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The making of the Deacons-Norton Rose merger

The making of the Deacons-Norton Rose merger

Where others have failed in uniting Australian firms with a large English counterpart, Don Boyd has succeeding in announcing the merger of Deacons into Norton Rose. He speaks to Angela…

Where others have failed in uniting Australian firms with a large English counterpart, Don Boyd has succeeding in announcing the merger of Deacons into Norton Rose. He speaks to Angela Priestley.

Don Boyd likes to joke about the fact that he never really went to school. Home-schooled in outback Queensland with his two brothers, for most of his schooling career Boyd collected schoolwork from the mail, worked with his teacher/mother for three days a week and spent the rest of his time exploring the countryside.

Clearly, the strategy worked. Boyd, the chief executive partner of Deacons, with the help of counterpart Peter Martyr, the chief executive officer of Norton Rose, has changed the landscape of the Australian legal sector through the announcement of the merger between the two firms. It's the first announced merger between a major Australian and UK-based firm - and unlikely to be the last - in a strategy that Boyd says was all about surviving and all about Asia.

In the two years up to 2007, the volume of cross-border legal services work that Australian law firms had undertaken rose by 24 per cent to $675 million according to Attorney-General Robert McClelland. It's a notion that Boyd foresaw years ago when he developed his Deacons Direction 2010 strategic plan.

If an Australian law firm is to remain competitive in the future in cross-border markets, says Boyd, then partnerships will be essential. "If you believe, like I believe, that there is going to be a limited number of truly international law firms in the future, then you have to hook your weight into one of those [global firms]," he says.

For Boyd, a merger with a long-established law firm with a strong presence in Asia was always the answer, and three years ago he set out to determine which firm would ultimately fit the bill to merge with Deacons. While Deacons already had a joint venture with Deacons Hong Kong - which will now cease under the Norton Rose merger - Boyd was after something more. "It was a good model, but a good model that worked 20 years ago."

Boyd undertook a detailed analysis of the possible law firms that could work, took advice from consultants, interviewed, and set comprehensive parameters for what Deacons would require from any firm they might hope to merge with.

The timing, to an outsider, could appear unusual and Boyd says he is constantly asked why anyone would make such a move when the world had fallen into its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He responds simply that the idea was in progress long before the global financial crisis ever intervened. "I've been through lots of recessions - they all come to an end. Even the Great Depression came to an end eventually," he says. "It should not stop, nor affect, the overall integrity of the strategic viewpoint."

That viewpoint was very much a long-term vision, says Boyd, and to let the global financial situation interfere would have been irresponsible to the partners he was ultimately answering to.

Still, other Australian firms have failed in their quest to amalgamate with a global law firm, so what was so different about Boyd's mission? When Deacons started talks with Norton Rose, Boyd was asked by Martyr what "rocks" would be thrown in the way that would be difficult to drive around. "Clearly, there were a lot of things that can get in the way, like major conflicts that ultimately mean partners won't vote for it, cultural issues, remuneration issues, profitability, leadership aspirations, all those sorts of things," he says. "Right at the beginning, we said 'Let's not kid ourselves, what are the big elephants in the room? Let's put them on the table'."

Boyd adds that Deacons needed to have detailed information on hand for any questions that might arise regarding the firm and a commitment to the cause internally that would mean any obstacles would be overcome. "We also weren't hung up on structure and constitutions," he says. "What we basically said was 'If there is a business case for this, we will make all these things work, but there has to be a business case'. So it was important for us to map what we thought were investment flows and client flow - I think we got that right."

While staff members at Deacons and Norton Rose have a lot of work to do before the official merge date of 1 January 1 2010, soon enough the name Deacons will disappear forever from the Australian legal services sector. But Boyd, who has worked so hard to make that a reality in his search to go global, is not saddened by the prospect. "I think I've long learnt that nostalgia and business don't really make sense," he says.

"My view is that I should be doing the greatest good for this organisation for the longevity of what is called Deacons now, and for the people who are going to continue. I see myself as the custodian of the brand. I'm the guy who must make sure it continues on. It doesn't matter if it's called Cannan & Peterson or Deacons - it's all the same entity."

After all, he has done this many times before. If there is one man who can successfully merge two firms and happily let go of names, it's Boyd. He's seen numerous amalgamations of the firms that evolved to eventually form the national partnership of Deacons in 2000. In fact, long before he commenced his home schooling, his grandfather, great uncle and father worked in the law firm Cannan & Peterson. Boyd later became partner of the same firm in 1974, and happily admits to being the man who put an end to the family's ties to the firm's name by merging the firm into what's now known as Deacons today.

The Brisbane-based Cannan & Peterson may have lost its name, but thanks to the global ambitions of a young boy who never really spent much time at school, its reincarnations may soon dominate the world.

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The making of the Deacons-Norton Rose merger
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