John Chisholm, head of John Chisholm Consulting, told Lawyers Weekly that Freshfields is “still sniffing around” for local opportunities beyond Australia’s top tier.
“Given the strength of some of the second-tier and mid-tier firms here, overseas firms could find them very attractive,” he said. “I’d be surprised if Freshfields hasn’t spoken to our top mid tiers.”
Chisholm speculated that Freshfields is eyeing Australian shores to facilitate further expansion in the Asia-Pacific.
“I don’t think, by any means, that having an Australian presence ... is the end game ... it is all part of being global, but particularly tapping into or strengthening their presence in the Asia-Pacific rim.”
When Allen & Overy hired 14 partners from Clayton Utz in 2010, the then-joint senior partner of Freshfields, Konstantin Mettenheimer, indicated his firm would not follow suit and make a move into the Australian legal market.
In September this year, Freshfields reopened its Singapore office – a telling sign that the firm has shifted its international strategy, according to Chisholm.
“Freshfields was one of the first to say, ‘no, we’re not doing an Allen & Overy’, but firms will change their strategy if it makes sense,” he said.
It has been reported that Freshfields has spoken to several Australian partners in recent months as it considers whether to launch a small M&A-focused offering in the country. It is understood the Magic Circle firm has held talks with partners from Allens, King & Wood Mallesons and Herbert Smith Freehills, with a view to potentially opening in Sydney and Perth.
Along with Slaughter and May, it is the only Magic Circle firm without an outpost here.
It May happen
Christopher Saul, senior partner of Slaughter and May, could not comment on whether the firm plans to open an office in Australia but admitted he has “observed the recent developments in the legal world in Australia with interest”.
Slaughter & May’s current strategy for Australia is to work with independent firms, he added. Its favoured partners are Clayton Utz, Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Gilbert + Tobin and Minter Ellison, after it ended an arrangement with Allens in the wake of the Linklaters deal.
These alliances will probably prevent a formal tie-up between Freshfields and Australia’s top independents, continued Chisholm.
“Their independence is what differentiates firms like Clayton Utz and Corrs in the market, so how do they then change and say they have a better offer?,” he said.