Simpson Grierson is rather like the New Zealand version of Corrs Chambers Westgarth. Like Corrs, the firm has a good list of top clients and a fair share of the top transactions. But also like Corrs, Simpson Grierson is trapped by the entrenched market perception of what constitutes a top-tier firm.
As with Australia and its “Big-Six” firms, the New Zealand “Big-Three” of Bell Gully, Chapman Tripp and Russell McVeagh rolls off the tongue with suspicious ease. It might come down to a question of semantics, but good things just seem to come in threes – or multiples thereof. It was a cross which Rob Fisher had to bear for a decade, and upon his departure, this role of the Dentonesque martyr has passed to incoming chairman Kevin Jaffe. He is more than willing to take up the challenge.
Point of difference
Having advised on deals such as the Fisher & Paykel/Haier cornerstone investment and the Kirin/Lion Nathan acquisition, Simpson Grierson is undoubtedly part of the big league. But is there a point of differentiation, other than involvement in the big deals, capable of distinguishing the brand? Jaffe points to the firm’s culture, specifically the collegial nature of the firm, as that distinction.
“When you’re dealing with a big client, you’re showcasing the whole firm – all the skills of your partners. You need to have a high degree of collegiality and strong rapport amongst partners. I think that really does come through to clients and it’s reflected in the service you give,” he says. “It shows in the confidence you have to bring other people in who you think can add value, rather than just doing everything yourself. You know what your partners can provide and the benefits they can give to the clients in certain areas.”
Jaffe says that he is not sure that top-tier competitor firms have the same collegiate culture. “Those firms are extremely successful, and there’s no right or wrong way to do things, but that’s the sort of firm we are,” he says. That culture is also reflected in the structure of the firm’s partnership,which eschews an “eat what you kill” approach in favour of a system which sees profits shared more equally.
“If you are in an equal partnership, if you’re confident that everyone is contributing, that does drive the culture and how you service your clients,” says Jaffe. “If you look at competitors, they don’t necessarily have that same structure. Partner management is always a challenge, but if you can get the view of partners that everyone is contributing and there is an open and fair structure, then that lays the ground for a very good, positive culture.”
Present, future and Fisher
Jaffe speaks highly of the departing chairman Rob Fisher. “He was a very cohesive leader and had a strong business development focus around our commercial and banking & finance practices, which is where we’ve really pushed ahead over the last ten years,” Jaffe says. “He’s pulled together a very focussed and collegiate firm.”
It’s a strategy that Jaffe intends to continue. “Our focus as a leading firm is always going to be corporate and commercial and banking & finance – the international focus generally comes from those areas.”
Litigation and local government are sometimes cited as particular areas of strength for Simpson Grierson, but Jaffe says that the firm’s depth in these practice areas does not come at the expense of others. “I think [the local government and litigation focus] was a market perception and if you look over the last ten years, that’s changed. Particularly in the corporate sector, if you look in the M&A tables over the last six or seven years, we really are involved in most of the top deals – that’s always been the case, but we haven’t portrayed that as strongly in the market as we have in the last seven or eight years. There hasn’t been a change internally – it’s more about how we’ve been perceived.”
Jaffe says that over the past few months, he’s observed signs of a strengthening in commercial transactions. “You wouldn’t say it’s buoyant, but there’s been a definite pickup in that space, which was very quiet earlier in the year,” he says.
“Whether that is going to hold up or improve is hard to predict, but there’s no doubt we’ve experienced a significant flow of transactions.” Jaffe also believes that there is more to this upturn than simply investors shopping for bargains.
“There is more focus on New Zealand as a place of opportunity; some of it is driven by entities being under financial pressure, but some of it is driven by investors seeing good opportunities. The change of government has also meant that New Zealand is seen as a more friendly environment to invest in – than perhaps was the perception a year or two ago.”
One source of work is the law firm network Lex Mundi and its regional counterpart, the Pacific Rim Advisory Council. Jaffe is a keen supporter of the network, but says that the requisite commitment for building relationships should not be underestimated. Relationship building is not limited to Lex Mundi – regular trips are made to meet with Magic Circle firms in the UK, among others.
“We put decades into those relationships and we think it pays to do that,” he says. “You can’t just join up and expect a whole lot of instructions to flow – it’s about building personal relationships and putting the time into it. Nothing happens automatically – we’ve had occasional secondments, the capacity for people to come in and use our offices. You really have to invest in those relationships if you expect to get something out.”