Phillips Fox seems to have turned the corner early following its Annus Horribilis. In 2003, the firm lost nine staff, including three partners from its Adelaide office, to Minter Ellison; had many key staff from its specialist Melbourne-based health team leave the firm; and finally sacked a further 30 staff Australia-wide in response to a downturn in growth forecasts.
This year seems to herald a positive new era for the national firm. It has plans to expand its health sector and the firm’sAdelaide office leader and partner Joe DeRuvo strongly dismissed rumours that the office is shutting down. In fact, he has appointed two new partners and a senior associate to the firm’s City of Churches office.
“We have a growth strategy. We want to work on that strategy and continue to do so,” he assured Lawyers Weekly.
Last year saw difficult times for the national business, including the departure of a Melbourne-based, six-member health team, Health Legal. Despite a loan from the Victorian Hospitals’ Industrial Association (VHIA), a large part of Phillips Fox’s practice was unable to start up the new venture.
Leading the group’s exit was head partner Natalie Franks. Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, Franks said that the sector had indicated it would not be able to support private practice fees in the long term.
“The trend for large firms is that charge out rates are on the increase. The health sector is saying it can’t afford it,” she said.
In the wake of losing the team, Phillips Fox corporate and financial services managing director Malcolm Shelton-Agar reacted by asserting that the firm is still strong and is, in fact, planning re-growth in that sector.
“Phillips Fox is looking at expanding our team further over the next few months by employing new health consultants,” he said. The partners were unavailable to comment on whether such expansion had already happened this year.
A review of the whole firm late in the year saw the retrenchment of 30 staff. The sackings were said to be in line with the fact that some areas were “growing nicely” while others were expected to see more modest growth, said Phillips Fox chief executive Tony Crawford.
Although the firm had forecast eight per cent growth, this was down two to three per cent on recent performances.
Managing partner of Minter Ellison’s Adelaide office, Nigel McBride, also acknowledged Phillips Fox’s apparent rough patch last year, particularly considering his own firm’s appointment of some former Phillips Fox staff. “They have gone through a difficult time nationally. We took a number of people from their firm,” he said.
On the other hand, McBride predicted a turnaround this year for the firm. “They are trying to rebuild at the moment. Putting all this effort into rebuilding would certainly not go along with the rumour of their Adelaide office closing,” he said.