.

“There’s always going to be a place for firms that are focused exclusively on the Scottish market but you can only take a business to a certain scale before it starts to limit itself.

“The big deals are probably all done – I’m not sure there’s much more there - but you’ll probably start to see the profession start to polarise into larger international businesses and those that are focused on the Scottish market only.”