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From the courtroom to the newsroom: ABC News anchor James McHale

From the courtroom to the newsroom: ABC News anchor James McHale

Stephanie Quine asks James McHale - news anchor, pants wearer, inline hockey player and former lawyer - about his decision to leave law to learn the ABC's of journalism.

Stephanie Quine asks James McHale - news anchor, pants wearer, inline hockey player and former lawyer - about his decision to leave law to learn the ABC's of journalism.

CAREER CHANGE: ABC Television news anchor and former lawyer James McHale
When James McHale sat down in his first ever law lecture, the Dean of Law told him that if he was only there because he'd achieved the marks in high school to qualify to study law, that he should take a long look in the mirror before continuing with his degree.

Instead of getting up and sneaking out of the lecture theatre, McHale (who admits he enrolled in law because he got the score) ignored the Dean and went on to complete his law degree, graduating from Perth's Murdoch University in 2006.

More interested in the practical application of the law than study for study's sake, McHale immersed himself in the university's Student Law Society and campus social life where he found himself mixing with "great people" and "excellent teachers".

In his final year he clerked at Clayton Utz and gained a graduate position at the firm, rotating through its property and competition litigation groups and finally settling in its commercial energy and resources group.

"I enjoyed the detail and the precision required in the work...I loved getting a problem and having to find an answer," says McHale, adding that his was definitely the area to be in, in WA, given the resources boom.

He also says he loved Friday night drinks, ready access to a stationary cupboard and not doing his own word processing.

But despite the perks and prestige associated with working at a top-tier law firm, he felt there was something missing during the long hours he says he spent in the office with just a fluorescent computer screen and a coconut for company (see sidebar).

McHale says it was a yearning to be outside, on the road, meeting new people and learning about a wider range of subjects that propelled him into the fast-paced world of the media.

"It's hard to find creative fodder in law. You can be strategic and creative in how you solve problems, but it's hard in such a rigid and regulated environment"

"I had always considered journalism as a potential career path," says McHale who completed a combined Bachelor of Laws/ Media, majoring in Radio.

"When an opportunity came up at the ABC WA, I jumped, despite it being at least 3 years since I had studied journalism units at uni," says McHale, adding that it was a risky move in the middle of the GFC.

It's no coincidence that many lawyers become journalists. The process of interviewing is akin to a cross examination and both professions call for attention to detail, a critical and analytic mind and a natural curiosity.

But McHale said he found a certain scope for creativity in the world of broadcast reporting, which was absent in law.

"It's hard to find creative fodder in law. You can be strategic and creative in how you solve problems, but it's hard in such a rigid and regulated environment," he said.

McHale, who now works as a news anchor and reporter for ABC news and current affairs on radio and television in WA, recalls the first time he heard his voice on radio and got his story on television.

"It's not true; we do have to wear pants under the desk"

"It was really exciting. It's great to get paid to put on my 'serious face' and tell people what happened that day," said McHale.

"And it's not true; we do have to wear pants under the desk."

Despite the fast paced pressures in his daily work now, McHale says he discovered a lot about "working" - the need for professionalism, time management, and attention to detail - from his time as a lawyer.

"The most valuable thing I learned is that there's always a way to get a job done. That's been really valuable going into a career in which you encounter constant objects and road blocks to getting even the simplest task done," says McHale.

"There's always a talent who decides they no longer want to talk, a government department who won't give you the figures you want, or a camera-man who needs his lunch break before shooting any more vision."

And coming from a profession which prides itself on digesting great quantities of information and producing reams of documents containing every minute detail of a case, McHale says it has been a challenge to retrain to merely scan documents, summarise histories and omit the dregs of breaking news.

"Most people don't care about the details like lawyers do. Lawyers are detail nerds"

"I went from a career requiring incredible detail in every piece of work produced, to one in which you have a maximum of 1 minute and 50 seconds to tell the whole story (40 seconds if its for radio)," said McHale.

"It used to frustrate me that I couldn't include every relevant detail. It's partly because of time, and partly because most people don't care about the details like lawyers do. Lawyers are detail nerds."

While he admits law was not the right career for him at the time, McHale said he is definitely not ruling it out in the future.

"I wouldn't discount a return to law, but if I was to go back and enjoy it, I think I'd do something with a more "human" element," he says.

Perhaps he wasn't wrong to ignore the Dean after all.

Like this story? Read more:

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From the courtroom to the newsroom: ABC News anchor James McHale
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