Market shakeup: One firm exits Canberra and another grabs the spot

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Mills Oakley Lawyers has just announced that it will open a new office in Canberra on October 13, and has hired the initial team of 14 from three different competitor firms.

CEO John Nerurker told Australasian Lawyer that such a coup is probably “unprecedented” in the Australian market, and further solidifies the firm’s vision to be the leading domestic law firm.

“It’s hard for us to say we’re a leading national law firm if we don’t have a reasonable share of Commonwealth Government legal work,” he says.

Mills Oakley’s new Canberra team includes former Norton Rose Fulbright corporate and commercial partner, Vince Sharma, property partner, Adam Peppinck, who joins from Ashurst and special counsel, Paul Armarego, who specialises in Commercial, Technology, IP and Projects Services and was formerly at AGS, Clayton Utz and DibbsBarker.

Also joining Mills Oakley from the other firms are eleven legal and support staff.

The announcement comes just days after it was revealed that Norton Rose Fulbright was planning to close its Canberra office.

Australasian Lawyer reported on Wednesday that the firm would be closing its Canberra doors after the revelation that the sole remaining partner in the office, Vince Sharma, will be leaving.

In a statement provided to us, NRF’s managing partner in Australia, Wayne Spanner, says the Canberra office has seen reduced work for some time.

Instead, he says the firm has been servicing a large proportion of the Canberra work from its bases in Sydney and Melbourne.

“As a result we have made the decision in Australia to close our office in Canberra by the end of the year. We are discussing with the five remaining staff the opportunity to pursue comparable roles in other offices and offering them support through this transition period,” says Spanner.

Nerurker says the plan is for Sharma and his whole team to become Mills Oakley.

The shakeup comes at a time when a number of firms are choosing to exit the Canberra market, service it from elsewhere, or go global, but Nerurker says it only spells opportunity for his firm.

“The Commonwealth Government will always be an important client for private law firms; different firms simply have different strategic priorities at various points in time,” he says. “Many international firms currently have business models that are moving in another direction. Mills Oakley is a national firm wholly focussed on the Australian market and Canberra is an important part of that equation.
 
“We’ve seen that opening and we’re working really hard to come out the other end… on top.”

The plan to open the office in Canberra has been in the pipelines for “a number of years”, and the firm has been actively searching for the right talent and making approaches during that time.

Nerurker says although the firm has already made inroads into the government sector, its physical office presence in the ACT will take it to another level.

“The combination of skills we are bringing together in the new office perfectly complements our existing government capabilities. We are confident this move will confirm Mills Oakley as an important emerging brand in the Canberra legal market,” he says.

Sharma, Peppinck and Armarego all pointed to Mills Oakley’s vision for expansion in Canberra and the firm’s impressive overall growth rate driven by an innovative, co-operative, client focused culture as key factors in their decision to join.

The new office will provide a full range of domestic legal services to the public and private sectors, leveraging the skills of the new team and the capabilities of its partners and staff in other offices. Its focus will be on value pricing.

The team will be housed in high-end office space at 121 Marcus Clarke Street in the Canberra CBD, under a long-term lease.

And when asked about future plans, Nerurker admits he has an eye on Perth - although for now he’s just concentrating on Canberra.

“Whilst there is nothing immediate, I’m starting to explore that market and do my due diligence,” he says.

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