London and Asia

Australian law firms are taking a hard look at their foreign operations and discarding those that cost too much.

In New York, Mallesons Stephen Jaques and Allen Allen & Hemsley shut down their offices, while in London, Freehill Hollingdale & Page recently announced the closure of its office and demonstrated that the London connection is no longer sacrosanct.

How times have changed. At the end of the 1980s a London office was viewed as an essential accoutrement for Australia's aspiring international firms. Several, including Blake Dawson Waldron, Corrs Chambers Westgarth and Freehill Hollingdale & Page, set up London offices during that time.

The move had some logic: many Australian financings are done through the London markets, traditional links between the British and Australian business communities are strong, and it is handy being in the European time zone to service European clients.

In spite of the Freehills move, the balance of opinion remains in London's favour, but, as Arthur Robinson's Poulton notes, it is “an interesting question; one that is looked at from time to time”.

Asia is a different story. It is the area in which some Australian firms see the greatest opportunities to develop profitable businesses. Australian firms are well-represented in a number of countries in the region, including Indonesia, Vietnam and China, where Australian companies are big investors..

But even in Asia there is a shift away from opening offices, and some have closed: Mallesons and Blake Dawson Waldron have given up their Singapore offices.

Firms are looking at more cost-effective ways of operating in the region. Some have made cost-sharing arrangements with non-Australian firms – as Minter Ellison has done in Hong Kong with London firm McKenna & Co – and others have formed loose associations with local firms. Some have adopted an even more low-key approach. Clayton Utz, for example, is part of the two referral networks Pacific Rim Advisory Council and Lex Mundi.

Sly & Weigall has taken the most unusual approach: its joint venture with the Hong Kong firm Deacons and US-based Graham & James has led to it changing its name to Deacons Graham & James.