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Competitors feed on HDY’s Canberra partnership

More people are quitting the Henry Davis York partnership one month out from its merger ‘combination’ with Norton Rose Fulbright.

user iconMelissa Coade 02 November 2017 Big Law
Competitors feed on HDY’s Canberra partnership
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Competitor law firms have homed in on the unhappy ranks of Henry Davis York, with confirmation that the head of the HDY Canberra office, Debra Tippett, has resigned to join Clayton Utz.

A representative for the top-tier firm verified that the ex-HDY partner would commence work for Clayton Utz from November. Ms Tippett had been a part of the HDY team for almost two years, before that building up her practice as a long-time partner at MinterEllison.

HDY special counsel Angie Freeman will also be coming across to join the Clayton Utz partnership, the spokesperson said.


HDY opened the doors to its Canberra office last February, noting at the time that there were a number of very credible firms already operating in the market. The launch of the newly minted mid-tier office in Canberra had even been delayed by a half-a-year more than expected because it wanted to find the right person to head the team.

“We’d had enough conversations with clients about their expectations and what they looked for in their key service providers so we felt ready to open an office,” HDY managing partner Michael Greene told Lawyers Weekly last year.

“With the growth we’ve had in our Commonwealth government practice to date without having an office in Canberra makes us very confident that we’ll be able to successfully continue to compete in that market,” he said.

Greene to inherit government practice

Lawyers Weekly can confirm that HDY managing partner Michael Greene will lead the practice after Ms Tippett and Ms Freeman depart for Clayton Utz. The duo are both ICT procurement and contracting specialists with deep ties to government agencies and the ICT private sector.

Prior to taking the reins as managing partner at HDY at the end of 2014, Mr Greene was a leading legal advisor to the public and private sector clients in the government.

Responding to questions about the status of HDY’s Canberra office after the combination with NRF, a joint statement from Mr Greene and NRF managing partner in Australia Wayne Spanner said these new Canberra departures would not leave the status of the Canberra office uncertain.

“Michael Greene will be leading our government practice, with responsibility for both federal and state government. We will have more to say about our future leadership roles soon,” the joint statement said.

At the time of publication, remaining HDY Canberra partners Ben Fuller (who joined the firm only 12 months ago) and Melanie McKean (who came on board six months ago) were unable to be reached for comment. However, a number of anonymous tip-offs to Lawyers Weekly suggested that all of the HDY partners in Canberra would be calling it quits.

Both HDY and NRF have suffered significant losses to their partnerships since announcing their intention to merge in June. In the months following the announcement, departures have occurred across the practice groups of both firms.

The partner losses suffered by HDY in particular illuminates a general mood against the decision to combine the business of the mid-tier stalwart with the global firm. To date Addisons, Clayton Utz, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Dibbs Barker, Lander & Rogers, Mills Oakley and McCullough Robertson have benefited from the talent shedding from HDY’s partner ranks.

The current tally of HDY partners who have opted to seal their fate with other firms instead of merging with NRF comes to 14.

Lawyers Weekly sought to corroborate this number with NRF and HDY and was told in a joint statement from Mr Spanner and Mr Greene that a “vast majority” of the mid-tier’s partners and staff were on board.

“We are not going to provide a running commentary on our combination. But we can confirm that the vast majority of HDY partners and staff will be joining Norton Rose Fulbright on 1 December,” the law firm bosses said.

HDY partner exodus timeline

May: 25 staff retrenched in Sydney

HDY’s Sydney office bears the brunt of a shock decision to let six fee-earning lawyers and 19 business support personnel go. Explaining the difficult move, a spokesperson for HDY said that the firm was improving its business model and operational structure “to ensure we offer our clients value in this transformational environment”.

“This is nothing new. We, like a number of peer firms, have constantly evolved and adapted in the last 100 years,” the HDY spokesperson said.

The cuts made up about 6 per cent of HDY’s lawyers and 12 per cent of the business support team in Sydney. No partners were sacked.

August: Five partners shed

Ex-HDY partners Michael Catchpoole, Cameron Cheetham, Ben Emblin, Craig Ensor and Patrick O’Grady walked away from the tie-up to join Corrs Chambers Westgarth in Sydney. The group made up a significant portion of HDY’s restructuring and insolvency talent.

September: One partner shed

HDY lost insurance partner Louise Cantrill to Mills Oakley in late September.

October: Seven partners shed

HDY workplace relations duo Tony Woods and Stephen Jauncey chased greener pastures at Lander & Rogers in Sydney.

HDY intellectual property leader Donna Short left for commercial boutique firm Addisons in Sydney.

HDY disputes leader Jason Munstermann and employment and safety expert Scarlet Reid exited for McCullough Robertson in October.

Former HDY co-head of corporate M&A Ben Mortimer and technology practice head Matthew McMillan also quit for McCullough Robertson in October.

November: One partner shed (to date)

HDY Canberra heavyweight Debra Tippett was revealed to be the latest person to quit. She will commence work for Clayton Utz from November.

One month before combo comes into force

The 1st of December has been confirmed as the combination go-live date, when HDY becomes officially integrated with the global monolith of NRF. A statement issued by Mr Spanner and Mr Greene in October said:

“Following a successful approval process at our respective firms, we can confirm that we signed a merger implementation agreement. This was the next important step after our respective partnerships overwhelmingly voted to approve an intention to combine, which we announced on 13 June."

In another statement several months ago, the leaders noted that losses of this kind were not unusual in a merger processes.

“We recognise that change of this magnitude is not for everyone, and accept that some of our partners have chosen a different path.”

“Movement like this is not unusual at a time when the combination of two firms is under way,” both men said.

This position was reiterated in the response NRF and HDY provided Lawyers Weekly this week. Mr Spanner and Mr Greene’s latest joint statement said that they had expected there would be “people movements” when the intention to combine was announced in June. They also noted that since this time NRF had been active in its strategy to attract high-quality partners and backfill the positions left vacant by defecting partners.

When asked how many HDY partners had quit for other firms since May this year, they said:

“This sort of thing is a common occurrence in mergers, and people leave for different reasons and in different circumstances.

“Our focus has been on growing the combined firm for the future, and as part of that overall strategy we have been deliberate in attracting into Norton Rose Fulbright a series of high-quality partners since June.”

Mr Spanner and Mr Greene’s joint statement added that there would be more internal partner promotions on the horizon.

“We will shortly be announcing the promotion to the partnership, effective from 1 December, of a number of strong internal candidates from both firms.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for these people and they are excited and enthusiastic about the great benefits the combination will provide to them and their clients.”

At the time of the HDY-NRF merger announcement in June, NRF global chief executive Peter Martyr noted the benefit of “critical mass” that HDY would bring the firm in Australia. The combination would help fulfil the ambitions of the NRF’s global strategy, he said.

“The addition of Henry Davis York will give us the critical mass we need in Australia to take full advantage of the steps already under way, at a global level, to modernise our business through the implementation of our 2020 business transformation strategy.

“This combination will allow us to bring the benefits of this transformation to more clients,” Mr Martyr’s statement said.


A special Lawyers Weekly feature recently examined the merger movement in Australia’s legal market and the key forces driving this change.