Following rapidly the announcement of the firm’s merger with Kwok & Yih, Mallesons Stephen Jaques has named Robert Milliner, former managing partner, international, as its new head. Francis Wilkins asked him how he sees his new role
In light of Mallesons’ merger with Kwok & Yih, it comes as no surprise that the firm has appointed as its new chief executive partner Hong Kong-based Robert Milliner, a managing partner with significant international experience. The merger squarely positions Mallesons for the firm’s push into the Chinese market, and Milliner’s experience in the region will be invaluable.
But while China might be Mallesons’ new frontier, Milliner cautions that his appointment should be seen from a wider perspective. “Mallesons has two strategies,” he said. “First, to be the leading firm in Australia, and secondly, to develop our international credentials with a view to becoming the pre-eminent firm in the Asia Pacific. There’s no doubt that my experience [in Hong Kong] will assist in the development and implementation of the international strategy. But I wouldn’t like to say I’ve been appointed either only to do that, or that that would be my interest, totally devoid of what’s happening in the domestic market. So, I see it as two parts of the equation.”
Also, the firm’s focus on China is not a radical departure: “I don’t think it’s a ‘new phase’,” he said. “We’ve had this strategy for a few years. We’re in a different point of execution of the strategy and, like all businesses, we are to some extent affected by the business cycle and by what our clients are doing, and there’s no doubt that the business cycle at the moment has clients looking outside Australia for growth opportunities. The China market is a very attractive growth market on a global scale. All of that is very consistent with our own thinking when we developed the strategy a few years ago, so I don’t think this is a new era for Mallesons in the sense that we’re fundamentally trying to do anything different to what we’ve done before.
“What we would like to do in China — and in Asia — is replicate our position here, where we are positioned as a full-service firm for corporate financial institutions. We are trying to match that model in Asia, although it’s more focused on financial services, construction projects, dispute resolution and corporate M&A than perhaps some of the other areas of our practice like competition policy.”
According to Milliner, however, Mallesons is unlikely to try to replicate that position in Europe or the US, where local firms dominate the market. “It is hard for us to really justify the sort of investment that you would need to compete in Europe or the US, and at the end of the day we’re not really being driven by clients to do that,” he said.
“It’s a different story in Asia because our clients look at managing their operations in Asia from an Australian base, with their executives up in Asia, so they more naturally assume we can work with them there. And the fact that we have on the ground capability, we have language capability and we know what’s going on in the market further helps. We don’t have that in the UK or the US and our value proposition to clients here is that we have great lawyers who know the market and who can tell them the context in which they operate and how to do business here, consistent with the business decision not just the legal advice.
“It would be a whole different ballgame to go into the US and the UK. Without major changes in the market, certainly I wouldn’t see this as a step we were looking to take.”
Rumours a few years ago of a merger with a large UK firm also appear unlikely to resurface on Milliner’s watch. One advantage of the Kwok & Yih marriage, he said, was that both firms had a complementary vision of their goal in the Hong Kong/China market as well as complementary skills with which to achieve it. But parties to a potential merger need always to consider what, if anything, is in it for them. “I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said. “But initially it’s always driven by what clients want and so if clients are driven towards global law firms and a global service offering, that will be the type of thing that pushes firms together.”
Milliner added that Mallesons’ dual domestic and international strategies were closely linked, with performance in one market having an effect on the other: “A lot of what we do in the domestic market at the top end is cross-border-related work or with clients that are either in cross-border markets or are international corporations themselves,” he said. “The fact that we have international credentials, and we do work outside our own markets, reinforces our standing here and the quality of our lawyers, so they know our lawyers can compete in other markets with the top lawyers of the world.”
Milliner is clearly well suited to oversee Mallesons’ expansion into Asia, but at the same time he is not a radical appointment. Outgoing chief executive partner Tony D’Aloisio generally deferred to the judgement of the market when assessing matters of the firm’s policy. His ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach appears likely to figure strongly in Milliner’s tenure.