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Dig in London, it's Australasia time

Dig in London, it's Australasia time

We're all by now well acquainted with the fact that Allen & Overy will soon be just another firm in the Australian legal vernacular, but is London prepared to take Australia seriously?…

We're all by now well acquainted with the fact that Allen & Overy will soon be just another firm in the Australian legal vernacular, but is London prepared to take Australia seriously? Angela Priestley writes

David Fagan must surely be looking forward to the weekend.

The chief executive partner of Clayton Utz will no doubt still be working to drive the recovery mode following this week's 14-partner departure from his firm, but at least the weekend will provide some release from the international media that's been following the story.

Clayton Utz got one back on Allen & Overy by beating the Magic Circle firm to the post in revealing the Allen & Overy plans to launch in Australia before it could saturate the market with its own message. But such satisfaction must have been shortlived as the Clayton Utz leadership team sat down to assess the damage: the lawyers and associates that are expected to follow - not to mention the clients - and just how Clayton Utz could work to retain them.

By Monday evening, Allen & Overy had well and truly landed in Australia. And while the firm is not here to form the 7th member of the top-tier, it is after big bucks and the high-end banking work.

Short of the damage at Clayton Utz, Allen & Overy's arrival might not be the absolute shock shake-up of the sector that its launch first intimated in its immediate media coverage, but it did provide a symbolic reminder of the tectonic shifts occurring in global legal services.

For a long time the big boys of global law have steered well and truly clear of this Great Southern Land. They opened in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Dubai but never quite made it further South to hedge their bets on a sparsely populated continent.

We have the resources-laden coast in the West, a metropolitan hub in the East but, unfortunately, not all that much in between. Australia might be wide enough, but it was simply deemed not profitable enough to bother with.

Clifford Chance considered its options in a widely reported bid to merge with Mallesons Stephen Jaques in 2008. The Global Financial Crisis and its damage to the London legal services market changed all that, but seemingly Australia's comparably relative resistance to the crisis has spawned a clarion call for Magic and Silver Circle firms to reconsider their options.

Still, not all Londoners are convinced that Allen & Overy's "Down Under" plunge is such a good idea. Even with Asia at our side, for some the client potential here is just not expensive nor large enough to justify the move.

Not only that, the tyranny of distance is inescapable. One source from a Silver Circle firm in London went so far as to tell Lawyers Weekly that Australia "from here, is the end of the world. Good luck to them (Allen & Overy)."

A quick glance at the comments from UK legal publication The Lawyer suggests that Australia might still be suffering from a perceived baby brother status. In short, one analysis piece spoke of nothing less than backpackers, dingoes and didgeridoos

The numerous clichés were enough to make any self-respecting Australian cringe.

But let's not forget the Norton Rose move into the depths of the Southern Hemisphere via its merger with Deacons which, from the outset, has been deemed as successful. Don Boyd, Australian chairman of Norton Rose, proudly suggested to Lawyers Weekly this week that the Allen & Overy strategy was "entirely consistent with mine".

Blake Dawson managing partner John Carrington meanwhile labelled it a "fascinating" development, and one that reflects confidence in the Australian economy.

Norton Rose and Allen & Overy are the first two UK firms to follow US firms that have already made the move - including Jones Day and Baker & McKenzie. The question is not just how these firms will fare locally, but who will be next to don their akubra hat, carry out their "didgerie-due diligence" as The Lawyer this week labelled it, and dig in for the Asia-Pacific Century.

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