craig semple what ive learned

Like many people, I have a tendency to go where life takes me. So doing law wasn’t part of any grand plan. I went to a local high school — and not many from that school went on to university. At that time, Monash University had a scheme for certain schools considered “disadvantaged”, which gave me a 10 per cent boost on my marks. Through that scheme, I got into law and did a combined economics and law degree.

In my graduate year, I had little idea about various law firms other than there were some top-tier firms. One of the fortunate coincidences was that I had a genuine interest in commercial law and was lucky enough to secure articles at Mallesons Stephen Jaques.

A benefit of growing up at a firm like that is you work with a number of partners. Sort of like a bower bird, you can collect things about the way they operate that resonate with you.

My first rotation was in corporate advisory, working with a partner who was astounding — she was energetic, intelligent and dynamic. She seemed to have an interesting life. Basically, she inspired me. And I was able to work with a series of people like her.

It’s hard for younger lawyers to rise to the demands placed on them if they don’t admire or want to achieve some of the same things as the people they’re working with, which goes beyond mentoring.

No matter the size of the organisation, one individual can make an impact — whether positive or negative — on other people. It should never be underestimated.

Bringing people into the room

When you’re working on a deal, the heart of the skill is understanding win-win situations. Other than extreme situations, where someone is in a distressed state and has to sell a business no matter what, you have a Venn diagram in your head and look for the windows for each party to feel they have improved their position. What gets people in the room is demarcating those windows so that each side thinks they’re getting something out of the deal. Otherwise, if someone feels hard done by, there’s going to be bad blood between the parties. They’ll come back with warranty claims and it will be difficult to work together going forward. Or the deal simply won’t get done.

You need to look at the finer points — which might clearly be a win to someone and a loss to the other — and keep those in perspective to the broader objectives of creating a deal both sides are happy with.

The first time I really stepped up as a junior lawyer was at Mallesons when I worked on the initial public offering (IPO) of Telstra. It was led by John Atkin FAICD (now chair of the AICD) and I got to see him operate on a level I could never have imagined.

There were three or four partners running separate streams under John’s coordination. I was a junior lawyer, but one of the partners had to go onto something else, so I was asked to take responsibility for certain aspects of the deal and to work more directly with John. He pushed me to excel, which at the time was sometimes unpleasant for me. But looking back, it was exactly what I needed — and I responded.

I’d like to think I have some of his leadership skills now, which is actually taking the time to understand the people you’re working with, so you know who’ll respond better to being challenged — and who will respond better to being gently steered. To be a good leader, your style needs to adapt to each team member, almost like being the coach of a football team. John knew how to do that.

Creative collaboration

No matter what stage you’re at, you always need to feel like you’re developing personally and professionally.

I became more engaged in the arts as a member of the Artist Director’s Circle at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Then I became chair of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and also a patron to several emerging artists and filmmakers. I don’t have any career aspirations to be an artist — I don’t have an artistic bone in my body! But that’s probably why I find the arts and artists so fascinating. Therefore, I approach my involvement in the arts as a mini course on creative processes and worlds I would never otherwise experience.

I also love the educative part of it. As chair of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, I had to lead the process of appointing a new artistic director. Our then artistic director, Michaela McGuire, had been appointed creative director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. I discovered there are no similarities whatsoever between what you look for in the artistic director of a writers’ festival and my normal interviewing experience with penultimate law students for graduate positions. It has certainly expanded my mind.

What I’ve learned is a greater sensitivity in understanding that people can have a diversity of motivations. When you’re dealing with commercial transactions or hiring graduate lawyers, there is a certain homogeneity in the aspirations and motivations, whereas, the processes of hiring or motivating people in the arts I find much more personalised.

There’s also a degree of introspection for arts organisations, which isn’t apparent in the commercial world. Whenever we appoint an artistic director, we have to think about what we want the festival to represent and achieve in the next three years. Whereas, in a commercial law firm, you don’t have that navel-gazing before every recruitment drive for graduates. Perhaps we should.

If you can be more attuned to people’s different motivations then hopefully they will be happier to work with you.

Accepting differences

Part of my responsibility as a partner in a law firm is to try to make sure the people who come through the door are happy to be there. Ideally, wherever you work, you should be able to be your authentic self.

The arts and creative industries are way ahead of us in accepting people’s differences — their different skills, confidences, experiences and identities. Creative people have different ways of thinking about things that are no less valid than the structured ways accountants and lawyers approach their work. If you have a project or an organisation that has those different ways of thinking, your outcome is actually much better than with a room full of lawyers or accountants. If you can be more attuned to people’s different motivations then hopefully they will be happier to work with you.

There’s an artist whose work I admire very much and through our conversations I gain interesting insights into these creative processes. I see him get fired up about issues and respond to things more personally than I would.

My initial reaction as a sensible and level-headed commercial lawyer is to say, “Well, don’t let them upset you, focus on what you’re doing. Try to eliminate the emotion from it.” But I’ve learned that emotion is very important to artists. It drives his output and defines his sense of purpose.

Yes, sometimes people can lose sight of how to tackle something when they’re caught up in the emotion of the moment. But there isn’t a template you can just apply to deal with it. I’ve learned you need to be conscious of personal relationships, circumstances and all the other drivers of people’s behaviour.

Acknowledging privilege

It’s incredibly easy to find yourself living in a bubble when all the people you work with live in similar suburbs and everyone’s kids go to similar schools. It becomes a bit of an echo chamber.

I love that my involvement in the arts takes me out of that bubble where there’s a real diversity. It isn’t just a gender thing. Diversity covers many other aspects of our experiences as humans.

When you watch a play or hear an author speak or see visual art, you’re made to think about something you wouldn’t really think about otherwise, and there’s a real benefit in that.

I know I’m in a position of privilege working at a leading law firm. Yes, you may work really hard to get into that position and you make a lot of sacrifices, but a lot of privilege comes from it and you need to be grateful. Acknowledge that there is almost always some luck involved. Life is a funny thing and the strength is in understanding how good you’ve got it — even if you’ve worked hard to get it — and recognising the fruit on your tree.

Be grateful for it and use that privilege to make a difference.

As a senior lawyer, it’s not just about getting the law right, because that’s a given. It’s the judgement you bring around difficult issues. From my perspective, the broader your experience outside that bubble, the better the judgement you bring.