Lawyers Weekly | Mid tiers may get Magic touch

This article by Leanne Mezrani was originally published in the Lawyers Weekly on 7th  November, 2012.  Click here to view the original.

Mid tiers may get Magic touch

It’s not too late for Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer to move into the Australian market, an industry consultant has said, amid rumours that the Magic Circle firm plans to open a local office.

John Chisholm, head of consultancy firm John Chisholm Consulting, told Lawyers Weekly he’d “be surprised if Freshfields hasn’t spoken to our top mid tiers”, speculating that the firm is eyeing Australian shores to facilitate further expansion in the Asia-Pacific.

“I don’t think they’re coming here for our sunshine; there’s a bigger game at stake,” he added.

Freshfields reopened its Singapore office in September, five years after its withdrawal from the city in 2006. Chisholm said this is a telling sign that the firm has shifted its international strategy to cash in on growth in Asia.

In 2010, following Allen & Overy’s hire of 14 partners from Clayton Utz, the then-joint senior partner of Freshfields, Konstantin Mettenheimer, indicated his firm would not follow suit and make a move into the Australian legal market.

Chisholm puts down a possible change of heart to the benefit of hindsight.

“Freshfields were one of the first to say, ‘no, we’re not doing an Allen & Overy’, but firms will change their strategy if it makes sense,” he said. “Now that other UK firms have successfully moved [into Australia], it’s clear that any decent firm ... has been here.”

According to UK publication Legal Week, Freshfields has spoken to several Australian partners in recent months as it considers whether to launch a small M&A-focused offering in the country. It is understood the Magic Circle firm has held talks with partners from Allens, King & Wood Mallesons and Herbert Smith Freehills, with a view to potentially opening in Sydney and Perth.

Freshfields has maintained that it is not interested in opening an office in Australia. Along with Slaughter and May, it is the only Magic Circle firm without a presence in Australia.

Christopher Saul, senior partner of Slaughter & May, could not comment on whether the firm plans to open an office in Australia but admitted he has “observed the recent developments in the legal world in Australia with interest”.

Slaughter & May’s current strategy for Australia is to work with independent firms, he added. Its favoured partners are Clayton Utz, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Gilbert + Tobin and Minter Ellison, after it ended a non-exclusive referral arrangement with Allens, which is now seen as a competitor in the wake of the Linklaters deal.

These types of informal alliances will probably prevent a formal tie-up between Freshfields and Australia’s top independents, continued Chisholm.

“Their independence is what differentiates firms like Clayton Utz and Corrs in the market, so how do they then change and say they have a better offer?,” he said.

“I can see the big firms in Australia remaining independent because they are going to be the benefactors of potential global conflicts ... instead, I’d keep my eye on some of the really good second-tier, mid-tier firms,” he added.

John Colvin, executive director at headhunters Johnson and former CEO of Ashurst Australia, could not confirm reports that his company has been hired by Freshfields to find Australian recruits