King & Wood Mallesons looks to Canada and Singapore for further expansion

Details have emerged that King & Wood Mallesons is looking beyond the UK and US to broaden its global footprint, with Singapore and Canada being two key locations it is considering opening in.

Stuart Fuller
Stuart Fuller

At a May conference of worldwide law firm leaders held at California’s Pebble Beach, King & Wood Mallesons’ global managing partner Stuart Fuller publicly revealed the firm’s international ambitions.

At that time the firm said it was focusing its attentions on the UK and US markets – and, as has been reported by The Lawyer, has held talks with either Nixon Peabody or SJ Berwin (21 May 2012) – but it has since emerged that it is also considering adding a presence in Canada, Russia and South East Asia.

The managing partner of a Canadian firm told The Lawyer that at a recent Canadian managing partners forum in San Francisco there was talk of King & Wood Mallesons being interested in coming to North America, and Canada in particular.

Various sources in the market also confirmed that around the time of the Pebble Beach conference, a small group of King & Wood Mallesons partners led by Fuller visited several Canadian law firms, including some of the ‘seven sisters’, to promote the newly merged firm and to forge links that may lead to deeper relationships in the future.

“It would be interesting because it’s an obvious resource play – China’s a big buyer and Australia’s a big exporter. The kind of firm King & Wood Mallesons would probably want to go for would have to have a strong presence in western Canada,” said a Canadian market commentator.

King & Wood Mallesons has recently hired a team of energy and resources lawyers led by former Dewey & LeBoeuf Beijing partner Dirk Walker (7 June 2012). It is an appointment described by the firm’s China managing partner Wang Ling as a proof that “the energy and resources sector continues to be a priority for us and we continue to invest in world-class capability which is aligned with our clients’ needs”.

“Chinese outbound investment in the energy and resources sector is a lucrative and profitable area for international law firms. Canada is a major resources investment destination for China. It makes sense for King & Wood Mallesons to go there,” said a partner at an international firm.

However, the possibility of adding a top-tier Canadian firm to the Swiss Verein is slim.

One source in the legal industry indicated that before the King & Wood Mallesons tie-up was formally announced, partners from King & Wood, the Chinese part of the deal, met with a top Canadian firm and made a proposal for a tie-up. However, the Canadian firm rejected the deal out of hand.

“It’s a significant deal but it’s not big here. It’s not really on everyone’s radar,” said the managing partner of a Canadian firm. “Top-tier Canadian firms have a very strong market position. The proposition won’t be appealing enough for them to change their strategies, but it might be attractive to second- and third-tier firms who want to break through to the first-tier rank.”

The resource-rich Russia and CIS countries appear to be another place of interest to King & Wood Mallesons. It is understood that the firm also held high-level talks about the prospect of acquiring Dewey & LeBoeuf’s Moscow team prior to the US firm’s eventual collapse, though that team ultimately moved to Morgan Lewis in early May (4 May 2012).

Back on King & Wood Mallesons’ Asia Pacific home turf South East Asia remains a missing, yet increasingly important, piece. When the King & Wood-Mallesons combination was first announced in December 2011, Mallesons senior management admitted that there had been tie-up talks with Singaporean firms, with WongPartnership being a possible contender.

A source close to the firm noted that prior to finalising its deal with King & Wood, Mallesons was keen on plugging the practice gap in Singapore and was very confident that the Singaporean firm could be brought into the fold.

However, striking such a deal with a top-tier Singaporean firm also presents certain challenges.  “If they [King & Wood Mallesons] want the network to work, they’d have to target only top-tier law firms in key jurisdictions. Once your brand falls under one name, in order to be able to comfortably refer work within the network, members would want to have the highest-standard peers. If you have one weak point then the entire network’s reputation and quality will be jeopardised,” said a partner of a Singaporean firm.