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Western Front: Squire Sanders chief on the firm's Australian strike

Western Front: Squire Sanders chief on the firm's Australian strike

The latest global law firm to hit our shores has bypassed the east coast to open a solitary office in Perth. Justin Whealing speaks to Squire Sanders' global CEO, Jim Maiwurm, and local head…

The latest global law firm to hit our shores has bypassed the east coast to open a solitary office in Perth. Justin Whealing speaks to Squire Sanders' global CEO, Jim Maiwurm, and local head John Poulsen to find out why they are so enamoured by the west.

TWO OF A KIND: Squire Sanders global chief executive Jim Maiwurn, left, and the firm's Australian managing partner designate, John Poulsen, in Perth last week
No global law firm has entered the Australian market quite like this.

Last week (17 August), the global partnership of Squires Sanders formally voted to approve the establishment of an Australian office in October.

While the entry of Squire Sanders continues the trend of global law firms coming to Australia, its decision to do so by opening a single office in Perth is unique.

The firm's global CEO, Jim Maiwurm, was in Perth to coincide with the announcement of the global partner vote.

He bristled at the suggestion that by failing to have an office on the east coast, as all of the major global firms do, Squire Sanders would be at a disadvantage in landing a role on high-end M&A and banking and finance transactions in Australia.

"Western Australia was particularly intriguing for us," said Maiwurm. "Due to the significant amounts of trade that exists between WA and the rest of the Asia Pacific region, we thought an office in Perth would sit very nicely with our position in Japan and China.

"That is basically how we got here."

Maiwurm was at pains to make the point that he did not want the Squire Sanders office in Perth to only target a narrow area of the market, and that his firm would compete across all areas of commercial law.

"In the last few days, I have had approaches and discussions with people in other firms who are hoping to have further discussions"

John Poulsen, Squire Sanders Australia managing partner designate

He said Squire Sanders would diversify itself from global rivals, such as Allen & Overy and Clifford Chance, by not targeting "niche" areas in Australia, with the two English Magic Circle firms having deliberately targeted high-end M&A and banking and finance work when opening offices in Sydney and Perth within the last 18 months.

"We are not niche players when we go into places around the world," said Maiwurm. "The Western Australian client base was attractive to us, and the fact that the folks here had a strong, diversified, full-service practice was particularly attractive to us."

Maiwurm added that the increasing economic clout of the Asia Pacific region was the catalyst for the firm to open an office in Australia, especially after it had expanded and consolidated its position in Europe.

"When I assumed the role of global CEO in the fall of 2009, the highest priority was to fill in the gaps with our European platform," he said. "In January this year, we merged with Hammonds, and that gave us a very nice position in the UK, and gave us positions in Paris, Spain, Berlin and double the headcount in Brussels.

"At the beginning of this year, we took a step back and thought, 'What opportunities should we be pursuing and where are we underweight relative to that opportunity?'"

"It was not too hard to figure out that the Asia Pacific region was a place we should be focusing on."

Choosing a suitor

In a similar vein to Allen & Overy, which raided the partnership ranks of Clayton Utz to enter Australia, Squire Sanders looked to take a large group of partners from an established firm, and secured 14 of the 19 Minter Ellison partners practicing in Perth, with at least an additional 65 lawyers on top of that.

While the Perth arm of Minters traded under the firm's name, it was not a fully integrated part of the firm.

Maiwurm said that while he had "conversations" with other firms about a possible merger, it was the size of the Minters partnership that was particularly attractive to him.

"We would not have been interested in opening with six partners in Perth," said Maiwurm. "We wanted to have a position that was real, where we were a vital part of the community, and [Minters Perth practice] made sense for our colleagues and our client base."

The current managing partner of Minters in Perth, John Poulsen, will assume the mantle of the Squire Sanders Australia managing partner in October.

"We would not have been interested in opening with six partners in Perth"

Jim Maiwurm, Squire Sanders global chief executive

He said that even though he and the other defecting partners had formal discussions with Minters chief executive John Weber about formal integration with the Minters network, the changing nature of the Australian legal market meant the prospect of joining a global form became an enticing one.

"During the course of those discussions with Minters, the legal world was changing," said Poulsen. "DLA Piper, Norton Rose, Clifford Chance and Allen & Overy had all entered the local market, and it really made us stop and think about not just the current generation at the firm, but also the future generation.

"That made us think global, not national."

After Squire Sanders merged with Hammonds, its total number of fee earners rose to be more than 1300 lawyers, putting it inside the top 25 global law firms by headcount. The firm currently has 36 global offices, which includes digs in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

The extent of Squire Sanders' global coverage has meant that lawyers in Perth from outside Minters have not been backward in coming forward and making enquiries as to whether the firm will continue to expand after its opening date.

"In the last few days, I have had approaches and discussions with people in other firms who are hoping to have further discussions," said Poulsen.

Related articles:

>> August 3: US firm raids Minter Ellison to open in Australia

>> August 10: Minters partner snubs Squire Sanders

>> August 19: Global entrant sounds warning to locals

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Western Front: Squire Sanders chief on the firm's Australian strike
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