Claire Bibby, general counsel at Brookfield Property Partners, talks to Sasha Borissenko about the colourful side of being “smack bang in the middle” of the action
“The best word to describe my practice is that it’s like a kaleidoscope. The colourful nature and variety of legal issues that I deal with, set against a backdrop of the strength and processes of working in a global business like Brookfield, is such that no one day is ever the same.
“I joke that running my desk is similar to running the deli counter at Woolies. At 7am I start my day with a coffee and sort out my agenda, but come 8am the doors open and the queues begin!”
Bibby hails from England but moved to Western Australia when her parents decided to set up camp there when she was eight. And although her grandfather and brother were both police officers, she is the first in the family to be a lawyer.
“Well, there may have been some lawyers way back in the family. My mother is a keen genealogist and has tracked our lineage all the way back to Oliver Cromwell’s court. I’m sure we’ve had a few lawbreakers on the way, mind you.”
Law school and beyond
In fact, Bibby fell into law, she says. After securing a commerce scholarship for high achievers to attend Bond University in Queensland, her grades after her first semester were such that the law school then offered her a second scholarship to complete a law degree as well.
“It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. I thought to myself, well OK, if you want to pay for me to continue living on the Gold Coast and study, then I’m very happy to do that! My parents were both very supportive of me continuing my studies for as long as I wanted to. I’ve been very lucky in that regard. It’s about making the most of opportunities.”
Bibby then got her grounding in private practice by being a litigator in a commercial capacity for eight years before moving in-house, and she’s been working in this area for over 16 years.
Reaching senior associate level in a toptier law firm, she decided fairly early on in the piece that the partnership path was not for her.
“Being a litigator taught me the art of negotiation. It taught me a great understanding of the court system and the desire to not leave your destiny in the hands of someone else. But I wanted to work within a company and be smack bang in the middle of deal-making. Moving into a general counsel role gave me a chance to embed myself in a business and to be in the thick of it. I love the art and science of negotiating and deal-making.”
More in-house counsel
External lawyers are specialists, and general counsel are generalists, Bibby says. “I sometimes feel like I’m running a mini law firm inside a corporate structure with the exception of timesheets. I don’t feel that external law firms need to be concerned with the growing number of in-house lawyers. We use external lawyers to help and support us with the work we don’t either have the time or the resources to do ourselves. As in-house lawyers, there is a lot of pressure on us from the business to continually add value. A lot of the work I brief out I could do myself, but that’s not what my job is.
“My role changes every day. Just this morning I’ve dealt with licensing issues, opined on securities laws, responded to a human resources matter, worked on a government tender, and purchased six properties. I can’t personally take all of these things to the very end though. I need support from external counsel. On any one day I can be dealing with anything from 50 external lawyers on a wide array of legal topics, all of which my clients feel should be my top priority that day.
“Yes, in-house lawyers are becoming more prominent, but we absolutely know the value of external lawyers, and, importantly, to be good we need to know what it is that we don’t know and where to get it. I don’t see that changing. My ideal external lawyer is one that understands me and the client base that I am supporting. A lot of the external lawyers I use at Brookfield have been with me since day one.
Whether it’s giving advice to reception when being served with a subpoena, or advising the company CEO in preparation for a board meeting, each of my clients has their own needs and is attended to with absolute care, Bibby says.
“Our door is open to everyone who is in the Brookfield chain. Four thousand people is a lot of people to service. While I’m probably seen as a service provider predominantly to senior management, equally I’m there to advise anyone who comes my way with a legal issue, and I’m absolutely happy to help.”
It’s the company and the people she is surrounded by that makes her job worthwhile, she says.
“Everyone is highly motivated and smart. We’re building, developing and managing awesome properties and assets all around the world, and we are known for being the ‘best in class’. The commercialisation of our transactions are such that we set market standards and people follow. I love working with really clever folks who are always doing exciting and innovative things. I feel very fortunate.”
Tackling issues within the profession
More generally, however, mental health is something the legal industry really needs to be acutely aware of, Bibby says. Recent studies show a third of solicitors are at a high or very high risk of suffering from a diagnosable mental illness.
Bibby’s aim is to raise the profile of mental illness, both among Brookfield’s in-house lawyers and within the legal industry, and to reduce the stigmas associated with it, she says.
“I check in on my team’s wellbeing and their capacity at least once a week, and whilst I’m not their mother, they know that their state of feeling secure and supported is always at the top of my agenda.” Bibby is currently looking into implementing the Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation guidelines for lawyers at Brookfield and is working with a number of her external lawyers to learn what they are doing in this space. “We need to look after our people and ensure we’re not working them too hard.”
Law is always going to be a highly stressful job, Bibby says. It’s about how managers provide support to their staff, and it’s also important for individuals to ensure there’s support around them. Whether it’s related to the type of people who are attracted to law, or the nature of the work, it’s likely that the law is always going to have high rates of mental illness, she says.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to provide high-quality legal advice. We are also expected to provide the right response to our clients every time. It’s therefore important that we look after each other.
“My team are awesome – both as lawyers and as people. I don’t want them to leave and work somewhere else. Rather, I want them to enjoy what they’re doing as much as I do and to know that I have always got their back, so to speak. I want to take them along for the ride with me. I want them to enjoy their work, feel secure and have realistic expectations as to what can be achieved.
“As an internal lawyer I can’t give work to an external lawyer at 8pm and expect the work to be completed by 8am the next day, for example. That’s unfair to put that sort of pressure on anyone, and I will be the first to call out this type of behaviour if I see it. It’s inappropriate to pass stress on to someone else in this sort of way.”
Overall, developing one’s personal brand is something that should be highly important to all lawyers, Bibby says. Success comes from self-packaging.
“Whether it’s using your internal or external contacts, I think it’s important for lawyers to consider having mentors, but equally it’s very important to look for a sponsor, someone who is vested in your career and who believes in you. It’s so valuable to have somebody who is going to back you in what you do and provide help and champion you. No man is an island.”
Outside of the law, Bibby finds some reprieve through gardening. Last year her partner surprised her with a trip to New Zealand’s Hobbiton Movie Set, which is based on the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
“I love getting down and dirty in my garden. I love growing vegetables, and I know it sounds uncool and naff but I find it really relaxing. I hope to have my very own ‘Hobbiton’ one day at home. When I get a call saying [director Peter Jackson] wants to film the next instalment of the Lord of the Rings, I’ll know I’ve made it.”