GETTING a piece of Commonwealth Government legal work is hard enough for those without long-standing ties in the industry.
And last week, Phillips Fox heightened the barriers to entry a touch more by poaching itself three new lawyers. Joining the national firm’s rapidly expanding ACT ranks was Minter Ellison trio Lex Holcombe, Sarah Hawke and Natalie Butler, the former coming on board as a partner.
The triple defection continues a purple patch of capital lateral hires for Phillips Fox, which since the start of last year has snatched the likes of Dennis Pearce, Robyn Creyke, Gary Rumble, Pat Brazil and Alan Rose from both competitors as well as from within government departments.
Managing director of the firm’s government unit, Malcolm Shelton-Agar, said little “organic growth” was responsible for a 60 per cent increase in its Canberra staff numbers over the past three years.
“When we became a federation in 1999, there were only two partners in our Canberra office, neither of whom are with us any more. We now have 10,” he said.
Part of the reason for such growth is that Phillips Fox made a vow to commit itself to Commonwealth work shortly after the Australian Government began receiving advice externally in 1995.
Almost a decade on, Shelton-Agar believes the market has matured enough to discern a split. Consequently, in such a cloistered industry where there is only one client, the rich keep getting richer.
“Many departments are much more comfortable with using law firms and the barriers of entry are getting higher,” he said. “Success breeds success.”
Newly appointed Holcombe agrees there is only “a core of firms” that today have developed the right teams and culture to be competitive. He was courted by several, including Minters, but chose Phillips Fox after three months fact finding.
“Moving firms is not something I took lightly. There’s only a handful of good private operators in this area,” he explained.
But while Phillips Fox and other firms enjoying the lion’s share of Commonwealth Government work sit pretty at the moment, there are no assurances. Especially with the Attorney-General’s department currently finalising a review of external legal spend. “We’re not worried about [the review],” Shelton-Agar said.
“It’s the government’s right to ensure that they spend tax payers money efficiently and we’re sure they are not going to stop using external law firms. We’re confident we can compete.”