She's risen up the ranks to become one of Australia's leading M&A lawyers. Corrs Chambers Westgarth partner Teresa Handicott speaks to Zoe Lyon about her time on the Takeovers Panel, the challenge of achieving work/life balance and the most significant deal of her career.
When did you become interested in being a lawyer?
I grew up in the outskirts of Rockhampton in a working class family and I think my only connection with anyone professional was going the dentist, the doctor, etc. I knew that I was pretty bright and that I would go to university but I had no clue what I wanted to do, and in regional Queensland there was no one to talk to and get advice.
So I came down and did a year of arts and really looked at a lot of options. I sat in on other lecturers, I talked to a lot of people, and I started to really think about what my interests were and what I was good at. Somewhere through that process, law ended up as the number one option.
By the end of my law degree the subjects I excelled in were corporate, commercial and tax, so I had a fair idea of the area I wanted to be involved in by the time I left university.
How did your career progress from there?
I joined Corrs in 1987 as a first-year solicitor. It was the firm I wanted to be at and I really sweated on getting a job here and I did. My perception was that it had the best corporate practice and I think I was right, and I've been here ever since.
The group here - as with most corporate practices in Brisbane - does the range of corporate work and in my time I've done a lot of capital raising work and all manner of corporate and commercial advice. But as my practice has developed I've become known as an M&A lawyer - it's what I really, really enjoy - and it has begun to dominate my practice.
You've previously said that the Suncorp acquisition of GIO was the most significant deal of your career. Why was this particular deal so significant?
I've had the great privilege to be involved in some fantastic transactions, some larger than this one. But the Suncorp/GIO deal was significant because it was the first time that I did something on a truly national scale, where I was the lead partner.
It was a very big, complex transaction and I had to assemble a large team across a number of states and base myself in Sydney and really do nothing else for the duration.
During previous deals I would watch lead partners and wonder 'Do I have what it takes to run these transactions successfully, to lead them and to make a difference in them?', and until you're there, you don't know. The lead partners on these transactions do play such a critical role in whether they succeed or not and that's not lost on the clients and it's not lost on the investment bankers.
This deal answered the question for me, it answered that question for those around me in the firm, and I think it answered that question for a lot of people in the Brisbane market place. At the end of it, fairly tired and bedraggled, I thought, 'I can do it'.
You've been a member of the Takeovers Panel since 2001. What have you taken away from this experience?
It's a continuous learning experience. Its members are hand-picked from the law firms, the investment banks, the broader business community, so it's full of people who are incredibly bright who are at the coal face of the market.
One of the great things about having the investment bankers on there is that when you sit on a panel case you're not just getting the legal perspective, you're getting a very market-driven perspective on how the market might react and why the circumstances might be unacceptable.
The panel matters are also often rather novel. If it's an obvious issue the parties usually sort it out themselves, so a lot of the matters are really things that are intellectually challenging.
We're very conscious about the decision we're making and the precedents we might set. We know that everyone always pours all over our decisions very quickly and starts to act accordingly in the market place. So there's a huge sense of responsibility which we all feel.
It's also very collegiate. It's a very competitive world that we live in and these people on the panel are the lawyers you compete with and the investment bankers who are often on the other side of matters, but when we walk through those doors all of that goes out the window. It's a group who work together very cooperatively and who are passionate about doing this role well.
You are the chair of the Queensland University of Technology's Law Founder's Scholarship Fund. How did you get involved with this and what is the aim of the Fund?
The QUT law school had its 20 year anniversary just over 10 years ago and one of the things it did to celebrate its anniversary was to set up this scholarship fund. I thought it was a fantastic idea because I thought it was actually going to help kids like me that come from financially challenged backgrounds, and I've been involved ever since - just over 10 years.
But one of the things I learned very early on was there's just this enormous number of people who have circumstances beyond a financial need. In fact it is absolutely humbling to read the applications and if you've still got dry eyes from reading the summaries of the students they're recommending for these scholarships then you're a tougher person than I am because I haven't succeeded once.
These really are kids facing quite extraordinary challenges. One of our very first scholarship winners who went on to get first class honours hadn't spoken English prior to the age 15 and had spent the last four years in a refugee camp in Poland. There are also girls from out west who have been disowned because they want to go to university. You wouldn't believe that would happen anymore but its there.
Mergers and acquisitions is perhaps one of the toughest areas of law in terms of the hours involved - how do you balance your career with your life outside of work?
One of the great skills you learn as an M&A lawyer is to be able to schedule and reschedule and be very spontaneous and I think you've got to be able to fit the rest of your life in amongst that and always be looking for the opportunity to have some balance.
It's not the job for someone who wants to take their balance on a daily or even weekly balance. It just isn't and you've just got to know that about yourself. My philosophy is that you've got to take your balance when you can.
You've got to be disciplined and say 'Is it critical that I cancel my weekend?' 'Is it critical that I cancel my one week's holiday?' When I was really young I wasn't game to go away and miss any part of the transaction, but I think as you get older you get a bit more confidence in when you're needed and what you're needed for.
What keeps you busy when you do have some free time?
A lot keeps me busy - I am a chronic over-scheduler. I have to be really disciplined with myself not to over-schedule and I fail all the time. I'm a very outdoors person - I live to hike, I love to camp, I like to scuba dive. I like to move a lot - I'm not your sitting still type of person.
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