Merren McArthur's career has seen her traverse the length of Australia, but she's now firmly settled in a diverse and challenging role as general counsel and company secretary of Virgin Blue, Zoe Lyon writes.
MERREN MCARTHUR has seen a lot of Australia throughout her career, which currently sees her based in Brisbane, working as the general counsel and company secretary of Virgin Blue.
She started out at Minter Ellison in Melbourne, her hometown, before moving across to what was then Arthur Robinson & Hedderwicks (now Allens Arthur Robinson). She was there for the next 16 years, specialising in corporate and commercial, focusing on infrastructure and government. She rose up the ranks, becoming a partner in 1996, deputy head of the newly merged firm's resources and infrastructure team a few years later, and finally, head of the national government advisory practice.
"When you look back at 16 years it seems like such a long time, but as I progressed through the firm new roles presented themselves to me and continually renewed my interest and enthusiasm for the role," she explains.
She says she enjoyed her experience at Allens, but after 16 years was ready for a new challenge and she was attracted to the prospect of working in-house and being involved in a broader variety of legal work.
"I did have an interest in moving into corporate. I really like the challenge of learning new areas, whereas, particularly as a partner, you get pigeonholed into a particular division. I wanted more variety and I wanted to be closer to the business decision-making of my clients," she says.
So when in 2004 she was offered a position as the Deputy State Solicitor at the State Solicitor's Office of Western Australia, she accepted, and she and her family moved across to Perth. She held the role for three years before moving to Rio Tinto, where she worked for a year in a non-legal position, heading up commercial negotiations with government.
Then early last year the position at Virgin Blue arose - one she felt was "custom-made" for her - so again, she and her family packed their bags, this time moving north to Brisbane. As general counsel and company secretary, McArthur heads up the company's corporate and government affairs department, sits on the executive team and is involved in corporate governance and strategic decision making.
"It has a really broad range ... so with my expertise and my personal interests, it really ticked all the boxes," she says.
McArthur believes the biggest challenge for a corporate lawyers is to be commercial while still maintaining the integrity of legal advice provided: "[It is a matter of] striking the balance of being solutions-driven and helping the business get to where it wants to but without compromising the legal advice that you're providing."
She believes another challenge faced by many in-house lawyers is getting used to working with fewer resources and less back-up, however, she thinks this also has advantages: "You learn to be more nimble and more innovative and resourceful and finding the answers yourself."
Moving across to the aviation industry was a step into the unknown for McArthur, but she says that learning the ropes of a new field was "part of the attraction". "The prospect of working in aviation was very exciting - the business is very fast-paced and dynamic," she says. "You need to take the time to understand your industry ... but once you know it, the legal work translates."
McArthur identifies one of the highlights of her career as the chance for her and her family to see so much of Australia. "When I moved with my family to Western Australia we made a commitment to explore as much of that state as we could, and we pretty much saw all of WA while we were there. Now in Queensland, we're enjoying doing the same thing," she says.