Q and A with Frank Azzopardi

A partner at Davis Polk in the US, Frank Azzopardi (LLB(Hons) 1997) has travelled from Melbourne's north to New York, a place he never expected to be.

Frank Azzopardi
Frank Azzopardi
Why law?

I think it has always been about the idea of being able to help people solve their problems. I always thought that law school was empowering. It changes the way you think, the way you present yourself, the way you problem solve and ultimately, the way you are perceived. Even though it seemed like an unattainable dream as a high school student, I always had it in the back of my mind during my VCE year that attending law school may be possible and I used it as motivation to propel me to push harder. In a practical sense, I didn't have any role models to gauge things because I was the first in my family to go to university, let alone law school. Suffice to say, the day I received my admission letter to Melbourne Law School was one I will never forget. In some respects, it was the first day of the rest of my life because the Law School was really a game changer for me. 

What were your expectations when you walked in the doors of the Law School – then based around the Quadrangle – as a 19-year-old?

I thought the Quadrangle was beautiful. It symbolized the history and prestige of the Law School and reinforced to me the fact that so many amazingly talented people had walked its hallways before me. That made it a little intimidating and, perhaps, a little overwhelming. I did have some concern as to whether I truly belonged having come from a public school in the northern suburbs and being born in Malta. So initially I think my expectations were to do my best to survive and hope that if I worked hard, I would do OK. Thankfully, I got so much more out of my Law School experience than I could have ever imagined.  

Were there any teachers who inspired you?

I was always so impressed by my professors at Law School. They were so brilliant and had a genuine passion and enthusiasm for the subject matter. There were many great teachers but the ones that stood out to me were professors like Fred Ellinghaus, Kim Rubenstein and Greg Reinhardt. They made navigating through legal complexities look effortless. This experience also highlighted the amount of work that was required in terms of legitimately being able to hold oneself out as an expert in a particular area.  

What was it about studying law at Melbourne that changed the direction of your life?

I touched on this above, but ultimately Law School empowered me in so many ways. It taught me how to reason, how to present myself and my ideas and how to navigate through complexity. It afforded me opportunities that I could never have imagined. There were doors that were only open to me because of my Law School education. It gave a working class kid from Reservoir a platform to dream big and the skills to actually be able to follow through on those dreams. I owe the Law School and the University a huge debt of gratitude.

Tell me about the transition from working in Australia to New York.

The initial transition was rocky to say the least. I moved to New York just a few days before September 11 and that fateful day happened to be during my first week at Davis Polk. Incredibly, having experienced the terror of that day and seen the response of New Yorkers, I immediately felt like a New Yorker. I understand that sounds dramatic but it was such a profound time to be in the city. To see firsthand so many people grieving and to see people collectively working to rebuild their city, their life and, in some respects, their dignity was humbling. New Yorkers really love their city like no place else (except maybe for Melbournians) and they have almost an unshakable belief that it is the centre of the universe. The city is almost a character in their lives and some days it seduces you and other days it infuriates you. So the attack was very personal. 

As for working here, New York has so many virtues but the thing above all else that I love about the city is that it is a true meritocracy. So just like when I started Law School, I grew to learn that if I worked hard and proved myself there would be no ceiling or limit to what I could achieve. It is also fair to say that New Yorkers and Americans generally have great affection for Australians. So while there were nuances between the two legal systems, the professional transition was pretty smooth.

How did you find coming from an Australian legal background when working in the international environment of Davis Polk? 

I am one of eight Australian partners at Davis Polk, including Melbourne alumnus Antony Dapiran (LLB(Hons) 1999). I think one of the great advantages of being Australian is that you have an innate sense of pragmatism which is almost ingrained into you. In private practice, clients don't want theory, they want real world solutions. They want their lawyer to be able to see the forest for the trees. At Davis Polk, we are often at the centre of some of the most complex and pivotal issues of the day. There are times that you have to talk clients off the ledge when the occasion arises and maybe it's the Australian accent (which I am pleased to say is undiminished even after 12 years) but these are all traits that Australians seem to have.

The last decade has been an interesting time to work in the area of IP and you've worked on some very high profile matters. What have you found most interesting or challenging about your work over the last few years?

The principles that underpin IP are constantly being challenged by developments in the marketplace. Applying these traditional principles to emerging technologies makes life interesting and challenging and keeps things fresh. For example, a few years ago I represented Harvard in connection with the Google Books project which involved the digitization of Harvard's extraordinary library. A digitization project of that scale had not been previously tested before the courts. Then there have been some game changing transactions like Comcast's acquisition of NBCUniversal from GE and the recent PenguinRandomHouse joint venture between Bertelsmann and Pearson. As a transactional lawyer, these are the deals that you live for. You understand what is at stake for your client, emotions are high and there is a lot to do in a condensed timeframe. It is exciting to feel like you are playing your small part in helping shape an industry. One of the great privileges of being at a firm like Davis Polk is that you get to work on the most complex matters that have the highest of profiles.

What advice would you give to young alumni stepping into the field of IP?

First, I would  say that they have made a wise choice. I think one of the toughest things for any young attorney is to find a practice area that resonates with you and piques your interest. Obviously, I am biased but I still find IP incredibly interesting and given it underlies all forms of technology, media content and branding, it impacts so many aspects of commerce. The other thing I would say is not to let a lack of a technical background preclude you from thinking about pursuing a career in IP. While there are aspects of IP that require a technical discipline like patent prosecution, it is by no means essential for the bulk of IP work.

You've met some of our current students in New York when they've visited as part of the Global Lawyering class. What is the most important thing you feel you can tell them about working as an "international lawyer"?

The thing that I always want to impress upon them is that a Melbourne Law School education provides them with an amazing opportunity. It is a qualification that is understood and respected internationally. The other thing, especially in a place like New York where Australian lawyers are not a dime a dozen, is that when the opportunity presents itself they are continuing a legacy, a reputation of excellence built by many Australians over a number of years. It's that reputation which afforded me an opportunity to work here and the same is true for them so they ought to take that seriously. As for being an international lawyer, if you are fortunate enough to land at the right firm, the work and the people with whom you cross paths are amazing. Given the size of the US economy and that New York is the epicenter of corporate activity, the matters naturally tend to have a high profile. All that said, if you're willing to work hard, there is nothing you can't aspire to be professionally.

You're now on the board of the University of Melbourne Campaign. As an alumnus why did you feel it was important to become involved?

The University of Melbourne has forever changed my trajectory in life. It enabled me to dream big. It opened my eyes to potential opportunities that I never knew existed and provided a foundation that enabled me to pursue a legal career in New York. It has also been the source of many lasting friendships. I am very passionate about the University. I also recognize that the world has changed and universities cannot rely on government funding alone. Without the support of alumni, it will become increasingly difficult for the University to build upon its past achievements and emulate those accomplishments in the future. Even though philanthropy is not ingrained culturally in Australia as compared to (say) the United States, the support of alumni is crucial for the University if it is going to be able to attract the best teaching talent, maintain state of the art facilities and ensure that access to a Melbourne University education continues to be merit-based. To its credit, the University has been uncompromising in maintaining its lofty ambition to be one of the world's great universities. However, the challenge confronting the University is that other universities around the world already have a head start in terms of alumni outreach and support. Ultimately, I believe in the power of the University of Melbourne. I may be biased but I truly believe there is no better institution in Australia to harness the talents of the best and brightest Australians and give them the best chance to realize their true potential.

Image: Frank Azzopardi
Credit: supplied

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 10, December 2013.