Commercial lawyers are generally better known for their cut-throat ability to seal the latest billion-dollar deal than for their easy-going personalities. It comes as surprise therefore that Eduardo Leite, the new global chairman of Baker & McKenzie, was recommended for the role because of his 'humanity'. That was the word used by outgoing Baker & McKenzie chairman John Conroy when asked what trait would serve Leite best in his new position. The Brazilian is the first lawyer from an emerging economy to head the leading global law firm, a sign that that the tectonic shifts in the global economy are extending to the legal sector. 'I guess it is my Brazilian, Latin side,' Leite says referring to Conroy's remarks. 'It means I am approachable and I want to be close to the people. That is one of the reasons I travel so much - to talk to staff and clients.' Of course, Leite's easy-going side has limits. 'If people need coaching and are not performing they need to be told - it is best to be honest with people,' he says. Leite's appointment is also a signal that Baker & McKenzie is serious about burnishing its reputation as a truly international firm. In fact, it is the first time a large international legal practice has turned to an emerging market for a leader. 'It sends a very strong signal that our firm embraces diversity and we are a very open globalised firm,' he said during a trip to Hong Kong last month. The veteran lawyer argues that being from one of the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) gives him a better understanding of regions that will be the engine of growth over the next decade. 'China is top in the minds of all our clients and for the banks and investors,' he says. 'The Asia Pacific is where we will see the fastest growth in the coming years.' The firm has more than 1,000 lawyers across Asia Pacific in 14 offices. Leite knows China well, having served as the executive vice-president of the China-Brazil Business Council and been a regular visitor to the country since the 1980s. He says that lawyers from other jurisdictions dealing with Chinese clients will be on a steep learning curve. Much of the growth in business for the firm on the mainland now involves advising state-owned-enterprises and private firms investing overseas. 'We need to educate lawyers about how to deal with Chinese clients,' Leite says. 'It is more than getting up for a 3am conference call - it takes a big effort to adapt to Chinese cultural differences.' Cultural sensitivity is one of the reasons Baker & McKenzie has traditionally been keen on developing home-grown talent in the respective countries where it is located. 'I told the people in Shanghai on my latest trip that I might be looking at the next chairman of Baker & McKenzie among them,' he says. 'It is a distinct possibility' the firm will have a Chinese head. Leite says clients increasingly want lawyers who not only know the law but are conversant with local customs, history and culture. 'We have local lawyers in each of the jurisdictions who are in their own communities. It is of great comfort to clients they are being advised by people who understand the society.' He notes that Christine Lagarde, the current French Minister of Finance, was the first female head of the firm. Baker & McKenzie has been called the 'United Nations of Law Firms' because of its wide mix of partners of different cultures and nationalities. Founded in 1949 in Chicago by Russell Baker, a middle aged attorney from rural New Mexico, the firm has always prided itself on its multiculturalism. Leite believes that with this history, the firm is well placed to do battle in an increasingly competitive and globalised world. The practice of law has become much more complex over the past 40 years, particularly in the commercial field. The growth of the global economy and increasing cross border capital flows starting in the 1970s saw the emergence of a new breed of lawyer specialising in international mergers and acquisitions. 'Up until the 1970s, a lawyer advising a client on a deal would simply say yes, they could do something or no, they couldn't,' Leite says. 'Now commercial lawyers play a much more proactive role - they have to come up with solutions without transgressing the law that will see the deal done. 'Thirty years ago, you would not be advising clients on oil and gas projects as we do today where there are tax, environmental and compliance issues. You may not need an army of lawyers for such deals these days, but you need a team.' The son of a YMCA director, Leite studied architecture before coming to the law. 'I did a year of study and enjoyed learning about the history of architecture and other matters,' he says. 'But then it progressed to the maths and abstract boring side of things and I decided it was not for me and law was more my thing. 'The law is a career that prepares you for life. I had always liked writing and while the image of the lawyer is generally of someone conservative, a lawyer can also be very creative. It is all about problem solving, and the practice of the law today very much requires thinking outside of the box.' Leite says creative lawyers will be in increasing demand over the next decade or so as countries adopt new regulatory schemes aimed at improving corporate governance. 'The world is becoming more and more regulated,' he notes. 'Compliance in areas of white-collar crime, procurement, banking and the environment will become more important. For example, the UK has just adopted an anti-bribery act.' The new environment will require new ways of serving clients and the evolution of dedicated global teams of specialist lawyers. The increasing complexity of law is one reason Leite stresses the need for young lawyers to be well-prepared. 'As a lawyer, you probably will have about 65 per cent of cases where you know you have a good chance of winning,' he says. 'But there are always risks - whether it is the judge on that particular case or the facts. It has to be a matter of doing your homework. He said one of his best moments as a lawyer occurred early in his career when he argued a complex tax case before a bench of eight judges in Brazil. He was unsure whether he would win, but had prepared well. 'After the decision, I left the courtroom and it was only then that it sunk in that I had won,' he says. In his own time, Leite enjoys reading fiction and business books. He is married with two daughters in their 20s - one a sculptor and the other involved in film production. He says he is glad they did not follow him into the legal profession as he can now hold family conversations 'not involving the law.'