19/11/2019 - 14:14

Three law firms chalk up centuries

19/11/2019 - 14:14

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WA-owned and independent HHG Legal Group, Kott Gunning Lawyers and Slee Anderson & Pidgeon have all reached their 100-year anniversaries.

Three law firms chalk up centuries
Simon Creek (left) and Murray Thornhill bought Hudson Henning & Goodman in 2002.

Established at the end of World War I, HHG Legal Group, Kott Gunning Lawyers and Slee Anderson & Pidgeon are still WA owned and independent.

Before HHG Legal Group directors Simon Creek and Murray Thornhill bought the practice in 2002, it was doubtful it would survive, let alone reach its 100-year anniversary.

“When we bought it, it was literally dead on its feet,” Mr Creek told Business News.

“When we took it over, what we found there was that whole loyal client base of nearly 100 years had all really been waiting for young blood to come in, take over, reinvigorate and it just took off.

“Hundreds of clients from all across the Great Southern just poured in the door.”

Since the early 2000s, HHG Legal has grown to employ around 60 staff and opened offices in Perth, Mandurah and, most recently, Joondalup.

“You’ve got that balance of a really modern progressive firm and all of the history,” Mr Creek said.

HHG Legal is among three firms turning 100 this year, alongside Slee Anderson & Pidgeon and Kott Gunning Lawyers, which were both established by men returning from World War I.

Bunbury firm Anderson Slee & Pidgeon, formerly Slee Anderson, was established by Fremantle-born Frank Slee, who started his career as an articled clerk to Harry Hale before joining the Australian Imperial Force.

On his return, he studied to be a barrister and solicitor and opened a firm in Bunbury. He was joined in 1931 by Ian Anderson, and William Pidgeon in 1955.

Matt Kott was the founding partner of what is now Kott Gunning Lawyers after serving as a lance corporal in the Australian Infantry.

He became a sole practitioner at Weld Chambers in 1919, before partnering with Bob Wallace in 1949 and then Ivan Gunning in 1957.

Mr Kott’s daughter, Ruth Kott, made history at Kott Gunning Lawyers in 1977 when she was the first female managing partner of any law firm in Perth.

Vidal Hockless has been a partner at Kott Gunning Lawyers since 1985 and said the main change he had seen at the firm was the services offered.

“It was in those days, very much a general practice firm heading towards being a big general practice firm, doing everything for everyone; mums and dads work, criminal work, lots of family work, all sorts of domestic type litigation and a lot of other stuff as well,” Mr Hockless said.

“Probably from the 90s, that’s a long time ago, there has been a significant change in direction.

“Most firms have made the decision to either go small and domestic or change to a more commercial focus and that’s really what we did in an evolving way over quite a number of years, so our focus is now more business-related, it’s more commercial work.”

When Mr Hockless started at the firm in 1979, there was no insurance law practice, which now makes up a third of the business, he said.

HHG Legal has also been adapting to the market, establishing HHGenXYZ, hosting events for young professionals, HHG Essentials, an online service for simple cases, and HHG Giving Back for pro bono work.

While other WA firms have merged with national and international firms, Kott Gunning Lawyers, HHG Legal and Anderson Slee & Pidgeon remain WA owned.

Emma Leys has worked at Kott Gunning Lawyers for 20 years and Vidal Hockless has been there since 1979. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

Kott Gunning Lawyers managing partner Emma Leys said they liked being owner operated.

“We run our own business, we make our own decisions, we choose our own path and style of management, but that’s not to say looking forward to the future it’s something we are closed minded to,” Ms Leys said.

 “We are not closed to the idea it’s just right now we are quite happy as we are.”

According to BNiQ data, Lavan, previously Lavan Solomon, celebrated its 120th anniversary last year and is also one of the few firms that is Western Australian owned after linking with national firm Philip Fox and returning to a stand-alone practice in 2006.

The oldest firm in Perth, King & Wood Mallesons, originally Stone James, which was established in 1832, has merged with national and international firms and now has a team of 2,000 lawyers in 27 offices.

Parker & Parker (now the second oldest law firm Herbert Smith Freehills) surprised the Perth legal community in September 1997 when it merged with Freehill, Hollingdale Page as it signalled a wider shift away from independent state-based law firms.

HHG Legal’s Mr Creek was more focused on expanding the firm rather than merging.

“I don’t see us slowing down for a long time,” he said.

“We need to consolidate now with our new Joondalup office but I think … Bunbury is in our sights, and at some point we will look at Melbourne and Sydney but only if we can do that without jeopardising everything we are doing in Western Australia.

“And the chances are, we would only do that if we had some new leaders, new directors in the firm.”

Mr Creek, who acknowledged he enjoyed business just as much as practising law, said there were fantastic markets and economies of scale to be achieved if they opened on the east coast.

Along with opening a new office in Joondalup in November and moving the Perth headquarters into the Cloisters building, Mr Creek said HHG Legal would be expanding its pro bono arm HHG Giving Back under his guidance as executive chairman from December 1.

Mr Hockless said Kott Gunning Lawyers was growing too, with a recent local merger with Park Legal Solutions, internal promotions of two lawyers and external hires.

“We are not aiming to become a large firm, but we are probably looking to get a bit larger than we are now and considering all sorts of local opportunities,” he said.

“The future is quite interesting at the moment.”

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