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Q&A: Jon Downes

Q&A: Jon Downes

Jon Downes, general counsel of Genworth, talks about how the role of an in-house lawyer continues to broaden.

 

How did you come to be the GC in your present role and what advice can you offer to aspiring in-house lawyers/general counsel?

Having spent 10 years in private practice, working at what are now Hogan Lovells (London) and Allens Linklaters (Sydney), I moved in-house in 2003.  My initial in-house role with First Title, a specialist insurer and part of a global US insurance and property information group that was growing its Australian business and needed someone to develop the legal function, where I spent a number of years honing my skills.  I then took an opportunity to become general counsel at ACE Insurance (part of another US conglomerate) before being approached early last year in respect of my current role.  A year later, with Genworth having gone through an IPO, I find myself general counsel of an ASX-listed company. 

For lawyers in private practice, there are many opportunities to move in-house as businesses increasingly recognise the value of corporate lawyers. 

All of the lawyers in my team started in private practice.  Becoming general counsel is more challenging as there are only a limited number of roles. 

To be successful when these come up, it is important to demonstrate that you are the right person with the right skills - not just legal skills but leadership qualities, an understanding of the business, being financially literate and having the ability to engage with all stakeholders – Board, internal and external customers, regulators etc.  Perception is important, which can be developed through networking, involvement in industry events through speaking and writing and representing lawyers’ interests such as through the Law Society and ACLA.  What have you got, and what can you develop, in your toolkit to set you apart?

 

The role of the general counsel is diverse and multi-faceted. In light of the James Hardie case, where/how does your GC role fit in with the business?

As businesses continue to recognise the value of the in-house legal function, with corporate counsel in New South Wales now representing approximately 20% of the legal profession, the role continues to broaden. 

At Genworth, I am responsible for not only the legal function, but company secretarial, compliance, regulatory and public policy.  I also play a key role on the leadership team in advising on corporate strategy. 

The James Hardie case highlights that where general counsel also have company secretarial responsibilities, duties and obligations of being an officer of a corporation carry across to the general counsel function.  It is important that when acting in ones capacity as a lawyer, this is readily apparent which can be managed through making this clear at Board meetings, in correspondence, having a statement of independence included in your employment contract and so on.  It is also critical to be mindful every minute of every day what duties and obligations go with the role and that these be strictly adhered to.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

In your opinion, what do you consider to be the main challenges you face in your particular industry sector in the year ahead?

 

Key challenges ahead include addressing regulatory requirements. We are also keenly awaiting the recommendations of the Financial System Inquiry.  Finally, there is the challenge of continuing to meet and exceed the business’s expectations.  As the smallest team in the company, we touch all parts of the business and are consequently always very busy.  A challenge is to nurture the team, ensuring that there are avenues for growth and development.  A particular focus is on lean six sigma to ensure maximum productivity is delivered with maximum efficiency whilst at the same time maintaining work / life balance.  An achievable nirvana – we shall see!

 

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