CLAYTON UTZ is the firm to benefit most from the collapse of Corrs Chambers Westgarth’s Canberra office, taking a prized partner and a further 10 staff in a move to solidify its standing in the nation’s capital.
And although John Denton, chief executive officer at Corrs, was keen to promote his firm’s ability to service Canberra clients remotely, the partner-in-charge at Clayton Utz had a different perspective.
“At the end of the day they are people who have made a commercial decision, one that I don’t understand,” said Alfonso del Rio, Clayton Utz’s head man in Canberra.
“The issue is one of scale. I don’t think you can be successful doing government in Canberra unless you’re a full-service firm, and obviously if you’re a smaller office then you can’t do that.”
As Lawyers Weekly reported last week, Denton said Corrs was not alone in deciding to run government work from Sydney and Melbourne, where the firm “can provide more depth, resources and expertise from our larger, more established offices”.
Corrs’ strategy was “not unique, as many large firms successfully service Canberra-based clients from other offices”, Denton said.
Yet del Rio, who has been a partner at Clayton Utz and its predecessor firms since 1988, said that “probably the main difference between us and other people is that we’re not recent arrivals and we just haven’t opened up an office here. I think Corrs was a relatively new office, as far as my recollection of it”.
The nature of government work necessitates a strong local presence, del Rio said. That is why when former Corrs partner Alexandra Wedutenko and her extended team became available, Clayton Utz did not hesitate to interview them.
“The real issue is that government work generally is challenging, and is varied; it’s very complex in a lot of cases. As a result of that, you really need a full-service law firm with a strong presence in Canberra for a lot of the Commonwealth legal work,” del Rio said.
“It doesn’t mean that you can’t do work with the Commonwealth out of Sydney, but it means that if you want to do a lot of the significant amount of work, and you want to have an ongoing relationship with government, as distinct from doing the ‘fly in and fly out’ on a particular transaction, you do need a strong Canberra office,” he said.
“And in fact that is one of the requirements in a lot of the panel bids that the government puts out.”
Denton said the decision to close the Canberra office was not made lightly, which is hardly surprising given Corrs was last year’s Law Awards winner for Employer of Choice. It was, in fact, the quality of the former Corrs staff and their working relationship as a team that was influential in del Rio’s decision to hire not one, but all of them, from partner level right down to support staff.
“Corrs had a small but very good team of people,” del Rio said. “One of the things, as I was going through the interviews, that really impressed me, was that there were a lot of synergies between their culture and our culture.”