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Last man standing

Last man standing

Clayton Utz has always resisted the trend of top-tiers pushing permanently into Asia, but the firm has finally decided to open its doors abroad. Claire Chaffey discovers why.In the battle of the…

Clayton Utz has always resisted the trend of top-tiers pushing permanently into Asia, but the firm has finally decided to open its doors abroad. Claire Chaffey discovers why.

In the battle of the big boys, Clayton Utz has always taken a different approach when it comes to conducting business overseas.

The firm has openly and purposefully resisted falling into step next to their competitors setting up shop in Asia and beyond, and has always insisted on doing international business as a visitor, as opposed to a resident.

As such, the recent announcement that Clayton Utz is setting up an office in Hong Kong came as a surprise to many.

The legal world had, after all, become accustomed to the firm's stoic resistance to international expansion in the face of creeping globalisation and a measured push into the Asian market.

So the question begs: why now?

Discarding tradition

According to Clayton Utz's national litigation managing partner Stuart Clark, the move into Hong Kong is a result of nothing more than a decision to take the "logical next step" in the firm's progression.

In other words, he says the firm's break with tradition was prompted by the realisation that their long-held strategy was no longer sufficient.

"We have traditionally adopted a different course to some of our competitors, and that was not to open overseas offices, but [instead] to pursue work where we thought we had a real market advantage - where we could really offer something special, where we had market-leading expertise, profile and experience - and then do it on a fly-in, fly-out basis," says Clark.

"It was becoming clear that our level of activity in the region was increasing in a couple of areas . It was getting to the stage where the amount of work we were doing and the opportunities that were presenting themselves just made it ... logical to start basing people permanently in the region."

So it seems that market demands and competition have finally persuaded Clayton Utz that having a permanent presence in Asia is a necessity, and the firm has commenced operating - though not under their own branding - but in association with local Hong Kong firm Haley & Co, as is required by Hong Kong law. The firm has placed a firm foot in Hong Kong, says Clark, and will cement its name when it commences operating under the official Clayton Utz brand in approximately three years' time.

Survival of the globalist

Industry observers could be forgiven for speculating that Clayton Utz's change of mind is very timely, given the recent arrival in Australia of Magic Circle giant Allen & Overy, which happened to pluck 14 partners from the Clayton Utz fold.

Clark certainly acknowledges that the legal landscape is looking quite different to how it did a year ago, but he is reluctant to be drawn into the school of thought that Allen & Overy's presence has the potential to be a particularly altering factor.

"That remains to be seen - and it will be interesting to see what happens - [but] there is no doubt that legal practice everywhere is changing," he says.

"Some of the changes have been brought about by the forces of globalisation and the legal profession is not immune to that. Some of the more significant changes, I think, are going to be brought about as a result of the global financial crisis."

Despite cause for speculation, Clark is adamant that plans to open the Hong Kong branch far preceded Allen & Overy's arrival, and points out that establishing a foreign office does not happen overnight.

Getting with the times

While notions prevail that survival amongst the top-tier law firms will soon hinge on a permanent presence in Asia, Clark says that Clayton Utz was merely motivated to open their office in Hong Kong by the opportunity to operate more efficiently and effectively within a region in which they already have a strong - though transient - presence.

"I think all Australian firms are looking to pursue opportunities both inside and outside Australia [but] I don't think it is a question of staying relevant," he says.

Clark also muses that opening their first foreign office was certainly not a decision taken lightly, or on a whim, by the firm.

"There is no point in doing something like this unless you have something really special to offer. There is an abundance of very high quality firms operating all through the region and if you are to really make a success of it, you have to go there with something special so you can compete."

For Clayton Utz, this "something special" rests on their ever-growing international arbitration practice, as well as their construction, major projects and dispute resolution practices.

"You have to have expertise, experience and ideally profile," says Clark.

"There is no point in just plucking some partners out of an Australian office, who may be very fine lawyers in their own right, and dropping them into Tokyo or Singapore or anywhere else and expecting them to effectively compete. You have to take people ... who have [these things] already."

Clark is confident that Clayton Utz has the goods - and the reputation - to successfully and permanently broaden the practice into Hong Kong and is excited about the opportunities which will arise as a result - including opportunities for staff.

"It is a great opportunity for Clayton Utz lawyers. We already have a very healthy amount of secondments into the region and other parts of the world," he says.

"Now we [can] give people the chance to work in Hong Kong in what is effectively a Clayton Utz office. That is very exciting, and we are seeing a lot of interest."

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