Attorney-general calls for national guidelines

Australia's state-run legal system's competitiveness is called into question

Australia's legal landscape is changing. Although not yet a seismic shift, there are rumblings of a move away from the traditional system of federation firms.
Daryl Williams, the Australian attorney-general, has called for the legal profession to reorganise itself under national guidelines. At the moment, states and territories have their own law societies and bar associations.
During an address at the 32nd Australian Legal Convention in Canberra in October, Williams argued that the lack of a national regulatory framework was a hindrance to the ability to provide competitive services locally and internationally.
He said the Law Council of Australia had been working on devising a national system for a number of years and suggested that a taskforce be set up to develop standardised admission, discipline and complaints procedures.
Practitioners have to be qualified in whichever location they wish to practise. Logistically, this can be a time-consuming and expensive process. One Mallesons Stephen Jaques partner moving from one office to another, for example, would need to be admitted in both locations.
While various options are explored at a central level, Australian firms have been taking the initiative. Last year, Freehills announced its intention to pursue a strategy of financial integration. Mallesons has completed the process, but it is one of only a few firms to do so.
Other firms are formalising loose alliances. From January 2002, Adelaide firm Ward & Partners will be known as Hunt & Hunt. Ward has been Hunt & Hunt's associated office in Adelaide since 1999 and the move marks the conclusion of a two-year convergence process between the two firms.
Ward managing partner Andrew Luckhurst-Smith said that the legal federation could have had its day. “It's the natural evolution of Ward & Partners,” he said. “Ward & Partners is a major firm in Adelaide, with a client base that is predominantly national and overseas.”
He added that the benefits of joining a national network were self-evident. “Increasingly, clients are looking to make national appointments, supplemented by boutique practices in specific areas,” he said.
An integrated firm offers clients a unified fee structure and offers staff a coherent remuneration system. Federation firms, linked by name but little else, have in the past been accused of 'hugging' fees and files.
Tim Blue, a Mallesons partner in London, said: “If you're acting for large, nationally-based clients, they want continuity of service from all offices. It's been fairly apparent for a number of years that it's the way the big firms are heading. It's a trend that can only continue.”