17/08/2011 - 09:52

Global players poach key lawyers, star firms

17/08/2011 - 09:52

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Global players poach key lawyers, star firms

THERE is no doubt that, when it comes to global players seeking a position in Perth, the lawyers have grabbed the headlines.

Some of the people to have leapt from major national firms are among the state’s best-known corporate lawyers, especially in the resources sector.

The strategies employed by predominantly UK-based multinational players to set up beachheads in Perth and Sydney have been different from what might be typical in investment banking or management consulting, where a new operation may be based around one key individual.

It has been suggested that, ultimately, the goal is different.

Some observers suggest the moves by magic circle firms Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy to Australia’s west coast is less about the transactions taking place here and more about growing a regional presence focused on Asia.

While that may be the case, the biggest multi-national firms have, in the main, eschewed tie-ups with the big Australian firms, which would give them a significant presence across the nation and into Asia. Many suggest it is the size of the leading national firms that has made them indigestible, although there have been several second-tier matchups, such as Norton Rose and DLA Piper, which have merged national practices into global models.

Of course, such mergers are still rumoured. The latest is speculation that Blake Dawson may join forces with UK-based Ashurst, and Mallesons Stephen Jacques is thought to be in discussions with Beijing-based firm King & Wood.

At the big end of the legal world, though, to date, they have been very picky whom they have chosen to join their club.

Either a select group of star lawyers has been enticed from existing partnerships or whole boutique firms have been swallowed to capture the potential of their most prominent players.  

Allen & Overy led that charge last year, poaching from Clayton Utz its Perth head of practice Geoff Simpson and partners Meredith Campion and Peter Wilkes. They were joined shortly afterwards by Angus Jones from Allens Arthur Robinson, who had been a star recruit by AAR more than decade earlier when it was established in Perth. 

All four of these players are experienced in the corporate end of energy, resources and infrastructure – the big-ticket transactions that are getting Western Australia noticed across a host of professional services sectors.

The entry of another UK legal giant, Clifford Chance, into Perth this year came by way of merger, but had similarities to Allen & Overy.

The move to merge with boutique Cochrane Lishman Carson Luscombe was hardly one of equals, suggesting that individuals involved at the Perth firm were the targets.

Former Mallesons Stephen Jaques partners, Ian Cochrane and Michael Lishman, established their own law firm in early 2006. They became dominant players in key local transactional work and expanded the practice by coaxing energy lawyer Jon Carson back to Perth from Blake Dawson in Melbourne, and litigation specialist Ben Luscombe from Mallesons. A further three partners were added before Clifford Chance swooped.

A hybrid of this move was the recent news that US firm Squire Sanders & Dempsey had joined the bulk of the Perth Minter Ellison franchise. The new firm will have 15 partners from the former Perth office of Minter Ellison, which has pledged to rebuild its presence and fully integrate it into its national practice.

And, just like the investment banks, there is a local and national response.

For example Sydney-based Gilbert + Tobin is merging with leading resources boutique Blakiston & Crabb, which has enormous experience in mining both in Australia and in emerging markets. Co-founder Michael Blakiston is one of the leading resources lawyers in the country, ably backed up by Marcello Cardaci and a host of other established partners.

At a local level, Lavan Legal sought to expand its corporate law practice with the high-profile recruitment of Leigh Warnick from Blake Dawson at the start of the year.

The significance of that move may well have been lost amid the smoke and flames emanating from the even more high-profile departure of Martin Bennett from Lavan to re-establish his old firm Bennett & Co.

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