MILLS OAKLEY has used the opening of its office in Brisbane to fire a warning shot at both top- and mid-tier firms. According to chief executive officer John Nerurker, his firm is gunning for lucrative clients and the market standing of the best of the mid-tier players.
Describing Mills Oakley as a “premium mid-tier firm”, Nerurker believes it is “not quite at the top of the mid tier at the moment, but rapidly climbing the pile”.
“That’s the position that we’re vying for, and certainly that’s the position and ambition and vision shared by our new partners and lawyers who have joined us of recent years,” he said.
The CEO picked out Gadens and Middletons as two major rivals in the mid tier. He is also aiming at the big national firms, hoping to relieve them of their partners and clients through competitive fees and efficient back-office practices.
“Most of our lawyers now have experience at either a top-tier firm, or a large national firm,” he said, citing last year’s acquisition of partner Gino Potenza from Gadens. “I think we have a unique value proposition for our clients in that we provide big firm expertise, but at a medium firm pricing.”
Nerurker said the pressure to undercut higher prices is coming from increasingly business-savvy clients who want value for money from their legal service providers. In fact, clients are even “pressuring their partners, saying ‘Well we want to use you, despite the fact that you are at Corrs, for example, but don’t want to pay the $700 an hour’”.
“Those same clients now know that they can move a block or two down the road and come to Mills Oakley where they’ll get equal, if not better, legal expertise, at a more affordable hourly rate,” he said.
And not only are the clients coming, he said, but the lawyers as well.
“Partners are approaching us and saying, ‘I’m under a lot of pressure at my existing firm to charge $600 plus an hour. I know that my clients will follow me, but can I come to Mills Oakley, and charge my clients $50 an hour less?’
“And because we pride ourselves on being well-managed and well-run financially, more often than not we can pay those partners the same if not more than they are currently earning, and those partners in turn can offer their clients a saving in their hourly rates. And everybody wins.”
The move to Brisbane comes a year after opening an office in Sydney, which Nerurker said was so successful it saw the firm upgrade from the “dingy end of Clarence Street” to “the core of the CBD in Margaret Street, which is more than three times larger”.
But despite the aggressive growth strategy, Nerurker said he had no interest in merging with other firms, preferring instead to “fish with a hook, not a net”.
“If you do a big merger … you pick up the deadwood, the baggage and the under performers,” he said. “What we’ve been very careful to do is to select high-performing partners with practices that offer synergies with our client base and our skill sets, and we target those partners.”