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Profile: Middletons' Mark Dobbie

Profile: Middletons' Mark Dobbie

Mark Dobbie, a partner in the commercial litigation practice at Middletons’ Melbourne office, offers sage advice to lawyers going into his area of practice. He speaks to Kate Gibbs

What does your average day involve?

My days are now quite varied. When I was a younger lawyer all of my days were spent working directly on client matters - effectively at the "coal face". Now however, I spend only part of the day working on client matters, while the rest of the time is spent supervising and mentoring junior lawyers, undertaking administrative matters for the firm as well as business development.

In terms of the client matters, I am one of the partners in the firm's Dispute Resolution Group, a large part of which comprises undertaking fairly sizeable litigation for the firm's clients such as the Longford Royal Commission, subsequent prosecution and class action against Esso following the Longford gas explosion, the current Centro class action proceedings and more recently issues arising from the gas explosion on Varanus Island off the North West coast of Western Australia. Given the size of this sort of litigation, it is appropriate to adopt a team or project approach so that tasks can be delegated to the appropriate level of expertise. I, together with other partners in the group, provide ongoing supervision, advice and assistance to the lawyers undertaking those tasks.

You have worked in commercial litigation for 26 years. What’s been the biggest change in the way you work over this time?

The biggest change in the way I work has been the move from working full time directly on client matters, to a role that involves supervision and assistance of more junior lawyers working on those matters. Effectively this means that I am endeavoring at all times to apply the experience gained from over 30 years in litigation to each matter so as to ensure that the client is placed in a position to achieve the best possible result.

How sought after are commercial litigation lawyers at the moment?

Our dispute resolution group has been fortunate to remain busy throughout the GFC. That said, most of the commercial litigators I speak to were anticipating a large spike in litigation as a consequence of the GFC. My impression, however, is that the spike did not materialise and instead litigators experienced more of a blimp. There have been increases in smaller litigation matters requiring the use of commercial litigators, which have tended to resolve themselves fairly quickly but we have not seen commercial litigation of the size and scale which, for example, followed the corporate collapses of the late 1980s and early 1990s - this may well still come.

What advice would you give a graduate who wants to work in your area?

I do tell graduates that they will regularly be dealing with clients’ business affairs, reputations and financial affairs. Consequently I tell them that this will involve and they will need to be prepared for (at time frustrating and tedious) matters which will be complex but thought provoking and which will be laced with other considerations requiring not just straight legal advice, but also advice which respects the clients commercial and strategic objectives as well. I also tell graduates that there will be times when long hours at night and on the weekend will be required, but that if the job is done properly, they will experience the immense satisfaction which can come from a successful result at the conclusion of lengthy and complex litigation.

How has commercial litigation legal advice changed in the past year?

There is no doubt that the GFC has caused clients to focus even more heavily on the potential cost of litigation. This has meant for example that, leaving the larger matters aside, before launching immediately into litigation, clients have been keen to seek advice on and explore other potential avenues of resolution, even if it simply involves a telephone call to the other side or appointing an informal conference for discussions with the other side. A similar trend has occurred with the defense to claims as well.

Have you seen a shift in the way lawyers work as a result of the GFC?

As I mentioned earlier, we have been fortunate that our dispute resolution group has not really been impacted by the GFC. I also mentioned that we have been asked by clients to consider options other than simply the commencement of or defense to legal proceedings. Where there have been quieter times, lawyers have used those times to further develop their legal and business development skills.

What are the biggest challenges facing lawyers in commercial litigation?

The cost of commercial litigation is and will continue to be a real challenge facing commercial litigators. Commercial litigation is lengthy and expensive and, while there will always be clients wanting to slug it out in the court system and have their day in court, my impression is that the vast majority of clients want their lawyers to find ways in which the cost of litigation can be made more affordable and palatable for them. Our group treats this issue very seriously and is constantly looking for new and innovative ways to manage costs without sacrificing the quality of the advice and representation offered by the Group.

What does the next year look like for lawyer practising in your area?

The large-scale litigation conducted by the firm's dispute resolution group tends to have a fairly long tail and to throw up new issues along the way. To that extent it will be business as usual for the larger commercial litigation. With the smaller litigation I do think the focus will remain on finding ways to resolve disputes as quickly and cheaply as possible. The unknown is whether there will be some sort of spike in commercial litigation as a consequence of the GFC, but I suspect that with the greater degree of government involvement and a greater willingness on the part of banks to look at work outs rather than liquidation, any spike, if it occurs, will only be slight.

What is the most interesting deal you've worked on?

Without doubt, spending 10 years as part of the team working on the fallout from the Longford gas explosion is the most significant and interesting matter I have worked on. It involved a Royal Commission, Coronial Inquest, WorkCover prosecution, multiple crimes compensation applications and a class action. It basically covered the field in terms of what a commercial litigator could expect to undertake in a career and contained new and challenging areas, culminating in the clarification by the Supreme Court of when claims for damages for pure economic loss could be brought.

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