The green energy transition is seen as one of the largest opportunities for WA law firms, with two mid-tier players leading the way.
WESTERN Australia’s top 20 law firms have grown by just under 5 per cent over the past year, but the average disguises some big variations within the sector.
The top 20 employ 1,498 legal professionals, according to Data & Insights.
Herbert Smith Freehills retains its standing as the state’s largest law firm, with 24 partners and 133 legal professionals.
Perth managing partner Liz Macknay asserts HSF is not just the largest firm in town.
“We would certainly see ourselves as leading, not just the accolades, but if you look at the deals we are involved in, the nature of the transactions and the quantum involved, we are definitely the leading firm in Perth,” Ms Macknay said.
She said the firm was looking to grow, having appointed 15 senior associates this year (the largest number since 2015).
There has been less growth among partners, having appointed one this year after three last year.
HSF is followed by King & Wood Mallesons, with 17 partners and 117 legal professionals.
KWM bolstered its ranks early last year with four lateral hires, including corporate partners Roger Davies and Antonella Paccitti.
Of the top 20 firms in WA, Hall & Wilcox recorded the largest growth over the past year, adding two partners and 18 legal professionals.
It employs 67 legal professionals in WA, making it the state’s 12th largest law firm.
“We opened our Perth office almost seven years ago and have grown rapidly since then,” Hector West, a partner, said.
“We have grown in response to client needs, both supporting our WA-based clients as well as our national clients with WA interests.
“Our ambition in WA is to provide a local full-service business law firm.”
Mr West said the firm’s expertise ranged across insurance, insolvency, estate planning, property and planning, commercial disputes and corporate transactions.
Mr West said the firm took seven graduates in 2023 and would be aiming for a larger intake next year.
Another firm enjoying rapid growth is Thomson Geer, which has added four new partners to its WA practice during the past year.
Thomson Geer has been particularly focused on its corporate practice, which has eight partners.
Other new partners this year are Paul Harley and Sarah O’Brien-Smith in energy and resources.
A highlight for the firm was advising Japanese company Kirin Holdings on its $1.8 billion acquisition of ASX-listed healthcare company Blackmores.
The team advising Kirin was led by Perth partners Scott Gibson and Michael Ng. The firm has a total of 55 legal professionals in WA, ranking it as the state’s 13th largest law firm.
That put it just ahead of international firms Norton Rose Fulbright and Squire Patton Boggs.
Ms Macknay sees two large and broad trends driving HSF’s work.
“If you ask me what the biggest opportunity is, or challenge, for clients and, in turn for us, it is probably ESG, but I think energy transition is closely linked to that,” she said.
These trends have been driven by legal obligations and changing community standards. HSF has restructured to focus on the energy transition, with its energy and infrastructure teams separated from its corporate team.
“We have thought about how clients are seeing transactions and what assistance they need, and making sure we can put together the right people at our end,” Ms Macknay said.
“The projects, energy and infrastructure teams have been brought together into a single, cohesive group so they can deliver that advice.”
The range of projects and transactions on which HSF has advised indicate that ‘energy transition’ is a term that covers a very broad scope.
In the projects space, it is advising the sponsors of the $500 million-plus East Rockingham Waste to Energy Project, which include international investment groups Masdar Tribe Energy, John Laing and Acciona Concesiones.
Another energy project with a stronger international flavour is the development of a 50-megawatt battery storage system in Taiwan. A cross-border HSF team led by Perth partner Andrew McLean advised a syndicate of international banks on a first-of-its-kind financing for this project.
In the transactional space, HSF advised Mitsui E&P Australia on the sale of its Indonesian heavy oil assets.
In the disputes area, HSF acted for subsidiaries of Alinta Energy in relation to disputes arising from the construction of a solar gas hybrid project in the Pilbara.
It also advised Mitsui E&P Australia and its joint venture partner, Beach Energy, in connection with the voluntary administration of Clough, the contractor responsible for construction of their Waitsia Stage 2 gas project.
Illustrating the scale of this engagement, the HSF team, led by corporate partner Graeme Gamble, had seven partners and 13 other legal staff working on the matter, across energy, insolvency, construction and employment practices.
Allens partner Gerard Woods said energy and ESG were also big themes for his firm.
He said the energy transition was driving projects, infrastructure and mergers and acquisitions activity, particularly in the critical minerals sector.
Liz Tylich says Jackson McDonald continues to benefit from referrals from well-established firms on the east coast.
The focus on ESG has translated to demand in areas as diverse as greenwashing enforcement and litigation, proposed mandatory ESG disclosures, sustainable financing, ESG due diligence and the carbon credit market.
It’s a similar story at DLA Piper, which highlights the work it has done on new energy projects that are actually under way.
“There are a lot of people talking about it but very few doing it,” partner James Nicholls said.
“We’re seeing ourselves at the forefront of that, at least in WA.”
Notable engagements include advising on the acquisition of the Merredin solar farm and advising French company engie, which is building Yara’s green hydrogen pilot plant on the Burrup Peninsula.
His colleague Richard Edwards said the firm’s experience flowed through to the advice it could provide.
“Anyone can write a contract,” he said.
“In fact, you can do it on your phone with ChatGPT.
“The difference is being involved in transactions that make a difference to your clients or the markets in which they operate.
“What comes with specialisation is a knowledge of the sector.
“We are not being asked just to prepare the contracts, but prepare the contracts and advise clients, with others, on the strategy they should employ on a transaction or a project.
“What is market for liquidated damages?
“What is market for determining price change mechanisms?
“They are the sorts of questions that matter to our clients.
“And more and more what matters are the longer-term consequences for them.
For instance, are they keeping up with ESG trends in Europe or geopolitical developments in Asia?
“It’s those aspects that make a difference.”
With roughly half of all ASX companies based in Perth, he said the corporate practice inherently had a local market focus.
“We are focusing on the juniors to mid-caps and trying to take market share there,” Mr Nicholls told Business News.
Mr Nicholls said the corporate practice was supported by DLA’s energy and natural resources practice, led by experienced partner Alex Jones.
“The WA market naturally provides a lot of support to transactional activity in the energy and natural resources space,” he said.
“The ASX companies tend to come to us because we have a local operation but a global presence, so we can help them in the Democratic Republic of Congo or help them in Guinea or in Brazil.
“We complete that service offering.”
A case in point is West Perth company AVZ Minerals, which is in the midst of a dispute with a Chinese entity over ownership of its lithium project in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The company has applied to commence arbitration against the government of Congo in the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes in Washington DC.
“They need a very strong global solution,” Mr Nicholls said.
JacMac chairperson Elizabeth Tylich said her firm was enjoying strong trading across multiple practice areas.
The firm’s newest partner Natalie Kam – who moved last year from Lavan – heads up the firm’s family law practice.
Ms Tylich said this complemented the firm’s other private clients’ practice areas, such as succession, tax and estates work.
“We are seeing an uptick in that area, both from a disputes perspective but also the continuing intergenerational wealth transfer,” she said.
Looking at the energy transformation, Ms Tylich said JacMac was targeting an opportunity to focus on land tenure issues by drawing on its property and Indigenous practices.
“We see that as a niche spot for us given our complementary practices,” she said.
Litigation continues to be a big part of the JacMac business.
“That’s been busy across the board and what we are seeing more of, is clients doing internal investigations, from whistleblowing, or compliance, or workplace safety,” Ms Tylich said.
Another important area was its workplace practice.
“Employment was super busy during COVID and that hasn’t subsided because of all the changes at Fair Work and EBA renegotiations and the new safety laws.”
Ms Tylich said workplace safety was an increased focus, both on the investigations side responding to incidents and advising clients on their safety systems and compliance.
Ms Macknay observed similar trends at HSF.
“There has been lots of work in work health and safety, not just traditional workplace safety but sexual harassment and ‘respect at work’ issues,” she said.
“That has seen a huge amount of work, in investigations and advisory and litigation.”
Ms Macknay said HSF’s disputes practice was yet another busy area.
The work was being driven by multiple trends, including an uptick in insolvencies, claims lodged by climate activists, the regulatory crackdown on greenwashing, continued class actions and project disputes.
“It’s busy times, we have plenty on the go,” Ms Macknay said.
“With the traditional areas of work and the new energy work, we are not seeing a slowdown.”
Partners at all law firms spoken to by Business News say managing people remains their number one issue.
While the jobs market has settled after the big flurry of partner poaching early last year, they are still focused on keeping talent.
Ms Macknay believes HSF’s move to new premises at Elizabeth Quay has been a big plus for her firm.
“It’s been a real boon for enthusiasm and morale in the office,” she said.
The defining features of HSF’s new office include a large and often noisy cafe in the midst of its main reception area, which has become a hub for staff and provides a welcoming arrival point.
As Perth’s largest law firm, HSF is a natural target for other firms chasing up-and-coming talent.
That typically means talented lawyers in their 30s who are keen to make partner, although not all fit into that mould.
Ms Macknay said HSF had developed alternative pathways to try and meet the aspirations of its people.
“We are increasingly finding that quite a few of the up and comers don’t necessarily want partnership,” she said.
The alternative roles include becoming a special counsel or executive counsel.
“For some it’s a stepping-stone but for most it’s an alternative pathway,” Ms Macknay said.
Subiaco law firm Pragma Lawyers has adopted a different approach. Last month, Pragma appointed its youngest director, the equivalent of partner at other firms.
Aged just 29, Nick Malone has been made a director seven years after joining the firm and two years after being promoted to senior associate.
Managing director and founder Aaron McDonald said Mr Malone had been an integral part of recent significant wins by Pragma clients.
He specialises as a dispute resolution lawyer, with a particular focus on insolvency matters.
Mr Malone joins current directors Mr McDonald and Elizabeth McLean, with all three under the age of 40.
The firm was established in Subiaco in 2014 to offer what Mr McDonald calls a disruptive alternative to established firms, with innovations such as fixed-fee early mediation and outcomes-based pricing.
With more than 20 legal professionals, Pragma has grown rapidly as a challenger to the St Georges Terrace firms with a focus on dispute resolution and litigation, insolvency and restructuring, property and employment.