23/04/2009 - 00:00

Freehills holds position despite downturn

23/04/2009 - 00:00

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THE size of Western Australia's legal practices has fluctuated only mildly during the past 12 months despite the sector's changing dynamics as a result of the economic slowdown.

Freehills holds position despite downturn

THE size of Western Australia's legal practices has fluctuated only mildly during the past 12 months despite the sector's changing dynamics as a result of the economic slowdown.

And while staff cuts are to be expected in the current climate, the ranking of Perth's top 12 law firms has remained unchanged from the previous year.

Data compiled for WA Business News' Book of Lists indicates that long-time market leader, Freehills, is still the largest practice in Perth with 199 legal professionals, including 32 partners.

That's a decrease of two partners from the previous year and an increase of 13 legal professionals.

However, four partners have left Freehills in the past 12 months (two retirements), another going to the independent bar in WA, and the fourth joining competing corporate firm, Johnson Winter & Slattery.

In the meantime, Freehills has appointed two new partners - one to the banking and projects area and the other joined the firm's corporate wing.

Freehills Perth managing partner Jason Ricketts said the global financial crisis had meant a change in the areas of the firm that were busy.

"Banking and property development are quieter, for example, although there are some exceptions," Mr Ricketts told WA Business News.

"On the other hand, litigation, employee relations, infrastructure and projects, resources and corporate all remain busy."

Considering Freehills outlined its plans for surviving the downturn last month - freezing most salaries and calling on its lawyers to consider voluntary flexible working hours in order to reduce costs - the size and structure of the firm may change in the coming months.

Clayton Utz remained second on the list with 21 partners and 125 legal professionals, losing one partner and four other lawyers, effectively ending the firm's consistent expansion over the past five years.

Blake Dawson remains third on the list, and although it's even with Clayton Utz in terms of legal professionals - growing by four to 125 - it has one fewer partner and 20 in total.

It's pertinent to note that this figure of 125 has eclipsed Blake Dawson's 2003 total of legal professionals, (122), which secured it second place among Perth's legal elite six years ago.

Blake Dawson practice leader Perth, Leigh Warnick, said despite the firm's recent announcement of 89 redundancies nationwide, there were only five in WA.

"Nationally, it was 23 lawyers and 66 support staff, and there were some lawyers and support staff amongst the five in Perth," Mr Warnick said.

"You can see the bulk of the impact didn't fall in Perth."

Independent commercial firm based in Perth, Jackson McDonald, retained fourth place despite the number of legal professionals falling for the second year in a row, down to 110 at last count, which included 27 partners.

Mallesons Stephen Jaques is the only other firm to have consistently reduced its total number of legal professionals for the past two years, down by six to 104 with 16 partners.

Full service independent practice Lavan Legal is the sole firm in WA to have remained unchanged in terms of total legal professionals, remaining at 94.

Lavan Legal managing partner Greg Gaunt believes his firm has the biggest commercial litigation group of the litigation practices in Perth.

"We've got a much bigger proportion of the firm doing litigation than the others and it's along the lines of 65 per cent of our work," he said.

"The balance is commercial, whereas if you look at a commercial firm it'd be the other way round."

Other firms to have fallen off during the past year in terms of total legal professional numbers include top tier firms Minter Ellison (down two to 110) and Allen Arthur Robinson (down 11 to 76).

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