CLIFFORD Chance surprised absolutely no one last week by announcing it would merge with boutique law firms in Sydney and Perth.
More surprising is the news that the magic circle firm has no intention of becoming a full service firm in Australia.
The double merger, with Chang Pistilli & Simmons in Sydney and Cochrane Lishman Carson Luscombe in Perth, will give the UK firm a 14 partner presence across two cities.
Clifford Chance had come very close to merging with Mallesons Stephen Jaques in December 2008, but the market conditions and expectations that some Australian partners would have to relocate or be demoted rendered the whole thing unworkable.
That merger would have given the UK law firm a full-service operation in Australia. But last week’s merger is something altogether different.
“What we’re not going to do is be full-service in Australia,” managing partner David Childs told UK legal magazine The Lawyer.
“We decided some time back that if we were going to do something in Australia it was going to be focused.”
The recent merger shows the focus will be on high-end M&A and cross-border finance.
More important than Australia, it is becoming clear, is Asia, where Clifford Chance has strong ambitions.
The firm’s new Asia strategy builds on its existing reputation in key Asian markets, and its aim to double revenues in four years.
"Our ability to respond to the internationalisation of the corporate world, and that of our clients' businesses, has underpinned Clifford Chance's strategy and success over the past 30 years.
“As globalisation enters a new phase, the balance of economic power – and our clients' attention – is shifting to Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America,” Childs said.
“However, we need to continue to evolve our business to reflect these bigger changes, as witnessed by this important move in Australia.”
The reason for going to Australia at all is its placement in the Asian region. Childs himself has admitted that the M&A market here has become one of the largest in the region. Hence the focus on that area of practice.
Allen & Overy, DLA Piper and Norton Rose have each moved into the Australian market in recent years, entering a market globally regarded as “overlawyered”. Clifford Chance has no intention of stepping on the toes of the big guns over here, focusing instead where it must to get better access to Asia.
Norton Rose, which merged with Deacons last year, and A&O, have also stressed that Australia is part of a wider Asia strategy. They are just being more broad focussed about it.
Other UK firms, Linklaters and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer included, have remained unconvinced about a move to Australia, instead using local firms on an as-needed basis.
Meanwhile, 14 Australian partners who will be joining Clifford Chance will be joined by two other partners, who will relocate to Sydney and Perth. Restructuring and insolvency partner Scott Bache will move from Hong Kong to the Sydney office.