One of the two remaining independent law firms among Australia’s “Big Six,” Sydney-based Minter Ellison has announced that beginning April 22nd, Tony Harrington will be succeeding current Chief Executive John Weber, who formally announced his decision to step down in November of last year.
Harrington built an impressive resume prior to joining Minter Ellison, including the positions of Australian senior partner and chief executive of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), where he oversaw the merger and integration of PriceWaterhouse with Coopers & Lybrand. Post integration, he moved into the role of global managing partner, strategy and transformation at the firm. His most recent seat was that of director of global investment at Moelis & Company, a position he held since 2011.
Interestingly, Harrington, though immensely qualified for the position on paper (aside from his experience with PwC and Moelis & Company, he was also an external board adviser to King & Wood Mallesons), is not a lawyer, and unfortunately, history has been unkind to nonlawyer management in major law firms. Though he may have the requisite business acumen and resume to fill the shoes, in the past, when push came to shove, his equally-suitable predecessors failed to gain a firm-wide following; this is the “outsider” leadership paradigm. While it is worth mentioning that AU is a liberalized legal market, which may bring a different outcome to Harrington’s stint, I am still not convinced that such a hire was the right move—I say this with all due respect.
Intense competitive pressures are aggressively transforming legal providers—especially in liberalized regimes like the UK and AU. So it is curious that Minter Ellison took what can be considered a risky boat while traversing such treacherous waters. They conducted a “domestic and international executive search” to fill the spot, leaving us to guess, why? Certainly there was someone suitable within the firm’s ranks, and if not, at one of the neighboring law firms. While, again, Harrington has a commendable background at first glance, the thoroughly articulated history of nonlawyer failures in legal management roles seems to be an unnecessary hazard.
For insight, I turned to Patrick McKenna, author and esteemed veteran of the legal consulting community. While admittedly, McKenna does see the immediate risk, he also sees a long term strategy. He had this to say: “I would not be surprised to see this as a step toward aligning themselves to be merged into PwC Legal, which already has 2400 lawyers across more than 80 countries and is especially strong in Australasia.”
When looking at Minter Ellison’s choice through the lens of an eventual immersion into PwC, or another major professional services firm, the risk they incur (despite Harrington’s impressive background) makes a bit more sense. While I realize that considering the law firm’s eventual marriage into one of the Big Four is highly speculative at this point, with over a thousand attorneys, 15 offices and revenue north of A$400M, an eventual merger of that magnitude could prove troublesome for their competition, and should be considered in any future APAC-based strategy sessions.
It will be interesting to see what Harrington does with the firm in the next year or two. I, along with the rest of Minter Ellison’s legal competition, will have to keep a close eye on the direction of the firm.