IN A CASE of truth being stranger than fiction, two Melbourne-based mid-tier firms have completed a bizarre series of personnel changes, which have seen six people change employer, yet the net staffing levels at both firms remain the same.
News of the changes first reached Lawyers Weekly when Melbourne-based mid-tier firm Abbott Stillman & Wilson (ASW) revealed it had picked up where it left off in 2003, announcing yet another successful raid on one of its rival firm’s partner stores, this time persuading former Cornwall Stodart partner Rima Newman to join its ranks.
Topping Lawyers Weekly’s poaching tables for 2003 with a net gain of 11 lawyers, ASW has now added a further two names to its list, with senior associate Tracey O’Neill, currently on maternity leave, also making the move from Cornwall Stodart with her boss.
Cornwalls, however, has got some of its own back, poaching ASW associate Paul Cooley, whom it has promoted to senior associate, to head up its remaining workplace relations practice. Cooley has been joined by another of his former colleagues at ASW, Louise Houlihan. It is understood that the two were hired happened independently of each other. Neither party was willing to reveal who had made the first move;
in this retaliatory hire however, it would appear that opportunities for tackling more significant work in the immediate future were more likely at Cornwalls than ASW. With no partner being appointed to fill the void left by Newman, this may have been a determining factor for Cooley. Managing partner John Hutchings will oversee Cooley’s work, much the same as he did Newman’s prior to her being made partner.
However, the staff swapping did not stop there. ASW’s legal secretary, Melanie Tschiersch, moved across with Cooley to fill the vacancy left by her Cornwall’s counterpart, Kerry Grieg, who moved to ASW with Newman.
“I’ll be honest, we were very disappointed with [Newman’s] resignation. We’ve put a lot of time and effort into developing her and her practice. However, people move on and we wish her all the best,” said Cornwall Stodart chief executive officer Michelle McLean.
“The ironic thing about this was that [Newman’s] reason for leaving us was that there was no team in place here. With [O’Neill] going on maternity leave, she didn’t want to have to start again and recruit and rebuild, and she was going to join [ASW] because they had two lawyers already in existence and she would go over there as the [industrial relations] expert partner and have life pretty easy,” she said.
Newman herself confirmed that the extra resources, which have since ended up at her old employer, was a factor in her transfer. “The attraction [of moving to ASW] was getting into a larger firm with more services as well as joining a larger workplace relations team,” she said.
“If you read it in a John Grisham novel, you’d think: how ridiculous, that doesn’t happen,” said McLean.
Already in the midst of recruiting replacements for the counter-defectors, Newman will work with incumbent ASW partner Tim Greenall and hopes to have an arsenal of “six to seven” fee earners in the practice.
Refusing to be drawn on specifics, Newman confirmed that some of her clients had already travelled with her to ASW, and she was in talks with several others.
McLean, however, was confident that Cornwalls’ workplace relations practice was safe.
“Given that Rima started with us a senior associate, we developed her practice from our existing client base. Most of the clients that we were providing advice to [in Newman’s practice] were long standing clients of the firm that had significant relationships with older partners. As such, I am quietly confident that all of that work will stay here.
“I’m not suggesting that [Newman] hasn’t developed her own clients, she has, and I imagine that they will follow her. But, I can sit here and confidently predict that 90 per cent of the fees that we have generated in that workplace relations area will remain with the firm. We’ve been working quite aggressively to that end, in introducing [Cooley] and [Houlihan] to the key clients.”
ASW’s departing staff are contractually obliged to not transport there clients with them.
A workplace relations specialist, Newman was first admitted as a solicitor in 1992, working initially with boutique firm, Morris Coates and Herle, focusing on insurance litigation. In 1995 she decided to join the Victorian Bar “to improve her advocacy and drafting skills”.
Knowing that life at the Bar, “while fantastic”, was not what she wanted in the long term, Newman re-entered corporate law taking a position with Hunt & Hunt in 1997. “I missed the support services that you get in a private firm that you don’t get when you’re at the Bar, particularly more so when you’re a junior,” she observed.
From Hunt & Hunt, she moved to Cornwall Stoddard in 1999 and was made partner in 2001. Newman says she was persuaded to take on a role at ASW by its CEO Chris Arnold, who pursued her over a two-year period. “He’s persistent, let me tell you,” she said.
Newman is a committee member of the workplace relations section of the Law Institute of Victoria and is the chair of the Institute’s discrimination, equal employment opportunity section.
Including an unsuccessful foray into the Sydney market, Cornwalls has seen a gradual decline in its staffing numbers since early 2003. It’s current full-time staff numbers is 80, including eight partners following Newman’s departure.
“As all firms who go through a merger do, we went through some digestive problems and have been culling people since 2001. I think we’ve got the core group of individuals that we want at the firm now,” said McLean, who also indicated that the firm was in the middle of some major strategic alterations and had engaged the services of an external consultant but was unwilling to be drawn any further on the firm’s future directions.