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Building Data, Best-Practice Ideas At Dentons' New Family Office Group

Tom Burroughes

11 January 2021

(An earlier version of this article was run in Family Wealth Report, sister news service to this one. The role described below is global in scope, so we want readers from all regions to read it.)

There’s big potential for law firms to have dedicated offerings for family offices clients, and great opportunities to build best-practice ideas and gather data to shed light on this sector, a newly-appointed figure at global law firm , was named by Dentons as global head of its family office and high net worth group. (Marshall is also a member of this news service's editorial board.)

Marshall, who has an academic background in the sciences, likes to challenge assumptions. He thinks that the family offices industry, and the affairs of UHNW clients, are far more measurable than conventional wisdom suggests – hence they can be benchmarked and compared. He questions the industry saying: “if you have seen one family office, you have seen a family office.” At his former berths at Boston Private and Citi Private Bank, he helped author research in family office areas as diverse as cybersecurity to aviation resources. That research-driven mind-set remains.

One of his missions is to continue compiling data on the family offices space and come up with actionable ideas and processes that family offices can put to use, he said in an interview.

“Family offices, regardless of their archetype, often lack the data to make effective decisions. Too often do we talk about `trends’ in family office without the data to back these up,” Marshall said.

“Well-functioning family offices tend to follow patterns of how they do business. Those patterns are predictable and learnings and actual data can be shared with families,” he continued. 

Marshall’s team offers family offices a 360 degree audit of their operations, risk management, governance, structures, and strategies. They can then provide a roadmap and work hand in hand with a family to optimize and future-proof their family office.

Among the objectives Marshall wants to work on, for example, is helping family offices to integrate the multitude of service providers they are working with in the most effective way. 

Space to fill
“There is a big, white space in the legal world to service family offices more effectively. We can make a big difference here given our global reach and insider expertise at the firm,” he said. “Family offices call their lawyer when they are contemplating a major decision or when they are facing a complex challenge. As such, law firms can be an integral part of a family’s growth and risk management plans.” 

“In contrast to other firms, we created this group to have a cross-functional team with diverse family office experience, totally focused on family offices and UHNW clients. We built it specifically to cater to the needs and motivations of this client segment and not as an ancillary part of a practice group,” he said.

Marshall said that family offices that engage with the Dentons team don’t have to dispense with their existing advisors. Some FOs have used the same advisors for years, decades even, and severing such links is difficult. 

The reason why
“Making the move to Dentons was an evolutionary process for me, and the firm. Over my long career in the family office space, I’ve worked with lots of different law firms. Denton’s firm leadership really valued my years of experience in working with family offices and HNW individuals and embraced my approach as to how to leverage the firm’s vast resources and connectivity to best serve these families,” Marshall said. His new firm has more than 11,000 lawyers - that creates a lot of reach.

“I love working with these really smart lawyers from across the world who look at not just the 'what,' but more importantly, the `why’ and `how’ of family offices. The internet and conferences are flooded with information on what family offices do, but practical knowledge based on hard data and real experience is sparse. Family offices are hungry for that real-world info…versus what they’ve grown accustomed to seeing in this space,” he said. 

“Often in the legal world, you will see a lot of law firms claim to have a lock on family office formation and structuring but I would recommend people do their homework and ask many questions: Are they set up to actively provide you with support against the numerous risks and threats you face (cyber, privacy, physical, insider threat, due diligence, financial, etc.)?” he said.