Number 19 Gouger Street, a boxy medium density office block along one of Adelaide’s popular restaurant strips, is not the kind of place a passer-by would usually notice – and that’s its tragedy.
The building is modern, but from the outside, unremarkable. Its tinted glass façade, punctuated by occasional touches of white, blends with countless other buildings across the city that are just like it. On the seventh level, one could almost imagine by accident, is Thomson Geer.
The firm, created this year through a merger between Thomson Lawyers and Herbert Geer, is not usually found in such modest settings. By contrast, its Melbourne offices are in one of that city’s tallest skyscrapers. The Sydney office is equally extravagant. In Brisbane, the firm tops a majestic amber trimmed tower beside the Brisbane River.
Despite the Adelaide office’s more humble location, in some ways it represents the firm’s beating heart. It is Thomson Geer’s oldest office and is also where chief executive partner Adrian Tembel first cut his teeth as a corporate lawyer, joining an earlier incarnation of Thomson Lawyers in 1992.
“When I first started in practice, Adelaide was less relevant to the country than it is today,” Tembel says. “I came to the firm as a graduate and developed my skills in a highly competitive and difficult market for legal services. That sort of hungry and industrious nature was bred in.”
True to its leader’s words, that unflagging nature, exemplified at 19 Gouger Street, is perhaps a closer reflection of the firm than its more glitzy offices elsewhere. Thomson Geer has become known as a firm that, without pomp and ceremony, has committed itself to building client relationships, putting its head down and getting results.
Following Thomson Geer’s creation from the Thomson Lawyers and Herbert Geer merger, the firm now has 80 partners and more than 250 lawyers under its wing. This has put it within the top 10 biggest independent law firms in Australia, but the impression Tembel gives is that the firm is making minimal fuss of the significance of the move.
“From my point of view, my mind is firmly on the future,” he says. “The merger has given us bigger scale and with bigger scale there is more capital freed up to invest. Our ability to move on opportunities has never been greater.”
Despite Tembel’s unwavering eye toward the next opportunity, the merger signalled an anniversary of sorts for him, marking almost five years to the day that he first took up management of then Thomson Lawyers. Charged with re-engineering the firm, the merger is perhaps a culmination of that directive, putting the firm onto a competitive footing now rivalling few in the industry.
Bigger and more resourced, the firm is looking to continue the re-engineering process by expanding further. It is now considering a move into the only major market where it lacks a fully-fledged office – Perth.
“We do aspire to be there, but we will only do that if we can add value to a local group of legal experts that is compatible.”
Labelling Perth as a medium-term aspiration, Tembel says expanding into the city is not about operating there simply for the bragging rights associated with being in every major capital city. He sees a Perth office as a key to providing clients a full perspective of the Australian economy.
“If you want to present a truly leading Australian law firm you’ve got to have a deep understanding of the most dynamic sub-economy in the country. And that’s WA.”
Thomson Geer’s position on future expansion is made all the more remarkable considering the level Thomson Lawyers was operating at when Tembel first took the reins as chief executive partner (CEP).
Tembel joined the firm straight out of law school in the early 1990s and made partner in 1997. He became head of the firm’s corporate practice in 2005, eventually taking leadership of the firm in 2009. At the time, Thomson Lawyers had less of a national footprint and had just four ASX 200 clients. Today that number is 12, and having expanded into new cities, the firm is in a position where it has trebled its (2009) revenues and average profit per partner, according to Tembel.
“I took the role [of chief executive partner] with a mandate to drive a nationalisation of the business and position ourselves as one of the leading independent firms in the country. We’ve achieved enormous progress against that goal.”
With his current managerial term running to 2018, Tembel says he feels as fresh and motivated as he was on his first day as CEP and has no desire to step down from the role any time soon.
“I don’t believe you should limit these things by time. You do them while you are still adding value to the firm… I always wanted two to three careers in my life. I view this role as a second career. I don’t believe in looking back. You always look ahead.”
This article appeared in Australasian Lawyer’s latest magazine edition 1.2. Subscribe for more articles and detailed legal features.