Liz Stern is partner at Baker & McKenzie and chair of the firm’s mobility practice. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

When Eleanor Lowe had to start moving groups of workers from her company’s U.S. offices to manufacturing plants in Mexico, the chief legal officer for global technology company Invensys dialed a number in the 202 area code.

It was to reach Paul Virtue, a Washington attorney who is part of the global immigration and mobility practice at Baker & McKenzie, the Chicago-born international law firm with 4,000 attorneys in 72 offices. The group, which specializes at the intersection of employment, immigration and corporate law, has 150 lawyers and staff in 45 offices worldwide. But its largest concentration of lawyers is in Washington, where the group’s leader, Liz Stern, is based. In the past 18 months, the group in D.C. has nearly doubled its attorney roster from 11 to 20. Much of the expansion is being driven by companies such as London-based Invensys that are increasingly staking out real estate abroad, and hiring or transferring employees across the globe to expand in new regions.

“We’re moving into new markets,” said Lowe, who also called on the law firm to advise on Invensys’s ongoing efforts to send many of its Chinese engineers to U.S. offices temporarily to take training courses. “Any employment law work we need done anywhere in the world is routed through the London and Washington offices of Baker & McKenzie. We have a central point of contact for all employment issues and can have a global view on what the trends and issues are. So we can take the experiences from one country and apply them in other countries.”

Whether it’s moving 10 IT workers from Frankfurt to Sydney for a six-month project, or laying the legal groundwork for 10,000 roving employees to travel each year, the aptly named mobility practice at Baker & McKenzie aims to do exactly that — get workers moving across borders quickly and smoothly, and at minimal risk to the company.

“There’s more to it than just getting work permits,” Stern said. “It’s how to keep your workforce moving to where you need to go. It’s high-volume, high-paced type of work.”

More and more, that means moving workers to emerging markets in the Middle East and Africa, and navigating a complicated web of laws that may be foreign to U.S. and European companies. Stern’s group specializes in those nuances, such as knowing the limits on how many foreign nationals a company can hire in a given country, advising on contracts that follow a different set of rules and complying with foreign tax systems.

Trailblazing founder

Baker has the largest footprint among law firms in the global mobility sector — Stern herself joined the firm eight years ago from Shaw Pittman (now Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, following a 2005 merger) to seek a more international platform for her practice. In many ways, that is an outgrowth of an unusual track that Baker & McKenzie co-founder Russell Baker took in the firm’s early years. While most major U.S. law firms concentrated first on growing in New York, Washington and San Francisco, Baker opened its second office in Caracas in 1955, just six years after the firm was created in Chicago. The move was to follow the firm’s biggest client, Chicago-based pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories, which at the time was expanding in Latin America.

Today, Baker & McKenzie has more lawyers outside the United States than inside. In 2012, the firm reported $2.3 billion in annual revenue.It was the first big U.S. law firm to appoint a chairman from what’s known as a BRIC — Brazil, Russia, India and China — country. Eduardo Leite, who became chairman in 2010, is from Brazil.

Baker was also an earlier adopter of an outsourcing model that more and more law firms are turning to as a cost-cutting measure, opening an “offshore unit” in Manila in 2000 to handle IT, billing and other administrative functions. That outpost, a model that several firms have replicated in the past decade, now has about 500 people.