Lawyers on board(s)

Alicia Patterson

Therese Ryan, Cathy Walter, Alan Wu

Board positions are highly contested and make an excellent career move for legal professionals to diversify their career portfolio.

When Therese Ryan (LLB, 1973) returned to Australia from a series of high-powered executive positions in global companies she realised that her objective of appointment to paid directorships was not going to be straightforward.

“I got a really good piece of advice early on from some board recruiters. They said ‘lower your expectations’,” she says. Ms Ryan accepted appointments to three unpaid boards before securing her first paid directorship. That was an 18-month lead time from starting her search, but, she says “One of the most successful board directors I know didn’t get his first appointment for three years and that’s not unusual.”

She estimates that only around 150 paid board positions in the ASX 200 come up annually. An ACSI Annual Survey of S&P/ASX200 Board Composition and Non-Executive Director Remuneration published in October 2015 reported that of 89 directors appointed to an ASX 100 during the course of a year, 46 were new to the director pool.

Therese now holds non-executive director positions with Burson Group Ltd, Victorian Managed Insurance Authority (Deputy Chair), VicForests, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, Gippsland Water (Chair) and WA Super, and is an Independent Member, of the Audit Committee for the City of Melbourne. Her not-for-profit (NFP) board positions have included Good Shepherd and Fitted for Work.

Catherine Walter (LLB(Hons) 1973, LLM 1976, MBA 1988) had an entirely different path: “I was first approached about board appointments in the early 90s while I was managing partner of the Melbourne office of Clayton Utz and shortly after I had completed an MBA at Melbourne Business School. These appointments provided a wonderful opportunity to combine the role of private legal practice with service on listed, government and not-for-profit boards.”

She is currently a director of Australian Foundation Investment Corporation, the Reserve Bank’s Payment Systems Board, Victorian Funds Management, Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Vic Opera and the Melbourne Law School Foundation.

In 2010, Alan Wu (BA/LLB 2010) became the youngest member, and the only lawyer, on the board of Oxfam Australia, one of the nation’s largest international development organisations. He also serves on the board of Mount Stromlo High School in Canberra.

Alan’s board roles have been informed by his extensive community involvement. He previously served as Chair of the nation’s peak body for young people, as Special Envoy for Young People to the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, and on the National Commission for UNESCO. After attending the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos last year, he was also engaged to help grow the Forum’s Global Shapers Community, supporting young changemakers across the world.

He says that in the community sector, especially in smaller organisations, appointment to boards is often by election by the organisation’s membership. At other times, appointments may be managed with direct board involvement, sometimes assisted by a nominations committee.

“I think it’s a matter of first building the skills that would allow a meaningful contribution to the organisation’s strategic governance; and then convincing those responsible for appointments that you’d be a good fit, both in terms of capabilities and character,” Mr Wu explains.

Lawyers can have an advantage in the competition for places. In the AICD skills matrix, ‘legal’ is one area singled out as essential.

Ms Walter’s view is that senior executive or leadership roles are great preparation for board appointments.

Early in her search, Ms Ryan completed an AICD course and realised that profile and networks were going to be key. Taking part in the AICD Mentoring Program connected her to a mentor who helped open doors to actually meeting recruiters who had so far overlooked her CV.

She soon realised great interview technique was critical. “I had to learn to sell myself and to look at myself differently for what I had to offer a board. There are a million lawyers around and you can buy in specialist expertise. I realised that I had to sell myself as a generalist and a successful business person.”

Ms Walter says her board experience has given her insights as an executive – and as a legal practitioner.

The focus seen at boards on strategy, financial outcomes, organisational effectiveness and executive performance measurement tended to refocus my own executive career. Observing boards receive, assess and utilise professional advice redirected my efforts to make such advice clear, practical and wise.

She adds that ongoing education is important to foster development in governance and board practice and more generally in leadership, strategy and innovation.

Public sector lawyer Alan Wu says boards are engaged in broad and often complex inquiry and decision-making.

“Service on a board draws upon and builds the skills necessary for this; in thinking strategically, contributing with integrity, applying legal and financial expertise, managing risk and building relationships. I guess these are capabilities – as well as experience and networks – that employers might find attractive.

“I think volunteers on boards are driven by the recognition that we each have the capacity to contribute to work that matters; a desire to be more connected to our communities; and hope that together, we can make them better,” Alan says.

He agrees that a law degree can provide an edge in the competition for appointments, saying that at the most basic level, a board’s role of strategic governance is one of ensuring legal compliance and optimising organisational performance.

Legal training might be useful in assisting the board to understand and fulfil its duties and meet its compliance obligations, comprehend and engage with prospective changes to the regulatory environment, and interrogate legal advice on the variety of issues that might come before it.

Ms Walter agrees that a good knowledge of corporate law and practice and financial management greatly assists appreciation of directors’ responsibilities.

“Time on boards exposes directors to overviewing the key risks the company faces: strategically, organisationally, competitively, culturally, financially and reputationally.”

Ms Ryan believes that while natural curiosity and a genuine ability to connect with people is most important, lawyers have often had training which stands them in very good stead for the actual work of a board.

The skills of taking instructions and asking questions to find information you need – not just what clients tell you. As a lawyer, you are used to dealing quickly with a new set of facts; you are used to absorbing and analysing really quickly.

Ultimately, she says “lawyers are generally regarded as a safe pair of hands.”

Banner image: L to R: Therese Ryan, Cathy Walter, Alan Wu

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 15, June 2016.
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