Q and A with Katherine Abrat

Katherine Abrat (BSc 1997, LLB(Hons 1997) who is a Managing Director at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong and has been described as one of the leading women in hedge funds talks about her path from law school.

Katherine Abrat
Katherine Abrat
Why science and law? It's an unusual combination.

It is – and it certainly was back then. I think there were no more than 25 of us doing this combined degree when I came to Melbourne Law School. At secondary school I studied maths and sciences and I wanted to pursue that at a tertiary level. I also knew I wanted to study law. So to me, it was obvious to combine the two. That did present numerous scheduling challenges, especially in the later years of my science degree when longer hours in the lab were required. In those days we didn't have online lectures or tutorials (actually, there was no "on-line" at all originally). if you missed a law class, the only option you had to catch up was by listening to a cassette tape of the lecture in the old law library!

Were there any lecturers or mentors at Law School who influenced or inspired you?

There are two that stand out as passionate educators and expert in their field. Malcolm Smith was one – he was my first lecturer (torts) and later in my degree I studied Comparative Law in Japan. His depth of knowledge and experience of Asia, as well as the strength of some of his relationships made for a fascinating learning experience. He also taught me a great lesson in comparative jurisprudence – that the common law way is not always or exclusively the best way to regulate or deal with a particular policy issue. Martin Davies taught what ultimately became my favourite course at Melbourne Law School – Conflict of Laws. Again, it was his depth of knowledge and passion for engaging in a dialogue as to the intricacies of this complex area of law that inspired interest.  Some of the shipping cases are to be believed! Through these courses I developed a strong sense of the importance of steering your career in the direction of your interests and passions because it was so clearly evident in these individuals. I carry this philosophy with me still.

Tell me about the transition from a practising lawyer into your more recent roles in the financial sector. Why the shift?

This transition happened over a period of time. But it was also punctuated by deliberate choices along the way. I believe a successful career is built on deliberate choice and the growth that comes from building skills and an understanding of your own strengths and preferences. When I left law school for Mallesons, I really didn't know much!  I worked in private practice for eight years before going to an in-house role. It took me that long to develop the breadth of experience, and maturity, to have a strong view of what I wanted for my career. It became clear that a commercial role in industry (my speciality had developed in asset management) suited my strengths and passions best.

The decision to leave Australia and practise in Hong Kong - that was a risk. At the time Hong Kong was still feeling the effects of the Asian financial crisis and China was yet to start opening up meaningfully. Plus, I do not speak Chinese. I took a role in asset management with law firm Johnson Stokes & Master without even coming to Hong Kong first!  But I looked at the downside risk and, at its worst, that was simply to fly back to Melbourne if it didn't work out. Fortunately for me, I landed in a role, industry and region that had significant growth prospects… It was a fantastic, albeit very busy, time.

What do you enjoy about working in Hong Kong?

I love almost everything about it. Hong Kong is geographically and structurally so well placed as a financial centre for the Asian region given its Eastern and Western cultural influences. The rule of law here that carries over from the days of British rule is a very meaningful advantage to many regional and global firms looking to do business in Asia. I therefore have the opportunity work with clients and on regulatory and policy issues for our industry across the region from Beijing to Australia. Hong Kong moves at a fast pace and is very entrepreneurial which creates a very dynamic working environment. In addition, Hong Kong and China have experienced phenomenal change and growth economically, structurally and from a policy perspective over the 12 years I have been here. This continues to provide plenty of intellectual challenge.

Congratulations on your recent appointment as Managing Director for Goldman Sachs. What is it about the work environment of Goldman Sachs that has enabled you to thrive?

Thank you. It is a privilege to have the opportunities Goldman is providing me. Goldman truly is a great place to work and that is because people (staff, clients and other stakeholders) are absolutely at the core of what the firm believes in and how it operates. That suits my style and personality perfectly, because I find it most rewarding to work collaboratively with highly motivated people. There are three core principles that best demonstrate the Goldman culture and inspire and challenge me. These are an emphasis on (a) excellence (of skill, effort and decision making); (b) teamwork and collaboration; and (c) effective communication. The firm has not deviated from these principles over many decades and in my experience results in there being a very high level of integrity in the way we operate our businesses and engage with clients.

One of the areas you have been contributing to is women and leadership. Can you tell me about this?

The firm has a considerable focus on diversity in leadership and management – a significant part which involves looking at initiatives designed to identify female leadership talent at an early stage, motivate them and provide opportunities for leadership progression. These initiatives have real support at all levels of Goldman Sachs management. We are very focused on identifying, advocating for and sponsoring junior and mid-level female talent for advancement within the firm. Our experience is that women are often not adept at advocating for their own progression and development as leaders and this is something Goldman is proactively seeking to redress.

What do you find exciting or challenging about your current work assisting hedge funds?

Hedge funds are by nature and design extremely entrepreneurial. Our clients are founded by and attract talent that is pro-active, extremely intelligent and not afraid to take the risks head-on that are associated with building and operating your own business. Relative to other industries (even within financial services) the hedge fund industry in Asia is still very young – less than 20 years old. A considerable part of my team's role within prime services is to help new hedge funds launch their businesses here in Asia. So it is very exciting to see the "second generation" of hedge fund talent that has been incubated here in Asia, looking to branch out. This is adding to the depth of talent and investment opportunities in Asia for investors around the globe which is very positive.

It has also been an exciting decade capital market and economic development in many key Asian jurisdictions in which our clients operate and trade. In recent years, change has also presented its challenges to us and our clients in the form of global financial regulatory reform. The volume of regulatory changes impacting hedge funds globally and regionally since the 2008 financial crisis is considerable, and is continuing. It is rewarding to be able to help our clients navigate their way through these changes and ultimately strengthen their businesses as a result.

What is it about your education that you think helped to prepare you for success in this area?

A law degree is one of the most fantastic groundings in logic, analysis and problem solving of any degree.  Lawyers also learn how to construct a message and how to write. In the era of instant communication, these are core skills of successful leaders and managers which should not be underestimated. A law degree is increasingly viewed as a very good generalist business degree for similar reasons.

In addition to the inspiring lecturers and MLS who had a clear passion for their areas of expertise, MLS offers numerous means for developing strong speaking, writing and presentation skills. By participating in client interview competitions, I developed client service and communication skills. In 1993 a number of us established the Science/ Law Students Society to better represent the needs of students studying these for these two degrees. That taught me a lot about collaboration, lobbying and compromise. As a student tutor in property law, I learnt how invaluable it is to be able to distil your knowledge and message, and to communicate them to others.

Being an expert in navigating the case law and other resources in the old law school library was also in itself, worthy of a degree. Those who studied in the law school prior to the rise of the internet will empathise!

Looking back on your career, has it followed the expectations you had as a young graduate walking out the doors of Melbourne Law School?

My career has, and continues to, exceed any expectations I had as a 24 year old graduate. In those days we were all focused on the Melbourne legal market, gaining our articles of clerkship and having the opportunities to work on the biggest and best matters our firms had to offer. For me, private practice was not ultimately where I chose to progress my career, but it provided a fantastic technical grounding and possibly even more importantly, a wonderful opportunity to develop client service skills. By choice and by luck, my career has taken me in a very different direction. The beauty of the journey is just that – the journey itself, and being open to change is key.

What advice would you give to young law graduates interested in working in the financial sector?

Take every opportunity the law school and university offer you to meet with and expand your network in the industry. When you have the opportunity to meet business leaders, ask questions and seek their insight. You'll be surprised how much even very senior individuals are prepared to share with you about their journeys if you simply ask.

For those who graduate and enter private practice in corporate and commercial law firms, there are wonderful opportunities to seek to work with clients in the financial sector.  Ask your partners if you're interested in the sector so that you are considered for the next matter that comes along for such a client. This will provide an opportunity to develop relationships with clients in the sector.

Be prepared for the time it will take to build expertise and credibility within the industry. There is no magic bullet that will pave the way to success. Work hard, think harder, and always conduct yourself ethically and consistently.

Everyone at all stages of their career can benefit from strong mentoring.  Seek out and proactively manage your relationships with one or two mentors, preferably from different sectors or industries. If a mentoring relationship is not working, or reaches the natural end of its usefulness, don't be afraid to change it.

Take up opportunities to hone your presentation and public speaking skills. MLS is a fantastic environment in which to find these opportunities. Those who have the ability to impart their message and knowledge succinctly and plainly to others in my experience typically outperform those who focus only on the development of their technical knowledge.

Image: Katherine Abrat

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 11, June 2014.