Australian Dollar

“A bridge too far” : When international law firm mergers turn sour

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“There were a lot of people who thought there wasn’t a very deliberative process around the decision, and a lot of people wondering how it would help us,” one partner said. “And when it didn’t go well, there were a lot of people who thought it was a bridge too far.”

The above quote is attributed to a K&L Gates partner in a recent Above The Law post by David Lat (‘Barbarians At The K&L Gates?‘), which was then linked to in Bloomberg BNA’s Business of Law overnight (‘Wake Up Call: What’s Going On At K&L Gates?‘), and is said to relate to the firm’s biggest single merger to-date, its deal with Middletons two years ago, which, apparently, has “has failed to bear fruit.

First off, I don’t think K&L Gates’ merger with Middletons is alone here. Market chatter would indicate that a number of partners at international law firms who merged with prominent Australian law firm brands have since wondered what they got themselves into. On the flip-side, a number of the partners in the prominent law firms who merged with the international firms have felt likewise and since moved on.

So while not unique, what probably differentiates the K&L Gates situation is also, in my opinion, one of its greatest strengths – its transparency and openness.

In any event, to my mind what this story highlights is two issues:

  1. mergers between international law firms are akin to the courting stage in any joint venture arrangement: a lot of trust is given on both sides without much due diligence.
  2. when things turn sour in international law firm mergers, lots of reasons get cited by all parties; but rarely, if ever, is the reason that they hadn’t discussed the merger properly with the clients of both (all) firms to see if the client had  any perspective on this merger (e.g., commercial conflicts, lack of trust, etc.) and whether they would support (financially) the merger.

I will add that it would be a great shame if the K&L Gates / Middletons merger turned into a public spat, because I really liked the legacy Australian firm of Middletons and given Australia’s interaction with the US market I believe there is a place for K&L Gates here.

That said with the A$ tipped to go below US70¢, its lowest level since the merger, the partners on both sides of the Pacific need to:

  • reiterate why they merged,
  • communicate this with their clients,

and move forward on that basis.

And do this quickly [preferably at, or before, the next global partners’ meeting] – something law firms are not known for!

Again though, I doubt very much that K&L Gates will be alone among international law firms in Australia having these discussions.

“Berlin is closer to Beijing than Brisbane is”

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“Berlin is closer to Beijing than Brisbane is. And it will always be so.”

– Andrea Myles, CEO China Australia Millennial Project (CHAMP)

I recently had the great fortune and pleasure to attend the opening ceremony of the inaugural CHAMP. Unlike many other events I attend, this one was driven by a group of young adults looking for ways to improve cooperation between China and Australia, principally from what I can tell in the areas of research and development (R&D).

Leaving aside the fascinating work being done under the CHAMP banner, two comments that Andrea Myles, CEO of CHAMP, said in her opening remarks really resonated with me.

The first was the opening quote to this post: “Berlin is closer to Beijing then Brisbane is.”

The second was this:

“China is Australia’s largest trading partner, but also the largest trading partner of 124 other nations.”

Yep, 124 other nations can claim that China is their largest trading partner.

So if Australia isn’t geographically closer to “Asia” than Europe is (and flying time from the UK to Thailand is roughly the same as Sydney to Bangkok), and if economically (from both a trade and investment perspective) Australia isn’t streets ahead of the rest of the world in the eyes of those conducting business in Asia, why in the world would so many law firms be “Driven here by the lure of Asia” – as the Australian reported last Friday (3 July) [“International legal firms see Australia as a hub for Asia” NB: subscription may be required to read this]?

Personally I’m not 100 per cent sure I understand the need for global firms to be in Australia if the only reason they are doing this is to create a hub for entry into the Asian market more broadly. I rather suspect better cases to that type of strategy could be made for Singapore (which historically it has been) and even Hong Kong.

Nonetheless, Patrick Sherrington, Hogan Lovells’ regional managing partner for Asia and the Middle East and author of the said article in last Friday’s Australian sets out his case for why he thinks this might be so.

These include:

“The Australian legal services market is characterised by its ­concentration, innovation and sophistication. Although globally the sector is generally characterised by low concentration, the market shares of the major players in ­Australia have been and remain particularly high, especially compared with the US, where no law firm accounts for more than 1 per cent of the industry.

This concentration yielded high levels of competition between those leading firms, which spurred innovation and sophistication throughout the market.”

Sorry, but having worked in the English, Asian and Australian legal markets during the course of my working life I can categorically say that the Australian legal market is no more innovative nor sophisticated than any other. While this might have been the case in the 1990s, I would venture that the US market is probably more innovative than the Australian market is at the moment and the stuff that the likes of A&O, Lawyers on Demand, Eversheds, and Riverview Law – to name but a few – are doing in the UK is streets ahead of where the Australian market currently is.

Sherrington then goes on to write:

“More critically, it [the GFC – my comment] affected the faith many leading national firms had in their business models. The hitherto boundless belief in the limitless growth of legal services in a country accounting for nearly 40 per cent of the Asia-Pacific legal services market was lost to the ­existential and strategic dilemma of how and where Australian law firms should operate in an increasingly global market.

Suddenly, market entry became a practical proposition for the major international firms. Since then we have seen the large national firms scramble for Asian and global exposure through ­alliances and combinations of varying intimacy.”

I’m of the view that flat, depressed markets in the UK and Europe more widely made the bigger English firms look up and think of other markets where they could still get growth. The mining boom that was going on in Australia at the time, plus historic highs of almost parity in exchange rates between the Australian and US dollars, meant that the Australian market looked very attractive at the time.

Ironically, a shift in the sands have now made these much less favourable reasons to be in Australia (the Australian dollar has fallen off to somewhere in the region of 75 cents now) and one has to wonder if the internationals would still be clambering to get here if the current market existed then.

Sherrington also notes that:

“We [Hogan Lovells] concluded that not having a focused high-end legal practice in Australia would be strategically detrimental to the ambitions of our long established practice in Asia and would have an impact on our ability to service global clients.

Australia is uniquely positioned to assist international law firms achieve growth in Asia. With the third largest pool of investment funds under management in the world, the largest stockmarket in Asia (ex-Japan) and the fourth largest economy in Asia, as well as being the single largest beneficiary of Chinese foreign direct investment since 2005, Australia is an ­integral part of the Asia region and also a global player.”

I think there is a lot to be said for the second part of this quote. Much less so for the first part. Having an Australian practice is one thing; having an Australian presence as a hub to Asia is a completely different issue.

If you have an Australian practice for all the reasons Sherrington sets out in the second part of the quote above, and you have a core client-base operating in Australia, then I commend you and wish you well.

But if what you are saying is this [Australia] is your hub for Asia, then I ask: “where does your senior Asian management sit?” Because one firm aside, nearly all of the senior “Asian” management teams I’ve seen sit offshore (ie, outside Australia).

A final comment of Sherrington’s is that:

“While the manner and mode of market entry will continue to ­differ between international law firms, it is a trend that will not be reversed.

The regional and global economic case for an Australian presence is too strong. It remains to be seen whether the flood of international entrants will reduce the concentration of the Australian legal service market.”

Sherrington and I will have to disagree on this one. I think it is a trend that could very easily be reversed – and to some extent already is.

And we should always remember that law is a very fickly business – who knows what might happen if you had a downturn in the Chinese economy and a European nation that was refusing to pay its debts.

Oh wait…

Q2 2014/15 CommBank Legal Market Pulse report

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The CommBank Legal Market Pulse report for Quarter 2 2014/15, conducted by Beaton Research + Consulting,  has been published.  Providing useful insights into the latest trends and developments impacting on the Australian legal industry, this report has rapidly cemented itself as a staple among serious legal business developers in Australia.

Interesting outtakes from the latest report include:

  • unsurprisingly, given the continuing political uncertainty and falling commodity prices, many law firm leader believe there may well be a downturn in the broader economy over the next 12 months.
  • one in three firms are looking to expand geographically by opening new offices, with an emphasis on Perth, Brisbane and Canberra being the locations of choice. This is an interesting development as it had been the stated strategy of many firms in Australia for a long time not to expand outside of their geographic stronghold base. For example, for a long time HDY were only ever going to be a Sydney firm serving national clients. Now they have an office in Brisbane. Likewise for G&T (new offices in Melbourne and Perth). What I would be interested to find out though is how much of this expansion is self-driven and how much of it is been driven by major clients looking to rationalise the number of law firms they use? If that question was asked, I suspect we may find that this trend is more client-driven than firm-driven.
  • Asia at 89%, UK/EU at 67% and Brisbane at 52% are seen as being the geographic areas with the highest revenue growth expectations. Sorry but I find this nothing short of astonishing. Have any of these respondent law firms looked at how crowded the Brisbane and Asian legal markets are? And wasn’t it only a few months ago that PwC were reporting that return on equity for Asian law practices was the lowest globally (at somewhere in the 20% range). [that said, Clifford Chance did recently announce a desire to increase revenue in Asia by 25%]
  • expected changes in realised rates is a 1% (+) increase. Pathetic! Might I suggest the firms concerned consider not increasing their rates by 5-10% this year and instead concentrate on trying to get more than 80c in the $ in realised billing rates.
  • negotiating price with clients, at 81%, is seen as the biggest business challenge facing law firms. Here, I would hazard a guess that negotiating the price we want from our clients is probably the real business challenge as it would seem that price negotiations in law firms is a one way conversation at the moment.
  • the practice area with the highest revenue growth expectations is Government (at 55%). With the announced forthcoming closure of the Australian Government Solicitor potentially putting up for grabs around $111.3 million in revenue for private practice law firms, perceived growth in this sector shouldn’t be too surprising. What does remain to be seen is how much of this pie firms other than Clayton Utz (at 11% for 2013-14)  can get their hands on.
  • 54% of law firms surveyed believe revenue from “non-legal services” will increase over the next 2 years. While I was unable to find a definition of “non-legal services”, the relatively low (at 54%) number of law firm leaders who saw growth in revenue in this area does surprise me. This is especially so if services such as the recently launched Orbit by Corrs Chambers Westgarth is seeing as constituting “non legal services” (in that it is not core legal advisory work).
  • and finally, 70% of law firms see “recruiting partners and staff from competitors in the new location” as being the most likely method of geographic expansion, while only 30% saw this geographic expansion occurring as a result of a “merger with an existing firm” – so be on the lookout for 2015 being a very business year for lateral hires!

If you haven’t already done so, can I suggest you download a copy of the report. It really is an interest read.

Can a falling A$ make selling Australian legal services easier overseas?

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As regular readers will know, I have written a fair amount in the past (see here and here) about how a depreciating Australian Dollar (A$) is likely to be unkind to the Australia-based partners of international law firms operating here. It was, therefore, pleasing to see a post ( ‘Will international firms still call Australia home?’) on the Australasian Lawyer website yesterday that largely echoed many of the comments I had previously made.

So, with (1) the Australian legal press and a number of eminent managing partners echoing my views, and (2) an A$ hovering around the 87c on the US$ mark, a new question now comes to mind:

Can a falling A$ make selling Australian legal services easier overseas?

The answer here will depend on your law firm, its culture and client base. But, assuming that your firm actively encourages cross-border collaboration (and there is a whole different post there), the short answer should be yes.

If that’s the case, then some of things you need to be considering include:

  • How recently did I update my website profile/CV? Are all my deals Australian-based? Am I showing regional experience? Indeed, am I using regional keywords in my website profile or only local Australian used ones?
  • What sectors in Australia are likely to benefit from a falling A$ (tourism?)? Do I have expertise or a story to sell here?
  • A falling A$ should make assets in Australia more attractive to international purchasers (case in point: pension funds looking at real estate?). What am I and my colleagues doing about this?
  • What is the Australian Government’s current policy towards a falling A$ and foreign direct investment (FDI)? Is there a story to tell here (and there most likely is if you look closely enough)?
  • Are there regional developments that I could take advantage of (for example, development of arbitration courts in Singapore and HK?)?
  • Are there any free trade agreements (FTAs) in pace that make the falling A$ attractive (export markets?)?
  • When was the last time I talked with my clients to see how they were being affected by market/currency fluctuations and what steps they are putting in place to get the most out of this (manufacturing/FMCG?)?
  • Is there any way I can help my clients out with the current environment (put them in contact with clients in Asia?)? Maybe I can/should attend a regional trade or industry conference.
  • How often am I communicating with my colleagues in Asia, US and Europe to discuss work opportunities (including the chance to work in US$s?)? [time differences may have put this off before; but if I can bill in US$s, suddenly 2am conference calls don’t look so bad!]
  • What local or regional opportunities (tenders, capability statements, etc) are my business development team working on? Is there any way I can get in on this?
  • What regional panels are my firm on and can I look to develop these? If so, who is the relationship partner?
  • Should I be considering a secondment to another office in our firm network or to a client outside Australia (Asia, Europe, US) [especially if I can charge US$ for it!]?

Clearly you will need to make sure that you are meeting your clients’ expectations. You will also need to make sure you have in place a fee mechanism that is considerate of the exchange rate, while being beneficial to you and your firm, and also allowing everyone to prosper from the situation.

But, at 87c on the US$, the value proposition of an Australian lawyer active outside of Australia (such as in Asia) should have become a lot easier to communicate today than it was a year ago.

Now for a word of caution:

if you have been billing a client (especially one outside Australia) for several years in A$s, now is not the time to suddenly, and without notice, start billing that same client in US$s.

Strange as it may seem, clients will quickly see through this move. So make sure you give this issue careful consideration (as clients have also been known to talk with each other!).

Foreign exchange woes hurt Australian arm of K&L Gates

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Back in March 2013 I wrote a blog post on how foreign currency fluctuations were likely going to hurt international law firms with a presence in Australia, over the following 12-18 months, unless the firms hedged against this exposure.

Not wishing to be one who says “told you so”, but a report in today’s Australian newspaper (‘Exchange movements take their toll on global law firm K & L Gates‘ [subscription required to read whole article]) affords me the luxury of being able to say exactly that.

According to the article,

“[K&L Gates] global revenue increased by 9.3 per cent last year due to the merger with Australia’s Middletons…”


“…things would have been much better had the US dollar not appreciated by 6.8 per cent relative to the Australian dollar…”

As the Australian sets out, it is largely thanks to the extraordinary level of financial transparency on the part of K&L Gates that we are able to ascertain the effect that currency fluctuations have had on the firm, and the firm should be highly commended for this.

That said, it is highly unlikely that K&L Gates will be the only international law firm with a presence in Australia that will be affected by this. Even firms who have to report in British Pounds or Euros, as opposed to US dollars, will likely have felt this effect on their balance sheets. The only real question is the level of effect it has had.

And the warning I put out there to the Australian partners of international firms largely remains in tact:

in order to keep your fellow partners happy in London, New York or Chicago, your Australian-based revenue will need to increase by approximately 10 to 20 per cent over the next 12 months for you just to standstill.

So before you agree to any increased revenue target budget, keep in mind the compound effect foreign currency movement are likely to have on your commitment.

Alternatively, you could get a commitment from your offshore partners that they refer work into you on which you can charge offshore currency rates – say US dollars; in which case, you could get away with working about 10 per cent less over the next 12 months.

And who said being a law firm partner was easy!