John Carrington has stepped up as Blake Dawson's new managing partner following John Atkin's surprise resignation from the firm. He speaks with Zoe Lyon about leading a firm through turbulent times, his long term plans as well as his love of fly fishing
Were you expecting to be appointed to the position of managing partner?
No, certainly I wouldn't put it like that. I've been involved in the firm's management now for some time but John [Atkin's] departure was unexpected at that point in time. So it was a surprise and fortunately the firm was in a position where we had several strong internal candidates for the board to be able to look to.
Under our new management structure I have Helen McKenzie working as my deputy managing partner which means that the firm now has, in three of the most influential leadership positions, two women, with Mary Padbury as our chairman and now Helen as deputy managing partner. Helen's based in Sydney. She has a great deal of experience, a great interest in people and I think it's going to be fantastic to work with her.
What are going to be some of your initial areas of focus for the firm?
I think there's a period of personal settling in to a role like this which will involve seeing clients between now and Christmas. My intention is to see a number of our clients personally and also to get around all of our offices to get in front of them in a formal sense. I've worked with most of our offices over the years so they know me, but I think it's good to get around in a formal sense.
Apart from that, I think that in the next couple of months the significant issues will be to ensure that we deal with any sort of challenges coming out of the turmoil in the financial markets in an appropriate way, and that we're also well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities - because clearly, there will be opportunities. We're fortunate that we have a very strong insolvency practice, for example. I'll be looking at those areas quite closely.
What are your longer-term priorities?
We're in a fortunate position in the sense that under John [Atkin's] stewardship we spent some time really strengthening and building our domestic base and we now have very good programs in place in relation to clients, expertise and people.
If I had to pick three areas at which I'd be looking at very closely, one would be to capitalise on our strengths in the resources, energy and infrastructure fields. We have great strengths in those areas across the firm and we've just opened in Adelaide which is an exciting development for us.
Because ... we've built our domestic practice we will be looking more closely at the opportunities in the region in the near-to-medium-term.
Thirdly, I think that it remains the case, and is likely to remain the case for some time, that the biggest challenge we will face as a major law firm - and I suspect it's the same for other major law firms and indeed professional service firms - is the attraction and retention of talent. Whilst there might be some relief in the short term from the number of people who are choosing to travel and work overseas, I don't think in the medium term that there's going to be any relief from that. So we need to be very focused on our attraction and retention policies.
Are you concerned about the impact of the financial crisis and potential economic downturn on the firm? Is this a particularly difficult time to be taking up the position of managing partner?
I think probably at any time there will be challenges and they'll depend upon both the internal and the external circumstances. This is certainly a challenging time. I wouldn't describe it as difficult because I just think these things come along and you need to be able to deal with them.
We're quite well placed, I think, in the context of what's happening both in the domestic and international markets. We have a very strong resource practice and infrastructure practice around the country. Our clients are major clients who are involved in major projects and I expect that will continue. So that will provide a very sound base for us.
We've got a pre-eminent insolvency practice. So the diversity of our practice and the breadth of our practice I think will provide both a buffer and also an opportunity to take advantage of what's ahead of us.
I don't underestimate the challenges and I will be looking at them very closely - I suspect much like everybody else in a role similar to my own.
We've not seen any reduction in M&A activity and typically as markets go up and down M&A activity remains fairly strong. Similarly with our banking practice, a good deal of that is actually focused in the projects and resources area so that's insulated to some extent.
You began your career in Papua New Guinea. Why start your career there and what sort of work were you involved with?
I went from college law straight up there. It came about really by almost a whim I think at the time. It wasn't something that I was intending to do but there was an opportunity there which I became aware of and I was actually excited by the prospect of doing something a little bit different.
I initially went to PNG for a period of two years and I stayed for four. I worked with a firm called Beris Fiddlove Francis & Company, which, some time after I left, was taken over by Blake Dawson Waldron.
It was a very exciting time. I was a litigator up there. It was essentially a resource-based economy and we had as clients a number of significant resource houses and others.
How did you come to work for Blake Dawson, and how has your career progressed there?
I left PNG and went travelling - which all the people do. When I came back I had interviews with a number of firms but ultimately I went to Blake Dawson Waldron, in particular, to work in the insolvency area with Richard Fisher which had attracted me.
I was in Sydney for about three years working with Richard and then I went to Perth in 1988 when Rothwells collapsed to work on that administration. That was a very significant administration. The office had only just set up at that time and I initially went there for a couple of years and I ended up staying for 14 years or thereabouts.
By the time I left I'd been the managing partner of our Perth office for six years and it was obviously time for someone else to take on that responsibility and it was also time for me to think about what I was going to do from a career point of view.
At that time John Atkin joined and I had discussions with John as to what his plans for the firm were. A lot of what he said resonated with me so I expressed interest in joining his management team and that's what happened.
I moved to Melbourne to become one of the executive partners on his first management team and stayed in that team until recently in one role or another.
With three teenaged children, how do you balance your home life with your significant workload, particularly now you are a managing partner?
It's not without its challenges, without doubt. I travel most weeks - usually for at least one or two nights and sometimes longer - but I do my best to devote my weekends to my family.
The capacity to work online makes a significant difference because you can usually find opportunities at night or on the weekend where you can catch up with things which don't necessarily result in a great deal of intrusion on family time. They'll be off doing their homework and that sort of stuff. It just requires a degree of flexibility. It doesn't leave much time for other things but they're the two priorities in my life.
You're also a keen fly fisherman. How did you become involved in that?
Strangely enough when I was in Perth. It was a time of fairly intense work and I thought I needed a break so I took myself to New Zealand for a week and spent some time learning the art of fly fishing and I've been keen ever since. But again, it's not something I get to do as often as I would like.
It's quite a precise sport and it's also quite different from your day to day life. You often end up in very beautiful places. There's a wonderful combination of solitude and nature which is a good opportunity unwind and as I say it's quite a precise thing like all those sorts of co-ordination sports.
How would you rate yourself as a fly fisherman?
Honestly, pretty ordinary.
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