AS INTERNATIONAL law firm Coudert Brothers embarks on discussions regarding its inevitable closure, announced last week, all eyes are on the detail, and exactly where the 14 Australian Coudert partners, 23 lawyers and 67 staff will be going.
As Lawyers Weekly went to press this week, Coudert Brothers remained tight-lipped about the future of its lawyers, saying that it would not make any comments until definitive decisions had been made.
Across Australia, law firms are speculating about the future of the firm’s partners and lawyers. Some have gone so far as to approach recruiters, asking whether partners from the closing firm had made any decisions. Legal recruiter Naiman Clarke has been approached by two mid-tier firms and one boutique law firm, which are wondering whether Coudert lawyers at any levels, including partners, have hit the marketplace.
After months of negotiations over merger opportunities with other firms, the law firm confirmed last week it will stop paying all staff on 16 November this year. Covering three areas of practice, including corporate, litigation and real estate, Coudert partners and lawyers will then be forced to find new work.
The property partners will be moving to Phillips Fox, sources told Lawyers Weekly this week. While this has not yet been confirmed by either firm, sources said all the Coudert property partners will move across to Phillips Fox in a week, possibly taking some junior lawyers with them. Senior lawyers, however, will probably not move across, and will have to find alternative positions in other firms.
Phillips Fox has over the past year lost a number of key property partners, so will be keen to take on these partners, a source said, particularly in the current tight market, where property lawyers are in high demand.
But for partners in the other areas this move will be a difficult one, commentators agree. While lawyers will be able to find work at the same level in other firms, some argue that partners will be lucky to make lateral moves into other firms at the same level.
Some firms will be more open to the idea of lateral hires of partners than others, Lawyers Weekly learned this week. For example, while Clayton Utz prefers a strategy of organic growth, chief executive partner David Fagan said the firm is not averse to lateral hires at the partner level, “where there is a clear business case for it”.
“For example, we made a number of lateral partners hires over the course of 2004.” This year, the firm made three lateral hires in key practice areas and is “always interested in exceptional lawyers and teams that will enhance our capacity”.
As well, Freehills is “very open to lateral hires across all levels of the firm, from juniors through to partners”, a spokesperson told Lawyers Weekly. “That would be indicated in our firm by the recent hires of people such as Bob Baxt and Tessa Hoser.”
Coudert Brothers Sydney managing partner Michelle Harpur last week indicated the firm was looking into moving whole practices, rather than separating partners, lawyers and staff. Speaking in Perth where she was in court last week, Harpur said: “It’s early days, we’ve had approaches from other firms. We need to review it and consider it. We have great clients and great people and that has to be our main priority, what is best for them,” she said.
Pressed as to when a decision would be made about the Sydney and Melbourne offices, Harpur said: “I need to get back to the Sydney office and then I will be in a better position to assess that”.
The firm this week said it expected to make further announcements over the coming weeks. “After exploring various options, the partners of Coudert have authorised the firm to enter into combinations of offices and practice groups with other firms to reflect the strengths of the firm. Such combinations will be done in an orderly process and announced over the next several weeks.”
It is understood the New York team has been in negotiations with Baker & McKenzie, which has been considering taking a number of partners into its own firm. Baker & McKenzie is attracted to Coudert Brothers’ strong presence in New York, but sources say it is so far unwilling to take on all lawyers and many senior associates, preferring instead to “cherry pick” senior partners.
Baker & McKenzie Australian managing partner, David Nathan, said the firm in Australia had no current plans to take any Coudert Brothers partners, but said the firm is “keeping [its] eyes open”.
“There are no discussions between Bakers and Coudert here or offshore as far as I know, so if there are any individual discussions, that may be a separate issue,” Nathan said.
Naiman Clarke manager of international recruitment, Angel-Clare Melton, said that merger details with Baker & McKenzie are said to have fallen apart because of financials. Sources also said that because Baker & McKenzie did not want everyone from the New York office, a global merger could not go ahead. “Everyone is in limbo,” Melton said.