New Zealand firms beef up domestic offering in face of Australian onslaught

Heavy Australian banking presence sees NZ firms ‘provincialised’; boutiques attempt to win back work

The New Zealand legal market has been forced to steel itself against increasing competition from Australia for its domestic corporate work.

Fear is growing that, despite a buoyant economy, law firms have been losing work to Australian and Australasian firms and to the emerging and relatively new market of in-house lawyers.

As a result, a number of boutique firms have sprung up as lawyers attempt to adapt to the phenomenon of specialising in trans-Tasman work.

Laurie Mayne, senior partner at niche firm Mayne Wetherell, said: “The legal market in New Zealand has become increasingly provincialised, with the decision-making moving from Auckland and Wellington to Sydney. New Zealand has evolved into a branch office economy – and with six heavily lawyered, 40-plus-partner firms, there’s a lot of competition.”

Mayne, a partner at top-tier firm Russell McVeagh for 18 years, split with a team of six lawyers to set up Mayne Wetherell in April this year. The practice, which focuses on finance and corporate work, is set to capitalise on the shift of corporate legal work from New Zealand to Australia.

Mayne said: “There’s been more than a drift of work across the Tasman – all of New Zealand’s banks are now Australian-owned, with the last one sold to ANZ last year, and many corporations have head offices offshore.”

However, Rupert Wilson, managing partner at top-tier firm Chapman Tripp, disagrees. “There are no obvious trends of corporate work being shifted from New Zealand corporate law firms to Australian firms,” he said. “There are excellent corporate law firms on both sides of the Tasman and they work cooperatively, rather than competitively, on projects which have both a New Zealand and an Australian dimension.”

Susan Peterson, general counsel and company secretary at ANZ National Bank, supports this line. “When ANZ National requires external legal advice on New Zealand issues, then it is without exception obtained from New Zealand law firms,” she said. “When ANZ National requires Australian legal advice, then it will approach the ANZ Group legal team based in Mel-bourne. On all trans-Tasman corporate matters, the ANZ Group legal team in Melbourne will work with the ANZ National team in New Zealand.”