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Changing Channels: Andrew O'Keefe on Allens to showbiz

Changing Channels: Andrew O'Keefe on Allens to showbiz

For Andrew O'Keefe, the son of former Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales Barry O'Keefe and brother of well-known international lawyer Roger O'Keefe, his decision to abandon the…

For Andrew O'Keefe, the son of former Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales Barry O'Keefe and brother of well-known international lawyer Roger O'Keefe, his decision to abandon the legal profession might have been considered an unusual one. But the entertainer, best known for hosting the hit game show Deal or No Deal, followed his instincts and left legal logic behind for showbiz. Formerly an intellectual property lawyer at Allens Arthur Robinson, O'Keefe remembers fondly the camaraderie of law firms and still actively advocates for causes such as the elimination of violence against women.

RISKY BUSINESS: The decision to leave his job at Allens was a gamble that paid off for Channel 7
Why did you choose to study and go into law?

Well, it was a toss up between law and lepidoptery (the scientific study of butterflies and moths), and I just can't picture myself in brown socks and sandals. I was also bribed by my father to enrol, which was a dangerous game on his part, as he was the NSW ICAC Commissioner at the time. I should have taken him for more.

What did you love about the law?

I really enjoyed the camaraderie of smart, motivated and by-and-large ethical people, all working towards a defined goal. It was a stimulating environment. The process of TV production can be terribly atomised, and the quality of the output often bears little correlation to the energy of your input ... There are just too many unseen intermediaries between the performer and the product. That's why I prefer live TV. What's more, though I know you won't believe this, TV executives don't always have the best interests of performers at heart. I found the law a much more nurturing environment. Graduates may not believe that, but it's true.

Did you find any creative fodder in law?

Oh, plenty. The idiosyncrasies of legal language and logic, the vast array of egos and personalities, the innumerable ways that case law reveals the folly and venality of humankind; all of this will be poured into the Remington Steele-meets-Rumpole style series I'm going to write one of these days. It'll be a comedy to those who think, and a tragedy to those who feel (to paraphrase someone much smarter than me).

Why did you leave law? Was it a hard decision to make?

It was a bit. For a start, I enjoyed my job immensely in IP litigation at Allens. But we'd also just had our first child and bought our first house, so jumping ship was (to quote my dad) "most precarious". Fortunately my friend, boss and mentor Jim Dwyer counselled me to follow my instincts, generously offering me a year's leave in 2002. To my knowledge, I'm still officially on leave. Actually, I'm thinking of cashing in some long service Jim ...

How has your experience being a lawyer helped you through life and your current career?

People tend to assume that you're awfully clever if you've practised law, and around contract re-negotiation time it pays not to disavow them of that notion. Mind you, the law did teach me some valuable lessons about hard work and scrupulousness, and I'm sure I'll have an opportunity to apply those lessons to the world of TV one day.

What is the contrast like between law and the world of showbiz?

Working in a team to get a strong case up always gave me a sense of clarity of purpose, and at the end of the day, the judgement would either vindicate your efforts or challenge you to improve. Sometimes in TV-land it can feel like you're blithely pumping out buckets of gas, mountains of insubstantial verbiage, with no benefit to show for it at the end. But then you'll receive a beautiful letter from a stranger explaining, for example, the joy that their mum or dad took from your performance in the last years of their life, or the way in which their kids get so excited when you pull a certain stunt. It reminds you that enjoyment is a worthwhile end in itself, and that entertainment is important, because the ability to escape the reality around us is one of the geniuses of humankind.

"People tend to assume that you're awfully clever if you've practised law, and around contract re-negotiation time it pays not to disavow them of that notion"

Who is your role model?

For better or worse (and it's much more of the former, I hasten to add Your Honour), my dad. By example, he taught us that personal success is meaningless in the absence of service to others.

What do you think about work/life balance in the legal industry, especially given the high rates of depression among lawyers and focus on billable hours?

I think it's very difficult to strike the right balance in any profession. Well, in any profession in which you'd like to succeed. There's nothing wrong with demanding very high standards of yourself, and there will always be times when those demands exceed the limits of personal wellbeing. But the trick is to ensure that this doesn't become the norm. You have to take stock from time to time and ask yourself a couple of very basic questions: am I happy? Am I being good to the people I love? If the answer is no, and the reason is work, you have to force yourself to change, because you only get one life.*

*Note: this last comment may not apply to Buddhist or Hindu lawyers.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I have three kids who demand modern fathering, I'm the chairman of the White Ribbon Foundation for the elimination of violence against women, I develop show concepts for production (well, one of them will be produced one day I'm sure), I write music in the wee hours, I swim everyday to clear the cobwebs, and I travel as often as possible. We just got home from three weeks in the spectacular Kimberley, and are already planning our next holiday. So far it's a toss up between Turkey and a road-trip from San Francisco to Seattle. Anyway, I have enough on my plate to keep me out of excessive mischief, though a little mischief is essential to any worthwhile day.

Click on the images below to find out why some Australia's most noted entertainers took the leap from law to the land of showbiz:

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