Which ‘top’ Australian law firms are struggling to enter Asia?

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The headline of the lead-off item in Friday’s (8/8/2014) Global Legal Post was:

Top Australian firms struggle to enter Asia

Pretty strong stuff, made all the more so by the first line of the post, which reads:

“BigLaw Australia has been ‘bitterly disappointed’ at its limited success in entering Asian markets, according to business consultant Dr George Beaton.”

The post left me wondering:

  • which ‘top’ Australian law firms are they referring to?, and
  • is it fair to say that “BigLaw Australia” has been ‘bitterly disappointed’ at its limited success in entering the Asian markets?

So, over the weekend I decided to take a look at this more closely. And, for the purposes of the remainder of this post I have limited my research to:

  • independent ‘Australian’ law firms (i.e., not international firms with an Australian presence),
  • with a presence on the ground in Asia (i.e., not looking at firms’ informal or formal referral arrangements – such as Advoc Asia, Lex Mundi or PRAC, which will likely be the subject of a future post).

Also, in undertaking this I have used the most recent ‘Top 10 Independent Australian Law Firms by Revenue’ list I could find – in this case, complied by the excellent Yun Kriegler (aka @TheLawyerAsia) in her 30 June 2014 analysts post for The LawyerAustralia: medium pace’.

So, here goes:

Top 10 Independent Australian Law Firm by revenue

Offices in Asia

1. Clayton Utz* None
2. Allens** Beijing, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Port Moresby, Singapore, Ulaanbaatar
3. Minter Ellison*** Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Ulaanbaatar
4. Corrs Chambers Westgarth None
5. Gadens Singapore, Port Moresby
6. Gilbert & Tobin None
7. HWL Ebsworth None
8. Maddocks None
9. Sparke Helmore None
10. McCullough Robertson None

* Clayton Utz hit the headlines earlier this year for scratching it’s HK association with Haley & Co. but I’m not sure this one incident is enough to warrant a headline like that above.

** Given Allens tie-up with Linklaters, it’s questionable how ‘independent’ the firm remains.

*** as far as I can see, Minter Ellison’s Asian offices are not financial integrated with the Australian operations.

——-

So,

  • 7 out of the Top 10 Independent Australian Law Firms by revenue have no on the ground presence in Asia at all,
  • for 2 out of the 3 that do have on the ground presence in Asia, it is questionable how financially linked their Asian offices are to the Australian operations, and
  • out of the 7 that currently have no on the ground presence, only Clayton Utz looks like it has attempted to create any on the ground presence in the past few years.

Which essentially leaves Gadens, listed at #5 on the list, as the only independent Australian law firm with any on the ground representation in mainland Asia itself (Singapore, where it doesn’t appear to have a local Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) licence).

Overall then I think it is fair to say that that top Australian laws firms have not struggled to enter Asia – because they are simply not there in the first place and many of them have not even made an attempt to be there!

Is it also fair to say then that:

“BigLaw Australia has been ‘bitterly disappointed’ at its limited success in entering Asian markets”?

I’m not sure, because when you look at the published strategy of leading independent Australian law firms there appears to be three different approaches being adopted:

  • First, firms who are aligning with referral groups, such as Lex Mundi mentioned above,
  • Second, firms who are working off informal referral arrangements with firms operating in the Region, and
  • Third, firms who have decided to stay 100% Australian and are not looking at Asia in any great way for future development.

And so the honest answer is that this will take further analysis.

Now, if we were looking at how happy global firms with an Australian presence were with their Asian operations, then this would be a completely different post!

RWS_01

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