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Firm yet to decide on launch or merger as it follows UK rivals
Herbert Smith is the latest firm to set its sights on the Australian market with a plan to follow the likes of Allen & Overy (A&O), Clifford Chance and Norton Rose Down Under.
While Herbert Smith has taken a conservative approach to international expansion in recent years, it is now understood to be eyeing an Australian launch.
It is unclear whether the firm is keen to identify a merger partner or whether, like A&O and Clifford Chance, it is planning to cherrypick teams to launch its own base. Sources suggest that it has held merger talks with Blake Dawson and Freehills.
“Blake Dawson has an excellent energy and natural resources practice, just like Herbert Smith,” said a partner at an Australian firm. “One of its main clients is BHP Billiton, so it would be a great fit for Herbies.”
Herbert Smith has long shown an interest in Australia, with the firm hiring directly from Australian law schools for a number of years, but it has upped its focus on the country recently. A partner at another Australian firm said: “They seem to be paying more attention than ever before. For firms like Herbert Smith, there’s a feeling that if they don’t do something they might get left behind.”
Another partner at an international firm revealed: “In Sydney there’s quite a bit of talk that Herbert Smith will do something in Australia this year.”
Lawyers in Australia have reported a dramatic increase in the number of firms from the UK, US and Canada visiting the country over the past 12 months.
“Most major law firms have an enlivened interest in Australia and are working out what to do here,” said the head of one Australian law firm. “There have been more visitors over the past 12 months and things have taken on a heightened intensity since Christmas.”
This, along with the arrival of a number of UK-headquartered firms over the past 18 months, has led to unease among many partners in Australian firms.
“Quite a number of firms are really feeling the pinch,” admitted another local partner. “I think there’s dissension among partners in the likes of Freehills and to a lesser extent Blake Dawson. They’re both strong firms in their own right, but partners are wondering what the future holds.”
Herbert Smith did not return calls for comment. Blake Dawson denied that it is in merger talks with Herbert Smith.