Law firm

Allens Law Firm Celebrates 200 Years, But Don’t Mention Old George’s Snuff Box

Allen, the stepson of a convict, interned with Frederick Garling in 1817. After five years under his direction – and under his roof – he retired on his own accord on July 22, the day after his admission as a lawyer. It only lasted a month above the Gazette before moving to a cottage in Elizabeth Street, with stables in the back.

Allen became one of the key figures in the growth of the colony, helping to found the Sydney Grammar School, serving on numerous boards including the Bank of NSW (now Westpac) and spending 30 years in parliament.

Three of his sons – he had 14 children – worked in the business which became Allen Allen and Hemsley in 1894. It later merged with Arthur Robinson and Hedderwicks in Melbourne (1984) and Feez Ruthning in Brisbane (1996) and then entered into an alliance with the British company Linklaters in 2012.

Pernicious addiction

Allen was reportedly horrified by the scandal that nearly destroyed the company in the early 1990s involving his partner Adrian Powles. (Call it a Fourth Estate vice, but we’ve ignored the nation-building gimmicks and historic victories like the 1949 bank nationalization case.)

“It was well known that Powles enjoyed betting on greyhounds and horses,” the book states. “We didn’t know that his interest in gambling had turned into a pernicious addiction.

“As his debts grew, he began to divert money from the trust funds of a number of individual clients.”

They included the Nauru Phosphate Trust. By the time the company caught up to Powles – there was even a final car chase from Sydney to Gosford – there was around $50 million in the hole. He recovered $28.5 million, but was still $21 million short.

The partners ended up securing a $10 million line of credit from Westpac and convinced the Law Society that it was good for the remaining $11 million if needed. This removed the company’s threat to appoint a receiver.

Allens settled with the Nauru Trust, but lost its professional liability lawsuit against its insurers. Which made the case very, very expensive.

The company even offered its famous art collection as collateral. In 1960, senior partner Norman Cowper decided that the business should abandon images of racehorses and sailboats. He filled in for associate Hugh Jamieson, whose first purchase was a Pro Hart painting with Ned Kelly on wheels. It was called Highway robbery.

In such a time, old George could have fetched the snuffbox from one of the secret compartments of the inkstand, which the firm has restored to its full splendor and displays in the lobby of its Sydney office.

Allens’ president, Fiona Crosbie, said she was amused to find that Allen had this little vice, which was then not uncommon among the wealthy.

“Certainly, no one ever accused George of being the life of the party. It was not a temper whose good humor would show in a party night involving alcohol,” she said.

“There are mentions in his diary of a certain fondness for the contents of his snuff box – and we tend not to dwell on these entries.”