ADELAIDE-BASED Thomson Playford’s merger with Sydney firm Cowley Hearne, announced last week, represents a major phase in the firm’s growth strategy and its push towards achieving a national brand.
The move, however, comes a year after one quarter of the firm’s partners were cut back — most of them in Adelaide — raising questions about the role of the Adelaide office in this national growth strategy.
Thomson Playford chief executive Brett Goodridge told Lawyers Weekly that the firm’s decision to move into the eastern seaboard came “long before” he joined Thomson Playford at the beginning of 2005.
The leaders of the firm at the time saw substantial opportunities in the market to expand the Thomson Playford brand nationally, and the reason they thought that was they felt that the formula for being such a successful and dominant firm in Adelaide could probably be replicated elsewhere. That “formula”, Goodridge said, was based on high quality legal capability, as well as access to partners, but at competitive rates.
“We’re finding today that we’re taking work from the first-tier firms because we don’t over service, because we provide high access to partners, because we have great lawyers and, by the way, it just happens to be a couple of hundred dollars an hour cheaper.”
Cowley Hearne chairman John Howard said his firm shared some key goals with Thomson Playford: “Both firms have had a similar strategic plan prior to the merger — that is, the need to get bigger,” Howard said. “In particular, Cowley Hearne has always, in practice, punched above its weight, competing against the top and second-tier firms.
“We needed to increase our breadth and depth, and there are only two ways to do that: either through organic and lateral hires or — as in this case — through a merger.”
With the development of a national brand Thomson Playford’s long-term goal, the firm is likely to subsequently establish a strong presence in Melbourne and also in Brisbane. But the cutting of partner numbers in Adelaide 12 months ago suggests a stronger focus on the eastern seaboard may be accompanied by a decreased role for the firm’s South Australia home base.
Goodridge rejected suggestions that the merger represents a focus away from Adelaide: “Adelaide strategically remains critical to us,” he said. “We are at the top of the top tier in Adelaide and we are putting a lot of resources and effort into ensuring that we entrench ourselves in that position. Adelaide remains a key platform for the future of our national development.”
However, one top legal recruiter, who asked not to be named, suggested the situation was not straightforward. The recruiter claimed to have “a lot of CVs from that firm” on his books, adding that the profit-driven strategic review one year ago — driven by the Adelaide office’s not being profitable enough — had led to partners being “squeezed out financially”. This had resulted in “a lot of unhappiness” associated with Adelaide’s operations.
Goodridge argued he had cut numbers to boost the firm’s operations in Adelaide. “Businesses have to look at the way they are operating and are structured from time to time,” he said, “and we believed we needed to make some changes to our business in Adelaide and that we could be stronger. All that is really history — that’s behind us now. Yes, we did make a number of changes to downsize our business and that has made us stronger in Adelaide.
“We took those decisions and the positive pay-back from those decisions is reflected, in a sense, today, with this merger announcement,” he added.
Thomson Playford had no immediate plans to expand the firm’s presence in Melbourne, Goodridge said. “Our priority is to get this merger bedded down and working efficiently and profitably and then we will turn our attention to our next step in Melbourne.” Brisbane also was “of interest to us”, but there was nothing yet “on the go”, he said.