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Bouncing back from the brink

The global COVID-19 pandemic has impacted significantly on virtually everyone on Earth, and has devastated almost every aspect of the personal and professional lives of every member of the world’s legal profession.

While somewhat unprecedented, it is not the first, and is unlikely to be the last, upheaval to confront the more than 7.5 billion people who inhabit planet Earth.

Whatever the future brings – whether it be future crises that resemble the Flu Pandemic (1889-90), the Spanish Flu (1918-20), AIDs (1981-present) or substantial financial crises like the Great Depression (1929-39), Black Monday Stock Market Crash (1987), the 2001 Dotcom bubble burst, or the Global Financial Crisis (GFC, 2007-08) – the world will continue to spin and people will eventually return to a new ‘normal’ way of life.

However, for younger generations who have never lived through or experienced such seismic upheaval, it can be difficult to see a way forward, to a future of normality when COVID-19 will be just another global event consigned to the annals of history.

Queensland Law Society – in a bid to give sage advice and hope to young Queensland lawyers – invited a number of senior legal professionals to relay their stories of hardship in times of crisis (in particular, the GFC some 13 years ago) and offer some words of inspiration and hope that will assist the younger cohort of the profession to help frame what is a very challenging time.

These, as you would hear at the start of any Law and Order TV episode, are their stories.


Susan Forrest – Senior Partner, Gadens

Susan has more than 20 years’ experience and is one of Queensland’s leading litigation and insolvency lawyers.

What was your experience during the GFC?

I was blessed during and after the GFC as my practice area exponentially expanded, necessitating a larger team made up of a diverse range of people, with some towards the end of their law degree and others starting out in their legal careers. The solicitors in particular were exposed to a wide variety of work which required them to be prepared for and appear in court on little or no notice.

What advice do you have for junior lawyers at the current time?

Whilst current workloads may be significantly impacted, there is an expectation that firms will see greater work levels in particular practice areas in the future. Embrace any training offered in these areas. Rise to the various challenges being thrown at you due to COVID-19 and remain in effective communication with your firm/team and your clients. Your own expectations may need to be put on hold or take a left turn – my advice is to be patient, be flexible and adaptable.


Associate Professor Therese Wilson – Dean and Head of Griffith University Law School

Professor Wilson is admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of Queensland. Her areas of research include international commercial law, international commercial arbitration, and consumer law. Her teaching expertise includes corporate law, banking and finance law, and international commercial arbitration.

What was your experience during the GFC?

During the GFC in 2008 I was a legal academic, but during the recession in 1991 I was a practising solicitor. I had actually taken the year in 1991 to go and live and work in London and was fortunate to get a job in the legal department of an insurance company In Richmond, UK.

I was also fortunate that when I returned to Brisbane in 1992 the firm for which I had been working before I left took me back. There was a lot of luck involved in this at such a precarious financial tine, but I also think that working hard, proving your value, and taking every opportunity can open up many doors, including in times of financial crisis.

During the GFC in 2008, the students who persisted and demonstrated their strong work ethic both in their studies and in the course of clerkships and other work experience, all were successful in securing positions. Sometimes they did not succeed in getting the position they most wanted, but it really is worth getting a ‘foot in the door’.

Once you have a few years’ post-admission experience, many other doors will open and you have more options to steer your career in the direction you really want.

What advice do you have for junior lawyers at the current time?

I would say, don’t be too wedded to working in a particular area or particular type of firm or other legal workplace. Keep an open mind and take advantage of every opportunity. Try things that may not have been part of your original ‘plan’ – you never know, they might turn out to be a perfect fit.

I understand the value in having a ‘plan’, but I have to say that my whole career has been pretty much unplanned, with a range of different opportunities popping up which I was willing to embrace. This includes voluntary opportunities – you never know where the skills that you acquire and the connections that you make through voluntary work can take you!


Rufus Gandhi – Gladstone Ports Corporation General Counsel and Company Secretary

What was your experience during the GFC?

I was in Los Angeles in 2008 and there during the period when Lehmann Brothers was on the verge of collapse. I remember the time very well as the general consensus was that it was highly unlikely that the Federal Government would let such a big investment bank file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy rather than try to rescue them. It came as a complete shock when it did happen.

I was fortunate that soon after I closed a large private equity deal (and just a few weeks before the Lehmann Brothers collapse) I was asked by my firm to move to Singapore to help set up a new office for them. Despite being a new office, we were not immune to the global cuts that the firm decided to make and we had to lose 10% of the staff worldwide.

What advice do you have for junior lawyers at the current time?

My advice for any junior lawyers at this time is to continue to reach out to colleagues within a firm and look to learn different parts of the business and areas of law.

I would suggest junior lawyers ask to attend as many meetings as possible and not charge the client, simply to see how senior lawyers do their jobs, from drafting and negotiating to talking to clients.

In any economic cycle, there are opportunities for other departments to do well. During the GFC, the insolvency team became very busy and it created opportunities for a different type of M&A deals.

In times such as now and the GFC, there are limited deals happening, so law firms by their nature become more cost conscious and it is easy for junior lawyers to miss out on work that would ordinarily be passed on to them during busier times. This would be seen in firms that have set targets across different levels.

The consequence of this is that senior lawyers would keep more work and undertake it themselves rather than pass this down to junior lawyers. Therefore, junior lawyers should knock on the doors of various lawyers across different departments and make themselves known that they are keen to help in any way possible.

If there is limited work, then they should look to do more training or consider articles to write to build up their knowledge and help their firm’s profile. Other opportunities would be to see what pro bono work can be undertaken or request their supervisors to reach out to see if there are any secondment opportunities. Anything that can continue to help develop their knowledge and understanding of the law will stand them in good stead when the current crisis turns around.

As with all financial crises of the past, the cycle will continue to turn and an upside will come around, and it is at this time that those junior lawyers who have been proactive in making sure they have continued to develop their skills will reap the benefits and not be left behind in their learning curve.


Jamie Kerr – John Deere Financial Limited Regional Legal Counsel & Company Secretary

What was your experience during the GFC?

I was admitted as a lawyer in November 2008, which coincided almost perfectly with the advent of the GFC. My abiding memory is of the ASX defeating condition being triggered during the middle of a takeover bid at 5000 points (a level nobody thought would happen several months prior). I was fortunate enough to be working with a partner who was able to remain busy even during this time and to be exposed to some really interesting matters.

In retrospect, the key to having a happy outcome was partially luck and partially flexibility – being able to adapt to whatever the market throws up was key to being able to keep busy at a time when the world is turned upside down. Ironically, five years later when I moved to London to work, I found myself streets ahead of my English colleagues in terms of relevant corporate experience as a consequence of not having two empty years during the worst of the GFC.

What advice do you have for junior lawyers at the current time?

Firstly, be flexible. You have a long career ahead of you, and pigeonholing yourself at this early stage may lead to you missing out on opportunities.

Second, listen and learn. One of the wonderful things about being a lawyer is the willingness of more senior members of the profession to share their experiences (particularly at larger law firms). Although it may seem somewhat painful, the lessons you learn early in your career can set you up for life.

Third, always be willing. There will always be things that you can do, even if they may be less than what you might have envisaged a few years ago – but the more skills that you can develop at this stage, the more doors will be open to you in the future.


Liam Hennessy – Director, Gadens Brisbane

Liam Hennessy specialises in financial services compliance / risk matters, regulatory investigations and complex disputes.

What was your experience during the GFC?

I was very fortunate during the GFC to have started my career at NAB in their Sydney insolvency and turnaround team. Not a traditional path for most law graduates, but one in which I had great support and which gave me a wonderful commercial grounding which I then built my legal career on.

It was a rather strenuous work environment though – I remember a lot of intensity in terms of the range and scale of the matters being handled.

What advice do you have for junior lawyers at the current time?

Be flexible, persistent and collaborative. If you are in a role, keep your focus on delivering excellence for your clients, honing your skills and adding whatever other practical value you can think of to your business. In my experience, there is no end to the opportunities for lawyers to make themselves useful if they have the right attitude.

Try and come up with a sensible idea and get your supervisor’s input; there will be no doubt they will be keen to support you. If you are looking for a role, hard as it can be, just keep trying; you only need one door to open to change your outlook.

You should also consider broadening your scope. There are plenty of fantastic jobs outside of law firms for you to get your start!

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