London: the place to be

In times past, the popular image of the London resident partner of an Australian law firm was an Anglophile with a love of cricket, Ascot and decisions of the Privy Council (perhaps in that order).

The position was generally only taken by the most senior partners, and the office itself was perceived as essentially a postbox. The limitations of technology meant the assistance it could provide was limited.

This changed in the 1980s with the arrival of all conquering Australian businessmen determined to devour European businesses and capital. They caused an increase in the size and aspirations of Australian firms in London and, as their focus shifted, a great deal more legal work was done.

With the recession came a decline in the amount of Australian-based work in London, and firms reduced in size and number, culminating in the closure of Sydney firm Freehill Hollingdale & Page's office last year. Australian firms were finding it increasingly difficult to justify the obvious expense of maintaining a base in London.

This has made the future of Australian firms in the capital rather unsettled, but there are grounds for optimism because of three factors: globalisation, technology and the growing Asian economies.

The globalisation of business has created an expectation on the part of clients that their legal advisers provide access to same time zone legal advice in the hemisphere in which decisions are being taken. In Europe, the place to obtain that multijurisdictional advice is London, and this has contributed to the capital retaining its position as a key international legal centre.

Only a presence in London can meet demand for European advice, because it ensures a fast turnaround. Conflicts can be checked and matters commenced without clients waiting up until an ungodly hour. In recognition of the diversity of legal work, firms are being pressured to give an increasing range of advice. For example, this firm has added consultants on insolvency and tax in London.

This kind of advice is sought from Australian firms by a wide range of companies with global designs. Many are newly-privatised UK companies with a keen interest in Australia. Some have benefited from a spate of asset privatisations in power, rail and airports in Australia. Others have fed off mergers and acquisitions or corporate restructuring in London, which have involved Australian assets.

At the same time as more advice is being sought, new technology is rapidly improving long-distance communications. This is enabling Australian firms based in London to deal with increasingly important business. The mailbox of the past, has been replaced by email and the Internet address. In many respects, Australian firms lead the world in the use of technology in law. This firm, for example, was proud to win this year's The Lawyer/HIFAL Best Use of IT Award.

Finally, the proximity of Australian firms to the growing Asian economies has provided an additional source of work. Particularly, there are hours to be billed in servicing UK and European firms without a presence in the region, but with an understandable reluctance to instruct a local competitor.

Australian firms in London have come a long way since the 1980s. Most have developed a niche role in the European legal marketplace which is centred on London, and are providing essential services for clients that see great value in their legal advisers being in the UK.

Whether we will ever return to the glory days of early 1980s is uncertain. What is certain is that Australian firms are now providing a service more attuned to market demands.

As for the resident partner in London, a fondness for cricket is still common, although it may have been well hidden recently.