The global K&L Gates brand is new to Australia, having only commenced operations here in 2013. However, its managing partner Nick Nichola is an established legal ace, climbing his way up the legal ladder for a number of years. He talks to Brisbane Legal about the merger of Middletons and K&L Gates, the competitive Brisbane legal market, and the next growth areas for the market.
How long has K&L Gates been operating in Queensland?
The K&L Gates brand may be new having commenced in Australia on 1 January 2013, but the reality is that most major law firms are the product of mergers over an extended period and we are no exception. K&L Gates, through its predecessor firms, has actually been in the Queensland market since the early 1800s, but the immediate predecessor firm Middletons entered the market by merger in 2012.
How long have you been at K&L Gates?
I started out my professional life as a solicitor with a small suburban practice which merged with the Melbourne firm of Molomby and Molomby which in 1998 merged with Middletons and in 2013 with K&L Gates, so you might say I am a "lifer". I became a partner in 1988 and I have held the role of managing partner since 2005.
What’s one of the most memorable projects you have worked on?
I would have to say the merger with K&L Gates mainly because of the way it came about. Middletons has always valued the notion of stewardship. Each of us is part of the firm for a defined period, but it is our role to ensure the firm is left in a better state as a result of our time as partners. The logical extension of that value is to ensure the firm is positioned so that it remains relevant for the next 30 and 40 years and beyond. Relevant for its clients, relevant for its partners and relevant for its staff.
We analysed the changes we saw in the legal profession - the entry of international firms, the increasing competition for work, the trend of larger in-house legal teams - and developed a strategy to deal with what we saw as game-changing and irreversible changes. We determined that there would be firms at each end of the spectrum who would be successful – the global firms and the domestic niche players. In between, there would be a plethora of other very successful law firm models, too many to describe. The rest, in our view, would be caught in what we termed the "undifferentiated middle", characterised by intense competition, commoditised work and ever decreasing returns. We wanted to ensure that we did not become one of those firms. Our strategy, therefore, was to position ourselves to explore an international merger.
So we pursued that strategy and delivered what I believe was a stunning outcome for legacy Middletons and K&L Gates.
How would you describe the market for legal services in Brisbane and where would you place K&L Gates in that mix?
Like every market in Australia, the market for legal services in Brisbane is very competitive. There are many quality firms and a finite amount of work. The challenge is to differentiate your firm from others and I believe K&L Gates offers something quite unique for clients.
As a global law firm with 48 offices around the world, we have significant resources and experience on which we can draw for our clients' benefit. However, our single platform, quite unique among global law firms, means there are no artificial internal barriers (such as different IT systems, different profit centres or remuneration systems) that prevent or inhibit the sharing of resources and information for our clients' benefit.
Another quite unique aspect of the firm's approach is the basic tenet that each of those 48 offices must continue to be relevant in its local market. Brisbane clients receive market-relevant, commercial legal advice and service that is the equal of anywhere in our global platform, but they are not expected to pay New York rates.
So I think we offer the best of both worlds in the Brisbane legal services market - a local Brisbane firm that can assist the budding entrepreneur or local enterprise right through to global, cross-border or 'bet the farm' transactions.
Are there any emerging trends in the Brisbane legal market?
I see some very clear trends that give me the confidence to significantly grow our capability and expertise in our Brisbane office. For example:
- Queensland is about to enter a phase of large scale natural gas infrastructure development with over $50 billion in projects under construction and more investment in the pipeline.
- There are significant opportunities in the exploitation of Queensland's coal seam and liquefied natural gas industry.
- The top four foreign investment flows into Queensland are from the Asia region and the USA.
Therefore, I see tremendous opportunities in Queensland for our clients and I want us to be part of that because these are areas of law and regions where we have a significant presence and particular strengths to draw on to assist clients to take advantage of these opportunities.
Which legal areas in the Brisbane market are experiencing positive growth? Why?
I think it is well documented that the Newman government has highlighted four areas of economic investment, the so-called four pillars of tourism, agriculture, resources and construction. I have outlined previously some of the energy and resource opportunities, but any area of commercial law providing support to these sectors is likely to experience growth - areas of law such as employment and safety, M&A, construction and project finance.
Which legal areas are encountering the most challenges? Why?
I think the broader answer to that question is that clients value specialisation. The generalist lawyer who does, or tries to do, a bit of everything represents the firms and practitioners who are the most challenged in any market.
Clients expect their lawyer to have a detailed understanding of the law. That is just a given. What clients really value is the lawyer who has specialist knowledge of the industry or industries in which the client operates and who can advise on the commercial application of the law in that context. That is advice worth paying for.
Having said that, the more direct answer is that any area of law that is commoditised, for example low end property, wills and estates type work, are the areas that are the greatest challenged.
What challenges do you face in being a successful Brisbane law firm?
I have previously outlined the opportunities we see. Whether clients are able to take advantage of those opportunities to some extent depends on the economic environment and the attitude of the State government.
Mr Newman committed his government to less red tape and improved planning and project approval systems so business can get going with projects, without unnecessary interference and delays. That is obviously a very positive business environment in which these opportunities are likely to be realised, but if the State government fails to deliver on those sentiments, the opposite will be true.
I have committed us to growth on the back of the opportunities we see so it will present some very real challenges for me if the State government does not deliver on those promises.
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