Hall & Wilcox partner: ‘What we do is tangible’

Shaun Whittaker believes that lawyers need to better spotlight the role they play in the transaction ecosystem

Hall & Wilcox partner: ‘What we do is tangible’
Shaun Whittaker

Shaun Whittaker’s favourite part of being a lawyer is seeing the real-life impact of his work on not just his clients, but on everyday Australians.

The Hall & Wilcox partner believes that lawyers add critical value to both clients and transactions, and with the retention of young talent being an issue across the board for the legal profession, lawyers must put a bigger spotlight on the value they offer.

In this interview, Whittaker shares the career paths he might have taken 20 years ago and what it’s like working in social infrastructure.

What made you choose a career in law, and what's your favourite part of the job?

I became interested in the law early in my high school years. In somewhat of a cliché, I was inspired by the US courtroom dramas of the ’90s such as Law and Order, The Practice and even the old Perry Mason TV series. Of course, as I got a clearer picture of how the Australian legal system works and realised it’s not all dramatic openings, cross-examinations and closing arguments and there is a relatively strict courtroom procedure to follow, I decided to move towards the transactional side of legal practice. In a lot of ways, this area of the law suited my strongest skillsets in high school and in university, being around negotiation, commercial deal-making and financial analysis.

My favourite part of the job is knowing the impact the transactions we work on are having in the community and to everyday Australians. As my practice is primarily focused on social infrastructure, all the transactions we advise on will make a difference to someone’s life, whether that’s providing them with a home to live in, a chance at independent living or to receive critical medical care. What we do is tangible and sometimes we get to meet the people and directly hear the stories of how these projects change lives. 

What is going on at the organisation? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?

Part of my reason in recently joining Hall & Wilcox was to establish an industry practice area around social infrastructure with a view to not only be a leading advisor in the sector but also a leading industry advocate to government to help shape investment and delivery of social infrastructure. As lawyers, we have a lot of knowledge and experience to share not only with clients but with policymakers, as representatives of our clients in industry. The leadership here at Hall & Wilcox strongly encourage this type of advocacy for our clients but also for the firm to be visible in these spaces so we can contribute to the key debates in our country and deliver results beyond our day-to-day matters. I’m really excited to be given that platform and intend to make the most of it.

What has been your proudest accomplishment in the last year or so? Or what’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

In the past year, we have advised on more than $2.5bn of transactions in the social and affordable housing space nationally, leading to more than 3,500 new homes being built for Australians who can’t afford them. In a country where cost of living and housing have been front and centre of every political news cycle, it is great to be at the coalface of delivering meaningful outcomes, knowing that I’m not just talking about the problem, but getting on with solving it, even if it is a piece at a time.

Of course, what you learn in such a heavy politicised space is that all the people who come together to deliver these projects have different goals and objectives. We deal with federal government, state government, financiers, builders, developers, operators, architects, planners, engineers, councils, not-for-profits, industry groups and, of course, other lawyers. I think the most valuable advice to fellow lawyers is understanding all those stakeholders and what they are trying to achieve. There can be a tendency to just advocate for your own client and that is fine, but what clients really appreciate, in my experience, is getting outcomes. You will only achieve good outcomes in this space if you really know what everybody wants from a transaction, not just your own client.

What should the profession focus more on?

As a profession, we need to highlight the value creation lawyers deliver to not only their clients but also transactions as a whole. Having spent time at PwC and seen the way other professional services are valued in the transactional chain, it is stark to still see a lot of client postings on Linkedin, and in the general press, feature heavily around costs of lawyers and poor delivery of service in relation to cost. The profession is full of sharp, talented people who save clients millions of dollars on a daily basis, whether that is through providing market knowledge so clients can get a fair deal or by drafting clauses that will save costly disputes in years to come or even by negotiating a deal quickly to save thousands on transaction costs. We don’t do enough to highlight how much value we create in comparison to other professional services.

What are the challenges you expect in your practice, and in the business of law in general, going forward? What challenges are particularly pressing in the country’s legal industry?

In my view, the retention and engagement of young lawyers is the biggest issue across the sector amid the competitiveness of in-house roles, international roles, commercial roles and creating a career path that is beyond punching out billable hours at home or in the office. Part of why our practice will hopefully continue to be successful is the work we do has purpose beyond a pay cheque. But even in our sector, which is largely purpose-driven, it can still be challenging to showcase the tangible benefits of our work from afar. Again, we need to get better at highlighting the important role lawyers have in the transaction eco-system and help our younger lawyers develop skills and find purpose to make sure they stay in the profession for longer and become the leaders of our firms in the future.

What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?

We are looking forward to another huge year of delivering impact projects across the country, with further funding being unlocked across a number of federal government and state government programs. We will be delivering these projects in every corner of Australia so hopefully at some point this year I can get and about and see them come to fruition!

If you weren’t in law, what do you think you’d be doing as a career?

I’ve always fancied being a sports journalist or sports commentator. If I’m not working or helping look after my amazing family, I’m generally watching sport or teaching my kids sport, so if I turned back the clock 20 years, that’s probably what I would have done as an alternative.

Recent articles & video

Thomson Geer partner on the biggest impact of the Bruce Lehrmann defamation ruling

Federal Court rules in ASIC's favour against Cigno Australia, BSF Solutions

Senior appointments strengthen CBP offerings

Legal orgs team up to aid community legal centres

HSF environment, planning and communities group partners with CEIG on report

New metric developed to assess socioeconomic challenges of US law school applicants

Most Read Articles

NSW Supreme Court sets trial date for landmark strip search class action

K&L Gates Advises Centuria on acquisition of massive glasshouse in Victoria

Hall & Wilcox assists Tobii Dynavox to acquire Link Assistive for $13m

Pearce IP's AU litigation head shares the most important lesson she learned from her old job