Steven Palmer of Norton Rose Fulbright–Australia’s 2020 “Law Firm of the Year” honoree in Insolvency and Reorganization Law–joined Phillip Greer, CEO of Best Lawyers, to discuss how a changing global landscape in manufacturing and retail has presented unique challenges. In addition, Palmer discusses how their focus on diversity and innovation has positioned them in the marketplace.

 

This past December, the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law passed amendments to the enterprise group insolvency draft model law. Can you explain any significance of this policy and how it might affect or impact Australian markets specifically?

Steven Palmer: We have seen significant impact from the model law already and I think this will successfully complement the current law. We've been involved in a number of these cross-border cases and there is a potential shortcoming in the current model law in that it really focuses on a single debtor across jurisdictions and ignores the fact that there's likely to be an enterprise group that operates across those jurisdictions. You could get by with the old arrangements, but the new arrangements will streamline things a step further. We're pleased with that development. It dovetails in quite nicely with some other changes in Australian insolvency law. They are designed to aid the rehabilitation of businesses, rather than what has been a relatively punitive stance by Australian legislators by global standards in relation to insolvency of organizations.

Are there any major trends you witnessed in the last year and any trends you see shaping over the next few years in this practice area?

SP: There are. Retail in Australia has been a very difficult space. We've had an enormous amount of retail work over the last two years that's both of the formal insolvency and informal restructuring type work, including some active debt trading. What we've also seen is quite significant growth in Perth, in Western Australia where there's a very significant mining industry. That's an area where safe harbor has probably been used more than elsewhere. There's some other interesting trends developing as well. Some changes in the way recycling of waste products that would otherwise go into a landfill has been dealt with by some of the overseas markets where that's historically been exported by Australia. We have seen some real pressure on that industry (which is a very political issue) when governments and councils who have taken great pride in strong recycling programs are suddenly forced to consider using landfills. We've seen quite a lot of stress in that market.

The regulatory environment continues to tighten and that causes pressure on financial services participants, which has a real impact on all aspects of the market. We have developed a very strong risk offering in all of our major jurisdictions to the market, with legal and non-legal expertise provided.

Otherwise, the impact of global issues continue. The U.S. uncertainty and the inherent instability and uncertainty of Brexit cause concern globally. There's constant pressure on motor vehicle manufacturing; electric vehicles will change the dynamic of the automotive industry. There's quite a broad range of issues that are starting to turn into trends. At the moment, the share market in Australia is strong and it has just peaked at a new high in the last day or so. There's some stirrings in the Australian economy. House prices have been dropping and inflation is extremely low. It does appear that we're in for a bit of a rocky ride one way or the other over the next little while.

Norton Rose Fulbright has specific diversity inclusivity objectives. Has this commitment to diversity positioned you to better serve a global clientele?

SP: I think it has. We take diversity very seriously at Norton Rose Fulbright in Australia and globally. We think it's very important that our offering to the market reflects the make-up of the market. We have a longstanding and broad diversity and inclusion strategy with gender diversity and LGBTI inclusion, as two examples of strategic focus—we've got a LGBTIA network which is very strongly supported both by the people that identify in that group but also by others at the firm who recognize the importance of allowing people to be themselves. We had a slow start in Australia where same-sex marriage was only allowed last year after a national survey and much unnecessary politicizing. Our firm strongly indicated its support for that process, which I was really pleased about. We have 33 percent female partners currently at NRF Australia and our team reflects a similar proportion—I think we're probably closer to 30 percent.

Then, in the other senior ranks our female cohort outranks the males quite significantly. I think that percentage (of 33%) will just improve over time. Those things don't really happen by accident; you do need to have strategic programs and other initiatives to support women returning to work after taking periods of parental leave for example. It's something that we think the market has also recognized our efforts in. The market being made up of the broad and diverse group of people, I think is pleased when large organizations throw resources at doing these things carefully and properly. That is what we have done.

Your firm has been recognized for its innovative strategies. Can you discuss examples of innovative initiatives you've provided for your clients that you've put forward for them?

SP: Innovation is something that I think everybody talks about, but a lot of them don't really know what it means. At a very micro level you can undertake “innovative” pricing, you can enter arrangements with clients where you do their work for a fixed fee. There's a whole raft of micro innovative initiatives and then there's some bigger ones as well. One of the good things that global law firms can do is invest in some of those innovative arrangements. We have a number running in Australia and globally. I’ve already mentioned our risk offering. In Australia, we have also launched a chat bot with a major bank that was very well received by our client and by consumers that were interacting with it. It was just a different way to deliver information to people.

Also, in Australia (this just launched last year in our construction group) we launched a program called Deliver&Capture, which supports major construction and infrastructure projects with online contract delivery, claims management, and mobile application portals. Then we've got some labour centers in the U.S. and Newcastle in the U.K. where we can do some commoditized work more effectively. Newcastle is developing a bespoke IT program for us to use on a major new client matter. The one I'd like to focus a little bit more on in Australia is where we've entered into a joint venture with the first majority-owned indigenous commercial law firm, Jaramer Legal. The services that Jaramer will provide are designed to improve economic outcomes for indigenous people. It dovetails into a government policy called “Closing the Gap,” and that's something that we're very proud of and that our team has been a very strong supporter of.