Ex-City lawyer goes in-house in Oz
This week we spoke to Nick Viner. He began his legal life at Allen & Overy and is now an in-house real estate lawyer at a bank in Sydney. We asked him what it’s like over there and whether he had any advice for people thinking of an overseas role (as we descend into another British winter).
mtl: Hi Nick. Tell us about why you did law and what led you to your current job?
Nick: I couldn’t think of anything else to do…joke.
I thought it would be a good profession to join, there is a certain amount of kudos in being a lawyer, it pays well and I knew it would be challenging.
I did my first degree in Paris and originally intended to stay in France to study law. I was always trying to leave the grey skies of England. However, after three years there I realised that as a foreigner I wouldn’t get where I wanted to be, so I went back to the UK. I did a two year accelerated law degree for post graduates at Bristol and then I did the LPC at the College of Law in London.
I had a couple of months off before starting work and went to Australia during that time. I loved it and almost didn’t go back to England. However I decided to do my training contract and thought at the back of my mind that I could come back to Australia when I was qualified if I wanted to.
I chose to train at Allen & Overy because I liked the feel of the place. It seemed friendly and fairly laid back given its size and I liked the people I met there. However when I was actually there I found that although I had some good seats, I didn’t like the reality of the huge pressure and the expectation that work was more important than anything else in life. Being on call to give up your social life and weekends, and then not being thanked for your troubles, was harsh.
It got to the point where I thought to myself everyday "why am I doing this?" I was offered a job on qualification in real estate, which I initially accepted, partly because of the pay. But then, near the end of my training contract, I woke up one horrible, wet Monday morning at the end of January and decided that I had had enough and that I was going to move to Australia.
I went to Sydney thinking that maybe law wasn’t for me afterall and I had a few ideas of other things I could do. I also signed up at legal recruitment agencies, and they were very enthusiastic about my academic background and my Allen & Overy training.
I was offered a job in real estate at a Melbourne based firm which had a Sydney office and decided to give it a go. I worked for a very nice, well respected and established partner whose brief was to grow the department in the Sydney office.
After 18 months there, I was sitting on the ferry on the way home form work (as you do), when I saw an advert for an in-house job at The Commonwealth Bank of Australia. It listed the experience that I had, the money was a lot better and it seemed the perfect job for me. I applied, was successful and moved in January 2006.
mtl: Why do you prefer working in-house?
Nick: The hours are solid i.e. I work 8:30am – 6:30pm, but they are more reliable. I don’t have to sacrifice evenings and weekends. As an in-house lawyer you don’t have to pander to clients the whole time as you are the client. Whenever I deal with external private practice lawyers I am very aware that I am on the right side of the table. There are also some really good perks in line with what the company is offering, so I can get discounted bank account rates and loans etc.
Degree in French at the British Institute (University of London) in Paris
MA in law at Bristol
LPC - College of Law
Training contract at Allen & Overy
Herbert, Geer & Rundle, Sydney
In-house at CBA
There is a lot of admin to deal with though. The bank I work for is one of the biggest companies in Australia and to some extent there is a "one glove fits all" approach to all employees of a certain level, regardless of whether they are lawyers or not. So there are some annoying parts of the job, but not as many as in private practice. I don’t think that my role and experience at the bank would prevent me going back to private practice, though if I ever did it would be to a smaller firm.
I do a wide range of real estate work for the bank as it has many property issues. These include the construction of buildings and sites, leasing branch premises, dealing with problems settling loans, discharging titles, mortgagee sale work, and fund work for the bank’s owns funds i.e. advising on the purchase of interests in resorts, shopping centres and hotels.
mtl: What do you enjoy most about working in Sydney?
Nick: It is more laid back than London and people are friendlier and more relaxed. In my opinion, they are also not as uptight and anal about things that don't matter. It is a smaller place, particularly in the legal world where everyone knows everyone. It is a fantastic place to live and most days are sunny, which makes a huge difference. There are lots of English lawyers out here, although you are definitely not judged by where you are from. Having said that though, I think it is an advantage to have trained in London because the market is so much bigger there.
Generally I think the hours aren't so bad here, although some of the bigger firms do have long hours. What makes a huge difference is that the lifestyle is so much better at the weekends, which can sort you out after a shocking week at work. There are a lot more sports to do and I think people do much more with their time out of work.
I didn’t do the whole wining and dining thing as a trainee in London but here there is loads of it. We often go to the harbour-side restaurants for drinks and most employers offer free drinks to their employees at the end of the week or month.
mtl: What are your plans for the future?
Nick: I am enjoying my job so will just see how it goes. Of course I would still like to win the lottery!
mtl: Will you ever come back to work in London?
mtl: So what advice do you have about going to work in Oz?
Nick: Obviously give it some serious thought and have a trip first to see whether you like it. Contact Sydney-based recruitment agents to see what’s available. I would recommend Hughes Castell and Taylor Root, who were both really good to me. You can do interviews over the phone from London and things move pretty quickly. Make sure you get a relocation allowance.
"What makes a huge difference is that the lifestyle is so much better at the weekends, which can sort you out after a shocking week at work. There are a lot more sports to do and I think people do much more with their time out of work."
Sydney is a big centre for the Asia Pacific region and isn’t bad for banking and corporate, though obviously it can’t compete with London. Property is a very busy area though and it is easy to transfer with an English property background. Before I re-qualified, I had to disclose to clients that I wasn’t qualified in Australia, which was a bit of a pain. My work was supervised, but probably to the same extent that it would have been as an NQ in London.
To re-qualify in Australia took me a year from start to finish. I had to pass three papers while working full-time. One was a semester at university studying Constitutional law. This involved classes one night a week for 12 weeks. I also took two practical papers through the College of Law in trust accounts and ethics. These both took a month. Each individual is reviewed on a case by case basis to see what they need to do to re-qualify. I think it is getting a bit stricter now as a friend of mine here from Linklaters has to do an extra paper on employment law to re-qualify.
My employer at the time paid for the courses, though I had to stay for two years in order not to have to pay them back. I left before two years passed and had to repay the fees, though the cost was tax deductible. You could carry on as an English qualified solicitor, but it is so easy to re-qualify that you might as well do it. If you don’t, you have to keep explaining the situation to clients and you have to be supervised more.
mtl: Thanks Nick. Now we really have to comment that you’ve been there less than three years and yet your accent is sounding suspiciously Australian. Is that for real?
Nick: Ha ha, is it? Well they still call me a whinging pomme over here so I can’t be that Australian yet!
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If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their legal careers or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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