Innovation

The law of going global: Why the world wants to practise here

Jaclyn Densley /

If you’re looking for a global lawyer, Australia’s now a pretty good place to find one.

By “global lawyer”, we mean one who’s part of a mega-behemoth law firm with thousands of lawyers, hundreds of partners, and tens of offices around the world.

Come October, those seeking such services can add lawyers from Freehills to the long list of options following an “overwhelmingly” favourable partnership vote yesterday that will see the firm merge with the UK-based Herbert Smith to become one of the globe’s largest law firms: around 2500 lawyers and 460 partners.

The Freehills marriage brings to four the number of “top tier” law firms to have formed global alliances in recent months. But while Allens, Mallesons and Blake Dawson have all formed some kind of union with law firms overseas, Freehills is the first of the bunch to make the full commitment and take the vow of total financial integration.

It’s a significant legal sector shake-up — but the stampede of international law firms arriving on our shores is far from over. A number of legal sources contacted by The Power Index this morning agree Australia will be home to yet more global law firm brands in the very near future.

So why the sudden rush to open Down Under?

UK and US law firms are desperate to call Australia home due to booming work in our resources sector and our proximity to Asia offering a means to counter their slowing economies back home.

Tie-ups like the Freehills/Herbert Smith marriage give international firms access to existing client bases, relationships and networks, says John Chisholm, a former law firm managing partner himself.

“I’d like to think it’s because Australia’s the land of plenty, but I still think a big part of it is that we’re a lynchpin into the Asia market,” Chisholm said.

And with market consolidation happening so swiftly in Australia, local players need to act quickly to avoid missing out. As Herbert Smith managing partner David Willis put it in a statement: “The market for premium legal services will become increasingly dominated by a small number of truly global firms.” One wouldn’t want to be the last man standing, even in the conservative world of legal services.

Still, is there room for all the new global players? While Chisholm is adamant Australia’s largest law firms cannot afford to stand still on welcoming international ties, he’s not convinced the unions we’ve seen recently will all be as successful as each other.

Meanwhile, the resources boom can’t last forever. As one close observer and partner in a non-global firm tells us, only time will tell if such tie-ups and the excessive breeding of “global lawyers” in our market can survive beyond the present. Firms like Herbert Smith are hedging their bets on Australia, he says, because they have no other choice but to do so.

Regardless, while all’s going swimmingly (for the time being at least), ambitious lawyers stand to benefit from such mergers. The new Herbert Smith Freehills will be the eighth largest law firm in the world, with more than 20 offices and a promise to open more — including in New York, Seoul and South Africa.

According to Freehills lawyers contacted by The Power Index, the mood was jovial in the office this morning, with the merger largely seen as an opportunity for lawyers to get to offices overseas. They arrived at work this morning to be greeted with a celebratory pop-up heralding the announcement on their computers (athough we’re told there was no Kim Williams-style video, like that which greeted News Limited employees last week).

This article first appeared on The Power Index.

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