In a global legal profession, Australian firms are unique. While most have strong Asian practices, the argument for setting up in the Northern hemisphere is considerably harder to swallow.
An overseas office is always expensive. Obviously, the trick is to make sure the benefits outweigh the costs, be those benefits work referred home, successful competition against domestic firms or profile-raising.
But Australian firms face a double whammy. For a start, they charge lower fees and hence make lower profits, so costs will always be higher. And the harsh reality is that no one really cares about Australian firms. With emerging markets, the Asian economy riding high and the lure of Wall Street tempting most European firms, antipodean practices rarely figure in Western hemisphere firm’s strategies.
It is understandable, therefore, why three of the major Australian firms with offices in the UK have all shut down their operations.
But three others remain, and one of them, Minter Ellison, has been here since 1974. So why is it still here?
Blake Dawson Waldron’s London office mostly services Australian clients with UK interests. Mallesons Stephen Jaques – the only Australian firm to enter into serious merger discussions with a UK firm when it talked to Clifford Chance last year – also bases its London operation on one client. The National Australia Bank (NAB), which owns among other things the Yorkshire and Clydesdale Banks, is an important long-term client of the firm. Indeed, partner Nuncio D’angelo has been seconded to act as European regional general counsel.
But Minter’s office attempts to justify its existence by fulfilling a range of roles. For a start, it is the only one of the three that practises both UK and Australian law, meaning it can service both types of clients (although in no way can it, or would it, compete head on with domestic firms for UK work only).
It also maintains a marketing role, both in persuading European firms to refer work to it when Australian legal input is needed and in raising its profile. After all, Minters is no different to any other antipodean firm in that its eventual game plan is an international merger.
The office is manned by two corporate partners, Robert Hanley and Michael Whalley, and four further fee-earners. Recent deals include acting alongside Slaughter and May and Bredin Prat on Cap Gemini’s $12.4bn (£8.5bn) acquisition of Ernst & Young’s consultancy arm. Hanley won the work after pitching to Bredin Prat.
Here, then, is the key. If you are an Australian firm running a City office, you must create your own unique role to overcome isolation from the Square Mile and from your partners back home.
And you need to get out and about to win that all-important referal work and to make sure the rest of the world knows of you. Minters is obviously winning work, and after nearly 30 years in the City, the Australian partnership must be happy with the operation. The proof as to whether Minters is catching the eye of possible suitors, though, will only come with the holy grail of a merger.