Briefcase: Moore’s Law and the reshuffled law firm deck

The shuffling deck of cards that is the New Zealand law business continues to fall this way and that. Suits are duly assembled before a wild card appears and – poof! – it all changes again.

Take Chris Moore’s departure from Meredith Connell, for instance. As if becoming president of the New Zealand Law Society in April was not enough, he also decides that he might just change firms, too.  And while I’m reliably told – well, John Greenwood’s as reliable as it gets given that it’s his firm Chris Moore’s moving to  – that the move was the result of a “casual conversation,” it does raise a few questions about the rapidly changing law firm landscape.

Law firms here have probably never been under such pressure.  Apart from the High Street lawyers facing reduced property activity, slashed legal aid fees, a virtual ban from much of the Family Court arena and general price gouging, Big Law is facing its own problems.

The rapid change is seen on any number of fronts: reduced partner numbers, decreased transactional work, more aggressive pricing demands, altered or ‘customised’ fee structures, greater use of inhouse legal teams, altered remuneration structures and – this is where Mr Moore comes in – something called “lateral hires” or “intra-firm partner moves,” a dance move that must be sending shivers up several firms’ spines.

And it’s not just Mr Moore, although he’s the latest high profile exponent of the intra-firm dance move.

Taking Greenwood Roche Chisnall’s case as the latest in point, there is also Stephen Woodfield moving from Meredith Connell to GRC and in Christchurch resource management lawyer Lauren Semple, a CERA board member and key resource management partner with Anderson Lloyd, who set up GRC’s Christchurch outpost before Christmas in the same way as Messrs Moore and Woodfield are doing in Auckland.

Eyes aside
The boardroom table for partners today has more sideways glances and nervous twitchings from managing partners as they eye partners who may or not be considering the move.  The shoulder-taps and hushed conversations in quiet bars that lead to the “intra-firm partner move” is a fact of law firm life.

In times of yore, a partner’s move to another firm was a matter of both low blows and high interest. It seldom occurred. A job with a firm, following the securing of hallowed partnership, was a job for life.  Certainly in recent years there has been the move toward quietly “releasing” older partners, who generally teamed-up with others and took new digs some place as well as some extra time at the Club. The odd one might have retired and odder ones might make a lifestyle choice, such as taking the b’hai faith like one I knew.

But to jump ship was largely unknown. No more. And it evidences a relatively fast-changing legal scene that is creating some powerful boutiques and small powerhouses like GRC. 

Firms suxh as Harmos Horton Lusk included former Russell McVeagh partners, who left well before their use-by date, while Hudson Gavin Martin also saw The Factory hit with departures, along with Bell Gully. And GRC itself sports former Chapman Tripp and Bell Gully partners and senior lawyers.

Chris Moore was a partner at Russell McVeagh before setting up Meredith Connell’s large property practice, although John Greenwood laughs and says further moves “are forbidden.”

What’s it all about, Alfie?
Partly the changes are about lifestyle and professional challenges. But at a deeper level they also reflect structural changes in the profession. There is increasing need for  specialisation, greater fee sensitivities from clients, a need or desire for direct principal involvement in projects and frequently a desire to take back control from a corporate firm. 

There is even a desire for that three letter word:  FUN.

The smaller firms may have coloured couches, wacky art and open plan spaces, but they also take some heavyweight, grey-toned clients. Chris Moore’s client list is impressive, including not only some very wealthy individuals but also some heavyweight infrastructure clients. 

Similarly, Stephen Woodfield has a strong client base and in Christchurch Lauren Semple, who handled the Dunedin and Christchurch stadium work, has arrived at her new office with a solid client list.

The upshot is some hurting and unsettled large firms, who need to further adjust to an increasingly tumultuous law firm scene. Anderson Lloyd will feel Ms Semple’s loss severely while Meredith Connell, who has displayed stellar growth in recent years, has already laid off several qualified lawyers before Christmas and is feeling the Crown Solicitor cutbacks.

Certainly the large firms are still doing well.  But they’re doing it by behaving – dare I say it? – more like a small firm: greater specialisation, smaller teams, altered structures.

When the dust settles, they’re all looking for a straight flush. The problem is, for some, it just may be the toilet.

John Bowie is publisher of Lawfuel.com

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1 Comment & Question

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The unsettled business environment, when it reaches the highest echelons of infrastructure sectors like the legal profession, suggests something sinister is lurking just below the surface of the NZ economy. Add this to the uncertainty that exists with Telecom (through forced restructuring) and Solid Energy (though not sticking to core business), one gets a sinking feeling that there is worse to come.

Last year I attended an economic forum which had a number of prominent economists (the usual suspects!) presenting ideas on the NZ economy. The majority agreed that even the Fontera business model in not sustainable in its current form. In the not too distant future the adverse financial and environmental costs will outweigh the benefits to NZ.

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