A downturn in energy and resources work generally, and particularly within the areas of coal and coal seam gas has seen the majority of the nation’s native title practices experience a significant decline in work. Native title groups in Queensland have been particularly affected however groups in Western Australia also have felt a degree of pain. Despite this green shoots of activity have been seen in NSW and firms have seen the absence of projects give rise to work in reviewing original agreements and also issues relating to compliance with global obligations.
Perhaps most interestingly, despite the uneven workflows and uncertainty experienced in the area there are a number of international and Australian based firms who continue to aggressively implant a service footprint in the area. To date these attempts have largely failed due to the lack of senior personnel horsepower required to drive them forward but, if one looks to the impact of King & Wood Mallesons’ hire of former Minter Ellison Partner Scott Singleton has had on the firms respective native title practices then it would seem highly probable that out next native title rankings would feature new entrants.
Regardless of levels of activity and variation in work types Ashurst continue to be the dominant force in the Australian native title market. Other firms present on certain matters and may well possess the individual horsepower to mach the firm in particular matters but, simply put, when it comes to national coverage and pure depth of horsepower, Ashurst cannot be matched.
In a quieter market Allens’ stranglehold on Rio Tinto’s native title work was widely envied by peers. Perth based Marshall McKenna “matches style with substance”.
Ashurst’s native title practice may have weakened somewhat with the movement of stalwart Tony Denholder to a client/managerial focus however it would seem that this has only allowed the firm’s next generation of talent to spread its wings. Brisbane based Gavin Scott is “an outstanding practitioner” while Special Counsel Nerida Cooley was noted as “being everywhere lately”. Perth based Partners Geoff Gishubl and Jean Bursle are “at the top of their game” and were noted for their wok on behalf of BHP and Atlas Iron.
Chalk & Fitzgerald’s applicant practice continues to gain respect and despite some personnel changes in recent times the firm remains “professional” and “efficient and
Dillon Lawyers’ Jeff Dillon sits atop the group of smaller operators acting on behalf of rights holders in Northern Australia.
Gilkerson Legal continues to be the most dynamic of the country’s boutique native title firms. Although the firm’s work for Arrow Energy has dried up it remains visible across both sides of the native title field including some noted work for the Torres Strait Regional Authority.
Herbert Smith Freehills’ attempt to establish one of the market’s leading native title practices continues to be a work in progress.
HopgoodGanim’s Jonathan Fulcher was seen as “practical and commercial” with his work for junior resources entities noted.
While it’s practice may be dependent upon the skills of just one individual HWL Ebsworth nonetheless remains the country’s leading applicant native title practice. Philip Hunter was seen as “the best of the best” with one peer noting “there’s daylight second on that side of the fence”.
King & Wood Mallesons, native title practice has matured into one o fthe market’s more well rounded teams. Brisbane based Scott Singleton is a “bloody good lawyer” and has a “practical and direct” manner.
McCullough Robertson’s native title practice has undergone some significant client overhaul, in particular the firm’s absence from the newly revised QGC panel and the firm’s strong resources practice suffering somewhat due to its dependence on coal focused clients. Noentheless practice stalwart Dominic McGann continues to earn praise including that he “earn my respect for the way he represents his client’s interests”. .
The Northern Territory was one of the few spots of activity in the Australian native title market and, in this regard, Ward Keller’s Kevin Stephens hold court.