Dictionary of Sydney

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Allens Arthur Robinson

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Allens Arthur Robinson

The history of the Sydney law firm Allens Arthur Robinson can be traced back to colonial times. In 1816, George Allen, the founder of the firm, arrived in New South Wales on the ship Mary-Anne. With the aid of Governor Macquarie, George was articled to the government solicitors and became the first solicitor to undertake the entirety of his legal training in Australia.

After admission as a solicitor to the Supreme Court of New South Wales in 1822, he began his practice in a cottage on Elizabeth Street. Throughout the 1830s the bulk of his legal work involved managing property. In 1841, George's eldest son George Wigram Allen moved into the practice, and by 1847 the business was known as Allen and Son. In 1857, a cousin, Thomas Bowden, joined them and the name changed again to Allen Son and Bowden. In 1868 George Wigram Allen's brother Arthur Mansfield Allen and his son Reginald further extended the family partnership.

In 1879 the practice became Allen and Allen, following the death of Bowden, with George Wigram and Arthur Mansfield as sole partners. At this time, the backyard of the Elizabeth Street cottage was transformed into a new office and named Wigram Chambers.

During the mid-1880s Allen and Allen experienced the loss of important partners, with the death of George Wigram Allen in 1885, followed by the death of his brother Arthur Mansfield, three weeks later. Arthur Allen, the grandson of George Allen, was still serving his articles at the time but kept the business running as sole owner of the firm. Arthur became a partner in the following year, 1886.

1894 signified a new chapter for Allen and Allen. Arthur Allen had successfully hired the English lawyer Alfred Hemsley. The practice, now Allen Allen and Hemsley, moved premises from Wigram Chambers to the Equitable Building in George Street. They moved again in 1902, this time next door to the Australasian Chambers. Fifteen years later, Arthur Allen arranged for the purchase of the old Athenaeum Club building on the corner of Hosking Place and Castlereagh Street and renamed the building Wigram House, to which Allen Allen and Hemsley subsequently moved.


During the 1920s, six of the nine partners were members of the Allen family. The exceptions were Alfred Hemsley, Norman Cowper and Harold Taylor. Arthur Allen credited Hemsley with working harder than any of the Allens in the practice and also for keeping competition strong against their rivals Norton Smith and Co and Minter Simpson.

Between 1922 and 1924, there was an influx of new Allen blood into the practice, which included Arthur Allen's only son Arthur Denis Wigram Allen. In the 1930s, Edward John Culey and Gabriel Reichenbach (whose major client was Sir Frank Packer) became partners and the decade also saw the increasing influence of Norman Cowper. He tried to dilute the nepotism of the firm by offering work opportunities to professionals not related to, or friends of, the Allen family. In 1935 Cowper queried why he should remain a salaried partner, in contrast to the Allen family, who shared the profits of the legal practice.

In 1936 Wigram House was earmarked for demolition and the firm's new premises were the second and third floors of the new APA Building in Martin Place. This was partially located on the original Wigram Chambers site in Elizabeth Street where the practice's founder George Allen had first worked.

With the onset of World War II, a few partners made the decision to join the military. Cowper enlisted in the Australian army and Reichenbach was called up by the French government to fight in the Pacific (his father was French). He volunteered instead for the Australian army. The death of Arthur Allen on 2 October 1941 signified the erosion of the Allen family influence within the firm. Only two of the then seven partners were Allens.

Illustrious clients of the firm around this time included the Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac) and Frank Packer's Consolidated Press. The Bank of New South Wales asked the firm to oppose moves by the Chifley government to nationalise the banks. In 1947, Garfield Barwick, a future High Court Judge and, later, Chief Justice, presented the case to the High Court of Australia, and then to the Privy Council. The firm was successful and the Chifley government was prevented from nationalising the banks.

In the early 1960s, the practice again expanded and the decision was made to move into new offices in the P&O Building, on the corner of Hunter and Castlereagh streets. During these years, the firm was brimming with intellectuals, including Geoffrey Robertson, David Marr and Bruce Donald. Denis Allen's son David Wigram Allen became a partner in 1960 and remained so until his retirement in the 1980s.

The 1960s saw the ascendancy of large accountancy firms and the strengthening of rival law firms, Freehill Hollingdale and Page being a particularly notable example. The global expansion of corporations meant that overseas dealings became a major area of legal practice and between 1968 and 1972 the firm brokered deals with American companies wanting to expand their interests in Australia. Such international deals led Cecil Coleman to study American law firms, such as White and Case, and observe how their attractive features could be adapted to the Australian law firm. Important clients at this time included IPEC, Gucci, Philips, the Nine Network, Bayer and CBS Records.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, defamation actions provided the firm with a high workload. In 1971 Angus and Robertson faced an obscenity charge for selling Philip Roth's novel, Portnoy's Complaint. The enigmatic writer Patrick White was a witness in the case to highlight the book's literary merit. Another case that received publicity involved the firm's client American Flange and Manufacturing, suing Rheem Australia concerning confidential information. It was to become one of the longest and most costly cases in Australia's legal history.

The firm moved again in October 1978 to levels 45, 46 and 47 of the MLC Centre, Martin Place, where it commissioned a grand staircase. In 1980, the firm embarked on a joint venture with Perth firm Parker and Parker, who had clients including Alan Bond. Further connection with other interstate law firms came in July 1987, when the Australian Legal Group was established, with Melbourne firm Arthur Robinson and Hedderwicks. In 1985, Judy Mutton became the first female partner.

In 1984 a scandal hit the company. It involved the activities of Adrian Powles, a former managing partner. In addition to misappropriating client funds for his own use and creating false mortgages, Powles had overseen the loss of millions of dollars in funds while working in Allen and Parker's London office. His involvement in get-rich schemes had claimed important clients as victims, including both the Republic of Croatia and the Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust. Significant media attention was further fuelled when his attempted suicide came to light. Powles faced court charges of stealing $977,000 from clients. He was found guilty and went to prison. The firm faced receivership, but this fate was avoided through the provision of $40 million in security for the financial losses.

In 1994 the Australian Legal Group became known as the Allens Arthur Robinson Group. In 1996, Allen Allen and Hemsley merged with Feez Ruthning, a Brisbane firm dating back to the nineteenth century.

With the success of national mergers in the legal sector such as Freehills, Clayton Utz and Phillips Fox, on 1 July 2001, the firm finally merged with Arthur Robinson and Hedderwicks to become Allens Arthur Robinson. The firm is now located in Deutsche Bank Place, and is consistently ranked as one of Australia's most successful law firms. Allens Arthur Robinson has further boosted its global credentials in establishing a stronghold on the legal market in Asia.

At present, there is no Allen working for the legal practice.


Edna Carew, Westpac: the bank that broke the bank, Transworld Publishers, Sydney, 1997

Valerie Lawson, The Allens Affair, Macmillan, Sydney, 1995

Valerie Lawson, 'Art of Life after the Firm Eluded Him', Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 2005, p 60

Cynthia Banham, 'Legal firms try again: Alliance turns to merger', Sydney Morning Herald 16 March 2001, p 23

Column 8, Sydney Morning Herald, 21-22 June 2008

'History of Allens Arthur Robinson', website http://www.aar.com.au