In the third instalment of a Lawyers Weekly investigation into the fluctuating staff numbers at Nicol Robinson Halletts (NRH), it has now been confirmed that four partners and about 20 other staff will leave the firm this March. It can be revealed that Brisbane firm Home Wilkinson Lowry (HWL) has won the bidding war for their services, apparently without entering a bid at all.
First acknowledging the resignations which, it was claimed, resulted in rival firms “waving huge cheques” at the partners, Lawyers Weekly reported the differences in opinion between NRH and the exiting partners. At this point it was suggested that solicitors and support staff would follow their lead. However, court documents later revealed that “no-one else has actually resigned, notwithstanding claims that up to 40 other staff had resigned”.
A second investigation into the matter exposed the fact that one of the resigning partners from the prominent Brisbane mid-tier firm had been involved in a series of controversial incidents, one of which involved him getting drunk and skipping a conference. Lawyers Weekly explained that the partner had also disobeyed specific directions regarding training and supervising staff and had breached various firm policies.
The report revealed that three of the partners were leaving because they unsuccessfully attempted to get a larger slice of NRH’s profits. Although it was initially suggested that they had demanded a shift from personal injury and family law, court documents confirmed that “the three departing partners wanted more of the profits”.
In the most recent developments to the story, Brisbane firm HWL has trumpeted its acquisition of five new partners from NRH. In order to fill its new offices in Brisbane on 12 March, the firm will be joined by partners Jason Warat, David Jenkins, Jonathan East, Lindsay Reed and Stephen Henderson from NRH. After reports which suggested that rival firms had been “waving huge cheques” at the partners, HWL managing partner Juan Martinez put a stop to suggestions that the firm had been part of this or any bidding war.
“We put our feelers out in a fairly quiet, confidential way with a consultant in Brisbane. We said that we were interested in any opportunities that might arise,” Martinez said. “We don’t get involved in bidding.”
Reasons for the firm’s expansion in Brisbane were also highlighted by Martinez. “Having completed the finish of the Sydney office, we put the feelers out in Brisbane and waited for an opportunity to come about.”
“We wanted to develop along the eastern seaboard. Since we started operating in July 2003 in Sydney, we have been looking in Brisbane for a compatible partner or composition of partners and a practice that we could establish in Brisbane,” he added.
Claiming that they also anticipate the employment of additional solicitors and support staff from NRH, the firm said that the additions would “complement the new office of HWL”. Pressed as to how this wave of follow-through departees from NRH came about, Martinez explained that, with the cooperation of the new partners, he undertook a presentation to all the NRH staff who were interested in joining the firm. “This was a formal presentation where I outlined the firm’s vision and future direction. It was very successful and all the people who had indicated an interest showed their desire to move across.”
Martinez predicted that a total of “five partners, approximately 20 solicitors and legal executives and another 15 to 20 support staff” would be joining the firm from NRH. Indicating that this fits the last pieces neatly into the puzzle that was the firm’s expansion, Martinez said that “our vision in terms of the eastern seaboard will be complete”.
For NRH managing partner Robert Gallagher, the departing solicitors and support staff was a direct consequence of the partners’ resignations. “A lot of [the resigning staff] may have felt that since they received their work from those partners who are leaving, they may feel obliged to go, and may not have much choice,” Gallagher said.
The departing partners will serve out their six months’ notice under the Deed of Partnership in full, Gallagher explained, “which is hardly ideal for anyone”.
Stressing that the diminished size in this instance was a positive change for the firm, Gallagher confirmed to Lawyers Weekly that the train of events began when the firm was expelling one of the partners. He said most of the issues were cultural and regarded strategic direction, and that they were now able to “put to rest the expulsion procedures”.
Commenting on the mood in the office, considering the fact that all of the staff who are leaving are part of the team until March, Gallagher said that “the rest of us are feeling pretty good about their departure. The great majority of partners have voted to stay”. He added that considering it has been a six month process, the issue has been a challenging one for the firm, and “this has been tough”. But most people have been able to stay focused on the firm, said Gallagher, and “people do like the place”.
“We know that the staff we have staying on are loyal and, with the nine partners who will make up the new [NRH], are committed to our values and culture,” he said.
Economically, Gallagher admits a set-back in view of the premises, which will be too large for the reduced size of the firm. But he added that despite this, in terms of value and culture, “we have a cohesive and happy firm that are staying on”. He likened the loss to a good pruning in a garden, joking that “a cut may look different initially, but when it grows back, it’s the shape and style you want”.