INTERNATIONAL LAW FIRM Coudert Brothers has closed its doors, Lawyers Weekly learned today. After months of negotiations over merger opportunities with other firms, the law firm has now confirmed it will stop paying all staff on the 16 November this year.
With three months to find other jobs, whole practice groups in offices including Sydney and Melbourne, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo, Milan and Prague, among others, are now looking for work.
Lawyers Weekly has made a number of international calls to Coudert offices and is waiting to hear back from managing partners internationally. Speaking in Perth where she was in court today, Coudert Brothers Sydney managing partner Michelle Harpur said: “The international partnership has resolved that there should be an orderly transition of business to other firms and that will be a different firm … Different offices and different practices will be going to different firms,” she 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”.
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 they are 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, confirmed this afternoon that 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 today 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 earlier today.
Melton heard from sources today that Coudert’s property team is leaving the Sydney office, and is moving to Phillips Fox in a week. As well, she said, all the HR people are on three month contracts, “so it has been in the background for some time”. But Coudert’s Harpur said today that she could not comment on “anything like that”. She said “there have been approaches, no decisions have been made”.
The Tokyo office was surprised today to learn the news had reached media. Coudert announced the closure of its German offices in June this year, and has in the past months been in the process of fazing them out. Former senior partner of Coudert Brothers Frankfurt, Peter Forster, joined German rival firm Büsing Müffelmann & Theye earlier this month.
“There is a possibility that the Sydney office may survive, or at least I certainly hope so, given the quality of the Australian practice,” said Mimi Fong, one top Sydney-based recruiter who was herself formerly a lawyer at Coudert Brothers in Sydney. Prior to Coudert’s merger with Norton Smith in 1999, the firm had leveraged much of its work from Coudert’s international network of offices. With the merger, however, Coudert inherited a long established client base, allowing it to pursue much more Australia-based work.
The existing partners and lawyers in Australia establishing themselves on their own as a new independent practice was now at least “a possible option”, she said, although adding there is too much uncertainty to make a judgement call at this stage. But given that client base, “it would be a real shame if they just packed up their bags and went away,” Fong said.
Attention worldwide has focused on Baker & McKenzie’s role sizing up Coudert’s offices as the network began to come apart. An Australian firm considering taking over the Sydney and Melbourne offices might well, however, ask that with the network dissolved, what’s the value in what’s left, particularly with the absence of its highly regarded Asian arm. A better option might be cherry picking the partners and lawyers that remained, Fong said. In particular, that option might interest interstate firms that are interested in establishing a presence on the eastern seaboard or who have recently opened up offices on the east coast and that were looking to boost their presence with high-profile staff.
Check Lawyers Weekly’s website for further updates about Coudert Brothers today and this week: www.lawyersweekly.com.au