A BIDDING war has erupted between three unnamed national firms desperately chasing the services of up to 45 staff who recently resigned from Brisbane-based mid- tier firm Nicol Robinson Halletts (NRH).
Led by partners David Jenkins, Jonathan East, Jason Warat, and Lindsay Reed, between one-third and one-half of NRH’s current 110-strong staff will soon walk out.
A disagreement over strategic direction and management, festering unresolved for the past two years, was last week put forth as the reason behind the split.
Assuming the role of spokesperson for the group, Jenkins said he and his supporters wanted to be involved in a firm that was driven by results and client service.
“There might be a recognition that people have to work until 8pm at night or get in a bit earlier in the morning,” he said.
NRH managing partner Robert Gallagher countered: “I understand that they want a more hard-driving, success and profit driven organisation.
“They may not think we’re hard driving enough, that we’re too concerned with balance. That we’re too tolerant of people not always firing, who should be subject to more severe consequences to achieve the best outcome.”
With all staff still working under the same roof, an “us and them” air currently exists at NRH, despite best efforts from all concerned to keep things civil.
“There are obviously uncomfortable feelings at the moment, but we have a mutual duty to abide by the agreed process and resolve the terms of their departure,” Gallagher said.
A “line in the sand” has been drawn in respect of staff, but which clients will side with whose camp is yet to be finalised. Both parties said matters were still being transferred.
Word of the mass departure spread rapidly after the quartet signalled its intentions to the remaining nine partners on 18 August 2003. They have since received a flood of offers from other firms to transfer laterally after it was initially contemplated that the defection would spawn a new partnership altogether.
Taking into account the fact that rival firms had been “waving huge cheques” at them, Jenkins admitted that transferring to a competitor was still possible.
Currently on two weeks annual leave to investigate premises and real estate options, Jenkins did concede that a resolution may not be reached for a period of “weeks, or months even”.
But whatever way they decide to go, the end result is set to be felt in a big way by those left at NRH. East heads up the property group, which includes Warat, and according to Jenkins is primarily responsible for the firm’s “reputation and success”.
“These partners are the profit centre of the old firm,” said Jenkins, a commercial litigator who has acted for high profile clients such as Westpac, AGC and Elders.
He added that the two divisions were “miles apart” in terms of vision, with the defecting faction demanding a shift from what it views as less lucrative areas, such as personal injury and family law.
If overtures from others are rejected and a new firm is formed, Jenkins said it would concentrate on the commercial strengths of its founders.
“There are a lot of very successfully managed and profitably managed firms. NRH could have been more successful if it had been driven in a style and direction consistent with maximising profit.”
Despite the impending blow to NRH’s ranks, Gallagher was confident his firm would recover. He countered market interest shown in the departing quartet, by claiming to have received similar advances from other lawyers keen to step into the breach.
“With the particular personalities of the guys who are going … in their absence, it will be more attractive to a different style of people,” he said. “Part of a previous reluctance has been those personalities.”
When asked to conclude their thoughts on the current scenario, each was restrained.
Gallagher: “There’s no panic, no long-term problems. Both sides should be able to do what they want to do and get on with prosperous but separate futures.”
Jenkins: “We’ve reached an agreement up front that it will be business as usual. We wish them all the best, NRH have been very good to us.”
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