Best Lawyers / Best Lawyers

An interview with Patrick Monahan and Andrew Tulloch of Colin Biggers & Paisley.

Can you tell me a bit about Colin Biggers & Paisley’s accomplishments within the last year? For instance, I saw that you expanded offices to Queensland.

Patrick Monahan: Yes, that took place a couple of years ago now. We’ve established a presence in Queensland, and we now have a presence down on what we call the Eastern Seaboard in Australia—that’s Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. One of the positives during the years is that we’ve acquired an experienced partner in Brisbane, and his name is David Giacomantonio … And he’s been a fantastic addition. We’ve had two internal partner promotions, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne. And we’ve got a really solid presence down on the Eastern Seaboard, which is where most of the economic activity occurs in Australia. That’s the structure. We’ve got about 20 partners now in the group and about 50 or 60 lawyers supporting us, so we’ve got a big and solid team. Things are going very well. We’ve had a lot of solid claims work, both the regular, routine insurance claims that practices like ours live and die by, but also a large number of really substantial matters, many class actions and some other cases. It’s been a very, very exciting year for us.

Can you tell me about some of the larger and more important cases you’ve taken on recently? (Editor’s note: Some client names have been redacted to maintain privacy as per Colin Biggers & Paisley’s request.)

PM: Many of the larger [cases] have been class actions. Class actions are a particular specialty of a number of the partners in the firm, including myself. One of them, which is public, we acted for a large construction company called Downer. They had two consecutive shareholder class actions arising from a market announcement that they made way back in June 2010, concerning a train project—a major project called the Waratah Train Project—and that provisioned $190 million against a particular component of that transaction that became controversial. That was a very interesting case.

These are matters of mine that I’m about to mention now. We had two large class actions where we were acting for probably the two largest law firms in Australia. [Redacted] was joined as a party to a class action arising out of the financial collapse of a river-tunnel project in Brisbane, it was called the Brisbane RiverCity Tunnel Project. ... There was uprising due to public floods and hundreds of millions of dollars lost by mums and dads, which ended up in a class action against multiple parties, and we represented [redacted] there and ultimately got them out of that case without paying a cent toward a settlement that translated to about $100 million.

We also acted for [redacted] in a class action from a commercial merger of two mining companies. One of them was named Oxiana and the other was Zinifex. They merged together to form a conglomerate mining entity called Oz Minerals. This all goes back to June 2008. The deal here was that the value of the stock dropped over the next couple of years, and there was a shareholder’s class action mounted again against multiple parties. Everyone involved in the due diligence process was sued, which included [redacted], and again we represented them in that matter. It was settled in the course of the current year for about $30 million, and the clients owed many hundreds of millions of dollars, and [redacted] made a very modest contribution toward that settlement. That was another significant matter.

We’re involved currently in some major class action litigation in West Australia and New South Wales; it’s a cross-border litigation. It’s one of the leading administrators in Australia. They manage KordaMentha. This is a multiparty action where $500 million has been claimed from. There is pardons arising from the South process from a group of energy companies. That litigation has not been resolved and is still current at the moment.

That’s just a few examples I’d like to mention. I’d like Andrew Tulloch, who’s with me, to mention a particular aviation matter that he’s involved in, which is the biggest and most high-profile aviation matter in Australia for the last three or four years, right Andrew?

Andrew Tulloch: Well, according to the state government it’s the worst accident in the state of Victoria in the last 30 years. But it’s an accident involving a small aircraft not sure if it’s known publicly in America, and there were four Texans on board as passengers and the aircraft crashed shortly after takeoff at Essendon Airport, which is on the outskirts of Melbourne. It killed all on board and also hit a shopping center. We’re acting for the insurer of the aircraft and its operator, and we’re anticipating claims not only from the relatives of the passengers on board but also in relation to the shopping center and the effects of the pivotal damage to the property and business interruption claims. That’s likely to be a major piece of litigation that hasn’t commenced yet but is likely to be fairly high-profile in the courts in the next few years.

PM: It did attract a dramatic publicity because the four Texans were all recently retired gentlemen who were on a golfing dream trip of a lifetime around the world and were spending a couple weeks here in Australia with their wives. They were all in this plane to fly off to a remote island where there was a fancy golf resort, and the plane crashed on takeoff. The wives thankfully weren’t with them because they had gone off on a tourist expedition that day. The other thing is that one of the Texan fellows involved was a recently retired partner at a litigation law firm in his hometown in Texas, and I have, of course, shown massive interest in it all from that perspective. Andrew’s probably downplaying it a little bit in the way that he’s describing it here. He’s got a big job ahead of him managing all of that.

Those are just a few cases. I almost feel bad selecting those cases, because we’ve probably mentioned half a dozen. Between the 20 partners, we would have dozens of cases running at every moment. Us lawyers are good at talking about the sexy ones, but what really makes an insurance practice work is the grunt work that you get day in and day out from a range of clients in the insurance area. We have one exception, maybe two, for every major insurer in Australia. We’ve also got a dominant presence in the London and Lloyd’s insurance market, which still extends a lot of insurance cover to major Australian corporates over here and is quite a major player in the insurance market here. We’re fortunate enough to get work from maybe 20 or 30 Lloyd’s syndicates and London insurers and other international insurers—Germany, Bermuda, etc.—who have an interest in Australia. What really makes the practice successful is the regular day-to-day flow of work that we get from all of these clients. If I was guessing, I’d say we probably have about 40 or 50 insurance clients supporting the practice. It’s what comes in the door every single day that makes it work.

What qualities do you think your firm has that has made it into such a major player in the Australian insurance market?

PM: The key is obviously the people, because in the insurance market, it’s very heavily a relationship market, so you’ve got to have multiple relationships between partners at a law firm and the major insurers; you’ve got to have relationships at all the different levels that make it work. It’s a matter of getting the right people in as partners and growing the rights partners and teaching them properly. Then those partners—like Andrew and myself and many others—are improving and maintaining the relationships with the key people as the client. That’s it.

What goes with that is quality. They know the market very well obviously, and they look for quality. They also look for value. We have to provide both. That’s a real challenge for the Australian market. It’s probably one of the notable features of the Australian insurance market, is pretty much a demise of the big firms in the insurance sector. I’m not saying that there are no big firms that still practice in the sector, but those that do are under massive pressure as far as rights and those issues are concerned, and a number of the large firms that have been regular and traditional players in the insurance sector have gradually retired and left the scene over the last 10 years. Our prediction is that will continue.

One of the features of our firm that helps us succeed in this area is that we’re a mid-size firm. We’re about 80 partners across the three states that I mentioned to you—Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria—but we’re very focused. We’re focused on four particular industry sectors and practice sectors, which is insurance—that’s our largest—and then it’s property, construction, and commercial clients. We don’t try to be an all-service firm that can do everything for everybody; we’re very focused in what we do, insurance being the biggest and longest standing confinement in our practice. We’re very committed to the insurance market, and there’s no way known that we will ever cease to do the work that we do. We’ll exit the market. And that is known and appreciated in the insurance industry, both in Australia and in the U.K., and it’s a very good selling point for us. We’ve got the depth, the breadth, the skills, and the diversity, but we’ve also got the commitment to the sector and the ability to deliver the work at a rate that the market will accept.

How did you both initially get involved in law, and what brought you to the firm?

AT: I was the only lawyer in my family, although I did have a grandfather who was involved in the law as a Springfield judge in Victoria. I really fell into it and fell into insurance law, really. I began right as a lawyer and was at then Phillips Fox and Masel, which is now part of DLA Piper, and I worked there for a partner who worked in the marine insurance field, and I fell into marine insurance and then aviation insurance through working with him. It wasn’t something I was born with or that I desperately wanted to be a lawyer, I really just fell into the profession.

PM: My story is a little bit different from that. I was born in South Africa and left with my family almost 30 years ago because of the political situation there at the time. I wasn’t at all happy to bring up my family in that environment. I went into the law out of passion, I think, and the passion was the juvenile passion of wanting to change the world and solve everyone’s problems. I had my first interview for a job, which I got and did articles in Johannesburg in South Africa many years ago. And years later, the partner who interviewed me used to tease me about it because he found it amusing that my motivation was so ambitious: that I wanted to fix every problem arising from apartheid in South Africa by my little contributions toward the law. Obviously, life toughens you up as you grow up, and what I’ve ended up doing is much more commercial and hard-nosed than what I dreamt about as a young lad. That’s how I got into the law.

What achievements do you see on the horizon for Colin Biggers & Paisley?

AT: I think our aim is to be seen as a leading provider in the insurance sector, and I think we are now being recognized as that. We really do want to be seen to be a market leader in the industry in Australia. I think we’re now being recognized in London as a leading practice in the insurance area, and that London reputation has certainly been enhanced in the last five years. We’ve seen a significant growth in our London insurance practice.

PM: Just to supplement that, but a lot of the work that we get as an insurance practice we get as a result of tenders to the major insurers. It’s very competitive, and the insurers have got a massive degree of market clout. Getting appointed to the panel of all the major insurers with whom we wish to have a relationship is our first goal. But if I was to ask myself what we want to achieve in the next three years, we’re on all these panels that we want to be on, but our aim is to get the best work from those insurers on the panels. The aim is to make ourselves number one on every panel of every insurer who we work for. Now that is a dream as you’ll well recognize; it’s something we’ll be working toward forever and will never ultimately achieve, but that is what we need to do. It’s one thing to be put on the panel; normally you want three or four firms who are doing work for that insurer. The real thing is: are you getting the good flow of work that you wish, and are you getting the top-quality jobs? We’ve been very successful in that. That’s how we’re been seen in the market: we get the big jobs; we get the best jobs. We get the major class actions against [redacted] and whatever it is, and that’s what we want to keep striving for. That would be my aim for the next two or three years.