Top-tier law firms challenged for lucrative taxpayer-funded work

Top-tier law firms challenged for lucrative taxpayer-funded work

“If you don’t have that deep specialist expertise, you can’t run cases at this scale … we’ve got quite a deep competition practice and deep corporate regulation practice, and I think that’s what’s really resonated with the regulators, Mr Davis told The Australian Financial Review.

This allowed the firm to tap into the boom in ASIC litigation work since the Hayne royal commission and the jump in ACCC cases under its former chairman, enforcement enthusiast Rod Sims.

Unlike other corporate players, Mr. Davis said JWS was willing to work with watchdogs and the companies they oversee, and were less concerned about keeping poachers on side by refusing to work for gamekeepers.

“We haven’t chased high-volume commercial bank panel work,” he said. “We chase complex work, and whether that’s for the ACCC or ASIC or a client like Unilever, if it’s interesting, high-level work it’s something we want.”

Mr Davis pointed to the firm’s recent work for ASIC against Westpac, which many other firms could not do because they either had conflicts or did not want to risk their relationship with the big four institution.

JWS announced on Thursday it would open a Canberra office to assist private companies needing to deal with government.

King & Wood Mallesons was the go-to firm for the prudential regulator, though only about $300,000 of KWM’s almost $40 million in federal government contracts came from regulatory work.

Clayton Utz was the top adviser to the controversial Australian Building and Construction Commission. The top-tier independent inked deals worth $3.2 million last financial year, just under half the ABCC’s $7.1 million spend.

Labor announced last week it was moving to abolish the building watchdog, which it accused of wasting taxpayer money on attacking unions.

KWM earned the No.1 spot with $39.2 million in government contracts in 2021-22. It was followed by Sparke Helmore ($31.9 million), Norton Rose Fulbright ($29.4 million), Clayton Utz ($28.7 million), and Ashurst ($24 million).

Norton Rose’s continued rise through the rankings – up from fifth position last year – is part of a major push by the global firm into Canberra that began with the poaching of three partners in 2018 from Sparke Helmore.

After securing about $10 million worth of work from the Tax Office and ACCC in 2020-21, the firm’s biggest client in contract value last financial year was the Defense Department, from which it secured $14.7 million in work.

MinterEllison ranked sixth with $22 million in contracts booked, down from $32 million last year, however this was largely due to a major client the Tax Office locking in a multi-year deal that ran through to June 20, 2022 (which showed up in last year’s rankings but does not flow to this year).

Defense biggest spender

The Defense Department was again the biggest spender on external law firms, with $45 million in contracts commencing last year, followed by Finance ($28 million), the ACCC ($25.4 million), the Attorney-General’s Department ($24.8 million), and Health and Aged Care ($17.5 million).

All up, federal government departments signed contracts with the top 20 law firms worth slightly more than $247 million.

The Financial Review annual rankings of law firm government work is based on AusTender contracts published by August 1 that commenced in 2021-22. Contracts often run over multiple years, but the value is only recorded in the commencement year.

Data on the AusTender website is updated regularly and may change over time, and contracts are often only indicative of billing agreement values; The final level of work billed may be higher or lower as required.

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