222 partners switched firms in FY21

Highlights from our 'FY21 war for talent in the Australian legal industry' report are visualised below

Our companion report is available for download at the bottom of this page

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued in Australia throughout FY21, law firms have adjusted to enacting work-from-home protocols at the drop of a hat. The COVID crisis has been a catalyst for wide-spread adoption of remote working tools at law firms, albeit not always without adoption and change management issues. Alpha Creates’ annual tracking of law firm partner movement in the Australian market reveals partner mobility has almost recovered to pre-COVID numbers. Two hundred and twenty-two partners switched firms in FY21.

A comparison of partner movement by month in FY21 against the previous 5-year average reveals partner movement in FY21 was still recovering from the pandemic low of FY20 and only outperformed the previous 5-year average four times during the financial year; in September 2020, March 2021, May 2021 and June 2021.

A deeper dive into this movement data by practice area reveals that firms have geared up for growth in employment and workplace relations as Corporate Australia turned to its lawyers for advice on work from home policies and COVID-safe compliance with state and federal government guidelines. In addition, property and real estate and mergers and acquisitions were also competitive hotspots for partner talent.

Australia went through a COVID-induced regional housing boom as city dwellers moved away from capital cities, creating a demand for property outside of the metropolitan regions. In addition, M&A activity in Australia has boomed over the pandemic with $83 billion worth of deals announced to date as companies revised their post-pandemic strategies, looking for inorganic ways to accelerate growth.

The firms that attracted new partners in FY21

Australian firms attracting the most lateral moves in FY21

Ashurst set the overall pace in FY21 with 17 partner-level hires, expanding its legal practice as well as its consulting (Ashurst Consulting) and managed legal service (Ashurst Advance) businesses. Thomson Geer recorded 14 partner laterals, followed by Mills Oakley with 12 partners in FY21.

The firms that partners left

Australian firms with the most lateral departures in FY21

Following its office closures in Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle, DWF saw the most partner defections, with 14 in FY21, followed by HWL Ebsworth with 13 partners, and Norton Rose Fulbright with 12 partners.

Female partner ranks in FY21 broke the 30% barrier for the first time, according to the annual Financial Review Law Firm Partnership Survey. Our annual partner movement analysis reveals 35% of the 222 partners that switched firms in FY21 were women. Of note, this is a slight decrease from 37% in FY19, which was the highest proportion of female partners recorded switching firms since Alpha Creates began tracking gender data in 2017.

FY21’s most active female partner recruiters were Ashurst (7 partners), Mills Oakley (4 partners) and Macpherson Kelley (4 partners).

Law firm diversification is an emerging trend that Alpha Creates’ annual analysis of law firm partner movement has highlighted. Ashurst expanded its risk advisory business by hiring risk specialists from Deloitte and PwC, Macpherson Kelley launched its corporate advisory arm, MCorp Advisory, through two hires, and MinterEllison’s strategic focus on multidisciplinary services saw the recruitment of an infrastructure consulting Executive Director.

This year’s research also revealed an emerging trend whereby some firms are beginning to build diversified practices. These firms poached partners in advisory services around business consulting (Sparke Helmore Consulting), defence and commercial advisory (McCullough Robertson), governance (Ashurst and MinterEllison), legal operations (Lander & Rogers), risk advisory (Ashurst and Norton Rose Fulbright) and technology consulting (MinterEllison).

Breaking down partner movements by strategic group reveals that globalisation continued to shape the Australian legal landscape in FY21, with 17 international law firms gaining 59 partners through the lateral market. Ashurst was the most active with 17 partner-level recruits through its legal practice, consulting, and managed legal service businesses, followed by Dentons (7 partners) and Squire Patton Boggs (6 partners).

 

FY21 also marked the entry of another international firm to the Australian market, as Watson Farley & Williams opened an office in Sydney.

 

The continued rise of NewLaw firms and alternative legal services companies continues in this year’s analysis. Keypoint Law continued to add law firm partners to its ranks, gaining seven consulting principals through the lateral market. Nexus Law Group, meanwhile, expanded its footprint in the Adelaide and Perth markets with lateral hires.

The trend towards team acquisitions continues to shape the war for talent in the Australian legal industry. Fifty partners switched firms as part of a team of lawyers, making this the highest number of partners to move across with their team since Alpha Creates began tracking this data in FY16.
Thomson Geer was the most active team recruiter, with 5 team acquisitions that brought in 12 partners plus their team of lawyers. Mills Oakley, Squire Patton Boggs and Wotton + Kearney each recorded two team acquisitions that brought in three partners. Notably, UK law firm Watson Farley & Williams is the latest international law firm to land in Australia, launching its Sydney office with a team of partners from Withers in March 2021. Kennedys also launched its Perth office by acquiring a team from Clyde & Co in May 2021.

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Notes on research parameters and interpretation of results

  1. The research tracks movement of partner-level talent where:
    • A partner/principal switched firms and remained a partner/principal with the destination firm.
    • A partner/principal switched firms but moved into a non-partner role with the destination firm (e.g. consultant, special counsel).
    • A senior lawyer switched firms and was elevated to partner/principal with the destination firm (e.g. special counsel to partner role).
    • A general counsel moved into private practice as a senior lawyer or partner/principal role with the destination firm.
    • A senior lawyer or partner/principal moved into an in-house role as general counsel of the destination organisation.
  2. The time period of the research is for FY21, from 1st July 2020 to 30th June 2021.
  3. The research also tracks:
    • Boutique breakaways (i.e. partner or senior lawyer sets up own practice).
    • Greenfield offices (e.g. when a firm opens a new office by acquiring partners).
    • Movement of teams (i.e. partner plus a team of lawyers).
    • Diversification of practice (e.g. when a firm diversifies its offering into parallel legal services).
  4. Law firm mergers are not analysed in this research.
  5. All movements of partners are sourced from legal news outlets such as The Australian Financial Review, Lawyers Weekly and Australasian Lawyers.

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