IN A STARTLING announcement, Middletons Lawyers has said it intends to become a “genuine alternative to the mega-firms”. While hinting it will make a string of acquisitions over the next few weeks, the firm has already begun boosting its Sydney office, following the recent defections from Acuiti Legal.
Middletons will take on the corporate and commercial and commercial litigation groups from Acuiti, taking its Sydney office from its current 10 partners to 24 partners and a total of 130 staff.
But the Acuiti acquisition is only the beginning, according to Middletons chief executive John Chisholm, and there are still “a couple of areas we want to boost up”.
“We’re in the market place,” Chisholm said, and the firm is hoping to make some more moves in the next couple of weeks. Unwilling to place his cards on the table at this point, Chisholm suggested all would soon be revealed.
The acquisition is consistent with Middletons’ aim of becoming corporate Australia’s pre-eminent “alternative to the mega-firms”, Chisholm said.
The move is the last of a string of defections from Acuiti Legal. The firm’s industrial relations and hospitality and gaming practice moved to Thompson Playford earlier this year. As well, the firm’s 15-strong property team will soon be delivered to Sparke Helmore.
In November, the largest of the three, now separated, segments of Acuiti — accounting for two thirds of the partnership — will officially head to Middletons.
Acuiti Legal partner Peter Limbers highlighted Middletons’ growth strategy as something attracting his practice to the mid-tier firm. In an interview with Lawyers Weekly, Limbers said the group was keen to get into the top of the second tier, rather than on the lower levels of the top tier, because of the obvious benefits for its clients. “Many of those clients want personalised attention, not the mega-firm experience,” he said.
“We like Middletons because they position themselves as an alternative to the mega-firms,” Limbers said. “In smaller firms you can amend the depth and strength and coverage you offer… Clients of ours that also use the mega-firms find the firms’ approach gets forced on you rather than adapting to you. The bigger you are, the harder it is to adapt to your clients.”
A past association with Acuiti Legal helped reassure Middletons’ partners that they were doing the right thing. The two firms’ history goes back to before 2001, when Middletons Moore & Bevins split down the middle, resulting in a Melbourne firm of the same name and the birth of Acuiti Legal. April 2002 saw Acuiti Legal CEO Danny Casey say goodbye to the firm, two years after he had been appointed to that position with Middletons Moore & Bevins.
Middletons’ Chisholm said that in 2001 the two different partnerships within the firm looked at doing a financial merger but this failed, and both agreed to de-federate and split, leaving one to change its name and the other to stay essentially the same.
Since then, as Chisholm explained it, the Sydney practice has been steadily building its presence. Over the last three years, from Acuiti’s perspective, the two have stayed in contact, always maintaining a good relationship.
But Middletons is “very different to what they were three years ago”, Limbers said, and it’s “pretty clear they’ve kicked a lot of goals” and have a new structure they are keen to maintain. Part of this involves maintaining strong growth, Limbers said, which is why they were keen to take on the Acuiti partners and staff.
This intention to grow was also raised by Chisholm, who said the Acuiti acquisition would likely be followed by further acquisitions over the next few weeks but was unwilling to go into more detail. This growth strategy, he said, is one that was set up a couple of years ago and is expected to succeed.