Freshfields sends high-level delegation to Australia as stance on country softens

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is considering opening an office in Australia as the magic circle firm aims to follow its UK and US rivals into the country.

The firm has instructed a headhunter to hold discussions with potential hires in the growing natural resources region, which has seen competitors including Allen & Overy (A&O), Ashurst, Clifford Chance, legacy Herbert Smith and Linklaters set up shop through mergers, alliances or lateral recruitment.

Freshfields is understood to have sent a delegation of three partners to Australia, including a senior partner in the corporate practice, to look into possibilities, which are expected to take the form of lateral hires rather than a merger or alliance.

It has also hired John Colvin, executive director at local headhunters Johnson and former CEO of legacy Blake Dawson Waldron (now Ashurst Australia), to lead its attempts to find recruits Down Under.

The Australian Financial Review reported last month that a number of the firm’s senior Asia-Pacific partners had been visiting Australia to hold talks with partners, speculating that hires from a range of firms rather than one were most likely.

It appears to be a shift of strategy away from the one articulated by then-joint senior partner Konstantin Mettenheimer in 2010 after A&O’s hire of 14 partners from local independent Clayton Utz to launch in the country that year (8 February 2010). Mettenheimer at the time said it was “difficult to position Australia as a gateway to Asia due to the distance and differing timezones” and hinted that an A&O-style launch there was unlikely (15 February 2010).

However, a number of US and UK firms have since launched in Australia in an attempt to benefit from its natural resources opportunities, most recently legacy Herbert Smith, which merged with local outfit Freehills to form Herbert Smith Freehills (28 June 2012).

The news comes alongside broader endeavours by Freshfields to expand and fine tune its Asia-Pacific operations. It recently moved to break its pure lockstep in Asia amid fears that its traditional partner remuneration system risked repelling potential recruits and encouraging defections to higher-paying US rivals (14 September 2012).

A Freshfields spokesperson said: “We have no current plans to open an office in Australia. We do a lot of work with Australian companies and often have partners down in Australia helping clients and building relationships with the strong independent local firms.”

Colvin was unavailable for comment.