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Swapping religious robes for the law

Swapping religious robes for the law

Darryl McDonough is the head of a national firm, but the law was his second calling. He talks to Stephanie Quine about striving for excellence and getting the job done to watch some rugby

Darryl McDonough is the head of a national firm, but the law was his second calling. He talks to Stephanie Quine about striving for excellence and getting the job done to watch some rugby

DIRECTOR OF DREAMS: Darryl McDonough dreamed of being a lawyer from a young age. As the now chief executive partner of Clayton Utz and a successful public and listed company director, he says making sacrifices is necessary when striving to reach the top.

As a young boy, Darryl McDonough was determined to do one of two things: become a priest or become a lawyer.

But after a short spell training with the Christian Brothers, McDonough opted for a change of vocational scene, electing to take up accountancy studies, which set him on a path towards the law that would eventually see him take the helm of one of Australia's largest law firms.

And while no one, bar maybe the Big Man upstairs, can say where his religious studies may have led him in the priesthood, most can say McDonough has certainly made his mark in the legal profession, as the current chief executive partner (CEP) of national law firm Clayton Utz.

McDonough joined Clutz's corporate practice in 1993, having previously held directorships in number of successful public and listed companies, before being approached to take on the top job in 2010.

Having practiced at the firm for over twenty years, McDonough said he was veering towards a different career path when Clutz partners asked him to consider the firm's top job.

"Because I'd made a commitment to do other things, I'd really put [the CEP job] out of my mind," says McDonough.

Nonetheless a natural ambition, persuasive partners and his desire to make a difference urged him to put his hand up for the role.

Having advised on a number of national and international mergers and acquisitions, capital raisings and corporate transactions, and directed organisations including the Bank of Queensland and the Super Cheap Auto Group, McDonough was no stranger to hard work.

Within a year of him leading the firm's partners, Clutz managed to recover from a 10 per cent revenue slump during the 2009-10 financial year to post $445 million in 2010-11 (an increase of 0.68 per cent) despite the exodus of 14 partners to global firm Allen & Overy in 2010.

McDonough says that the initial shock which echoed through Clayton Utz at the time "quickly wore off" and the remaining partners rallied together to "get on with the job".

“If you’re going to strive to be the very, very best and at the top of your profession, you’re going to have to make sacrifices”

"We're a very dynamic and resilient organisation. We've been in this country for over 100 years and we ain't going anywhere," he says, adding that competition inherent in the arrival of global law firms in Australia is not something that greatly concerns him.

"I welcome the competition. The practice of law is a marathon - it's not a sprint."

But despite his long term outlook, the Brisbane-based CEP's daily commitments do much resemble a sprint - as his bursting diary demands he regularly visits each of Clutz's six offices throughout Australia, and one in Hong Kong.

Between a jam-packed morning of appointments, McDonough spoke quickly but playfully in Clutz's new six-star Sydney office, making time to mention his "fanaticism" when it came to rugby union, his wife of thirty-six years and his two "boys" aged 32 and 28.

"If you spoke to my wife, she would say that I do not have a work life balance," McDonough laughs.

"But the fact of the matter is, and let us be honest about it, if you're going to strive to be the very, very best, and at the top of your profession, you're going to have to make sacrifices."

While McDonough admits it was important for him to spend downtime with his family, he says as a young lawyer he spent every spare minute networking.

"I would go to the opening of a sardine tin if I thought that I would meet somebody," he says. "I'd go to breakfast, I'd go to lunch and I'd go to dinner. I'd go to lunch again, just to meet people and get to know them, and to understand what was going on in the business community."

That strategy saw McDonough develop a network of people which he says he now owes his career to. But it was also his belief in life-long learning which saw him rise to the top in both legal and business circles.

Not content with degrees in accounting and law at Bond University, McDonough later returned to complete a Doctorate of Legal Science to make sure that he was "still on song" as far as the law was concerned.

“Leadership might be inherent in a person’s DNA from day one but I think it also comes about from learning from your environment and from other people”

"It's a matter of bettering yourself and learning as much as you possibly can, building your profile and becoming acknowledged within an area of expertise within the law," he says.

And McDonough has done that too, having published various articles on corporate governance in the Bond Law Review, as well as a books entitled Annotated Takeover Law and Annotated Mergers and Acquisitions Law of Australia.

"Sometimes it means that you're not able to be at home at the hours that you might otherwise wish to be," says McDonough, adding that his dedication is no different to elite athlete's having to train at times when they might rather be watching television.

"The problem is always being able to strike the right balance."

One thing McDonough has managed to balance exceptionally well over the years, is both the practice and the business of law.

While he misses interacting with clients in his current role, McDonough says it is important for lawyers to be able to "divorce" their background as a lawyer and to see things from a commercial point of view.

"That's not to say you throw out law out all together, but you've got to focus from a commercial stance when you sit around a boardroom table and make decisions," he says.

McDonough's accounting background has helped in both legal practice and business by assisting in understanding clients' motivations. Transactions are not only a matter of "doing the deal and documenting it" but understanding why a client is buying or selling something and the numbers behind it, says McDonough.

"That way you can document the transaction in an appropriate fashion...and make sure the client is adequately protected," he says.

In the early part of his career McDonough worked in government - in the then-named Corporate Affairs Department in Queensland - with men who he says taught him more about corporate law than he could ever have gained by reading books.

Jim O'Callaghan, a consultant who helped to draft the 1961 Companies Act (in the 80's?) and Ken Macpherson (check capitalisation on P), the Commissioner of Corporate Affairs at the time, gave McDonough "an enormous thirst for knowledge" which provided the foundations of his corporate legal career

But for all the million dollar company floats and restructures McDonough has advised on, for clients like UNiTAB and Billabong International, he recalls most fondly those for which he received little or no remuneration, where he was able to help people out of "rather desperate straights" at a time "before pro bono was even thought of in Australia".

"I think one of the greatest things about being a lawyer is being able to solve problems and assist people out of a spot," he says. "It's those transactions that stick in my mind as the most rewarding."

It is often said that leaders are born not made, but McDonough doesn't consider himself a leader at all.

While he says "people skills" are paramount in running a law firm or any organisation, McDonough has always looked at things from the point of view of getting in and doing a job.

"Leadership might be inherent in a person's DNA from day one but I think it also comes about from learning from your environment and from other people...I'm in the position I am because of the support of the partners...if I lost that support I would no longer be a leader. You're only there as long as you do your job properly," he says.

It's a task he takes seriously, but admits that the next few weeks will certainly stretch his professional balancing skills to their extremes - not due to an influx of tricky corporate lawyering - but due to the "real difficulty" of managing to squeeze in time to watch his beloved Wallabies strive to the reach the pinnacle of their world -- the Rugby World Cup.

If only Clayton Utz had a New Zealand office.


Like this story? Read more:

QLS condemns actions of disgraced lawyer as ‘stain on the profession’

NSW proposes big justice reforms to target risk of reoffending

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Swapping religious robes for the law
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