King & Wood Mallesons emerges as post-merger name as partners vote on union

Australia’s Mallesons Stephen Jaques and Chinese giant King & Wood could rebrand as King & Wood Mallesons early next year if partners this week approve a ground-breaking tie-up between the two firms.

Partners at Mallesons are voting on the deal today (23 November), with King & Wood understood to be making a decision tomorrow (24 November).

Partners within the Australian firm have suggested that, if approved, the combination is likely to go live in the first quarter of 2012, with the firm to be known as King & Wood Mallesons.

Chinese regulatory constraints mean the firms cannot combine financially in a full merger, with the firms therefore set to unite under a Swiss verein structure. This would allow the pair to maintain separate profit pools while operating under a single brand name, with centralised back office functions.

The planned tie-up comes as part of a wider strategic plan at Mallesons to combine with both a US and UK firm at some stage in the future to create a global law firm leader.

King & Wood wants to become the first Chinese law firm to go global. By tying up with an Australian firm it gains access to a wider international market without the risk of losing significant amounts of referral work from firms in the UK and US.

Mallesons said in a statement: “Mallesons confirms that it is in discussions with leading PRC law firm, King & Wood. Our discussions are ongoing and part of an ongoing process. Until that process concludes, we have nothing further to add.”

Several UK firms have entered the Australian legal market in recent years including Clifford Chance (CC), Allen & Overy (A&O) and Ashurst, however the proposed combination between King & Wood and Mallesons marks both the first union of a Chinese and Australian firm and the first international merger for a Chinese firm.

Commenting on the proposed union SNR Denton’s Hong Kong head Keith Brandt said: “It is an absolute game changer, the birth of the first global Chinese firm. If they are not planning to add a third party now, then they most likely will in future. This is just a step along the way. King & Wood are way ahead of the rest of the pack in China. I’ve been here 26 years and seen at close quarter from the large state-owned companies what the Chinese can do. I don’t see why not in the legal sector.”

Talks between the pair first emerged in July this year, with broad support for the tie-up given by Mallesons’ partners at a meeting in September 2011.Profits per equity partner (PEP) at Mallesons are understood to be higher than that of King & Wood. In 2009-10 Mallesons’ average PEP stood at A$1.2m (£750,000), while according to The Australian Financial Review, the firm’s best-paid partners received as much as A$1.9m (£1.2m) for 2010-11.

Mallesons currently has around 1,000 legal staff working across nine offices, including four outside Australia in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and London. King & Wood, which until recently had an existing strategic alliance with Australia’s Gilbert + Tobin, has around 950 legal staff across 13 offices in China, New York, Tokyo and Palo Alto.

  • Click here for Legal Week’s in-depth feature on the emergence of Chinese law firms.