WHILE FREEHILLS may have topped the list with the most awards won at the Fuji Xerox Australian Law Awards 2006, the other big scoop was Gilbert & Tobin’s performance.
Gilbert & Tobin won the ESperitus International Law Firm of the Year Award, the La Trobe University School of Law Australian Law Firm of the Year (firms with between 51 and 500 practising certificates) Award, as well as the WinScribe IT, IP and Telecommunications Award. Further, its submission for the Energy and Resources Award, ultimately won by Freehills, was highly commended by the judges.
While there would be little argument as to the firm’s entitlement to most of these awards, taking out the International Law Firm of the Year was met with some criticism from some of Australia’s larger firms.
When Lawyers Weekly put this criticism to Gilbert & Tobin’s IT, telecommunications and international practice partner Peter Waters, he was strident in his rebuttal.
“In our niche areas, we have a far bigger footprint than any other Australian law firm. This afternoon, I’m sending out a submission to Bell Canada to help it in Canada. People [in this firm] have been working on matters today in the Middle East. [Partner Angus Henderson] is working on matters in Samoa. Our geographic footprint covers more than 15 time zones and that is the sort of extent of practice we have in our area.
“I would actually go so far as to say that there are very few, if any, Australian law firms that in their area compete on a global basis. They compete on a regional basis, but not on a global basis,” Waters said.
Sticking to its knitting has always been a successful business strategy for the law firm; however, it has found that this also means that what you’re knitting tends to get bigger. An illustration of this was drawn by Waters using the firm’s recent success in advising the Hong Kong Government on competition policy within the petroleum market.
“When this firm started [internationally], we started with a core of telecommunications issues. However, the policy and legal issues that underlie telecommunications regulation are transposable on the commercial side to IT and IP and on the regulatory side to competition law. Now both practices within Gilbert & Tobin have spread way beyond telecommunications.
“In Asia, while the core of our practice has been telecommunications, one of the jobs that we have done in the general competition area has been to conduct a study into whether there has been a cartel in the petroleum industry within Hong Kong [see Lawyers Weekly Issue 288]. There had never been a market review of any sector of the economy within Hong Kong. So we had to undertake a legal and economic analysis of that market and reach views as to whether or not we thought there was a cartel in that market,” Waters said.
Since making its submission for the Award, the firm has won another piece of business that has seen a further expansion of the services it offers internationally, this time in Europe.
It was selected by the GSM Association of Europe (the industry association of mobile operators) to undertake a study of mobile content, in particular to examine the impact such things as music and videos delivered via this medium will have. The sorts of things covered included what’s happening in the market, what’s needed by way of legal protection, what’s needed by way of encouraging industry standards, and what are the new business models emerging or required.
“We competed against European firms — consulting firms as well as legal firms — to win that job,” said Waters.
The firm attributes its international success not only to incrementally expanding what it offers globally, but to being on top of trends in its niche areas. One such trend, according to Bill Spain, partner, corporate, IT and telecommunications, is the ability to compete for work in cyberspace. “We’re one of the few firms in Australia that can compete for non-geographic based work,” he said.
Spain, who is also currently the firm’s board chair, also said: “A lot of Australian firms that went into Asia said we can do what the European firms can do, but we can do it cheaper — and that doesn’t work. You need to be able to find something that the European firms don’t do, or do it much better … a big merchant bank is not going to give a job to an Australian law firm because it’s cheaper.”
Michael Williams, partner, IP, said the firm’s use of in-house technical experts such as engineers and IT consultants helped to give it a winning edge.
However, Spain said the domestic side of the business in the more traditional legal markets such as corporate and M&A had also seen exceptional growth. Involvement in high profile deals making headlines such as PBL, AGL and Alinta serve as a good reminder of the firm’s capability locally.
And what does receiving such accolades means for the firm? Spain concludes: “It’s always very nice to receive recognition from your peers and a group of representative clients. It’s not only good for the partners, but most importantly for us, it’s good for the staff because they get the sense of participation, ownership and recognition within the business. Fundamentally they’re the ones that have to deliver these things.”