Leader column

There is no getting away from the fact that the world is heading into a cycle of economic downturn, forcing businesses in all corners of the globe to seek new sources of revenue. Yet, while UK and US law firms bit the bullet some years ago, opening what are now flourishing offices outside their own borders, most Australian firms are struggling to find their place on the international stage.
This year saw Allens Arthur Robinson signing up to an Anglo-Australasian best friends relationship with magic circle practice Slaughter and May; and even as we speak, Minter Ellison partners are finalising plans for global expansion. And Deacons has been successfully pursuing its Asia strategy for some time. But the very fact that these three firms stand out for their international efforts speaks volumes.
True, a handful of firms have had limited success in Asia, and we must not forget the three London offices of Minters, Mallesons Stephen Jaques and Blake Dawson Waldron; but on the whole, the Australian legal profession seems to be spending too much time contemplating its navel while competitors – notably the UK and US firms – in other parts of the world are leapfrogging ahead.
The Australian market is mature if not saturated. Mid-tier clients have already been cherry-picked. And all this is going on at a time when many of Australia's largest corporates are merging, dual-listing and farming work out to multinational law firms which can cope with their cross-border demands.
It is no longer enough to simply follow local clients as they expand their operations abroad. Nor is the 'fly in, fly out' approach a failsafe one. Clients are eager to instruct lawyers who know not only their domestic market, but others as well. They want their lawyers to lead them, not the reverse; and if their current advisers cannot do that, there is no question that they will look elsewhere.
While every effort must be made to consolidate their position domestically, Australian firms now also need to look to futures beyond their own shores. There are many areas that Australians excel in – among them privatisation and project finance – and these are strengths to be played upon.
In the legal profession, just as everywhere else, a job for life is no longer a given. The time for talking is over; this is the era of action.