Chamberlains special counsel maximises the web in building his practice

Podcast host James d’Apice talks modern knowledge sharing and his “ill-advised attempt” at rapping

Chamberlains special counsel maximises the web in building his practice
James d’Apice

James d’Apice is a fourth-generation lawyer, but a career in law was not his dream at first. He dabbled in other ventures, including what he calls an “ill-advised attempt” at making it as a rap artist. Eventually, however, he came to understand the satisfaction of being a lawyer as observed in his father’s life.

Today, he is a special counsel specialising in corporate oppression at Chamberlains, which he joined last year. As a litigator, he loves being able to help clients end disputes quickly before they head to court.

In this interview, d’Apice talks about the profession’s need to do more for diversity, keeping things civil with opponents, how lawyers can amplify the knowledge they share by utilising audio and video formats and returning to physical court proceedings.

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

I didn't choose a career in law, at least initially. It is a profession that I am delighted to have arrived at via a series of happy accidents and other ventures, including an ill-advised attempt at making rap music! That said, I come from a long line of lawyers. I am the fourth generation in my family to have practised in this jurisdiction. That means I have had some familiarity with the work, and with the satisfaction it brought my dad, in particular, for my whole life.

Choosing a favourite part is difficult. I am tempted to say “the people”: the colleagues, opponents, judicial officers, experts, clients and team members I have the pleasure to interact with every day. But I think my favourite part is the capacity for improvement, and refinement, of one's skillset. I can, if I so choose, be a better lawyer tomorrow than I am today. Similarly, I can allow my skills to regress; to be one day closer to irrelevance. That dynamism and control pleases me, and is – at least at this very moment – my favourite.

What is the most memorable case you've taken on/been involved in?

I am a litigator, and court outcomes are fundamental to my practice. However, my most memorable cases aren’t the very expensive, years-long pieces of trench warfare. The cases I remember most clearly are those where I was involved in a client securing a quick, cheap, graceful exit. Twice in recent months, once before proceedings were even commenced, I had the opportunity to be a part of a team effort that brought claims against our client to a halt before they really began. Those quick dispatches brought me huge satisfaction.

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

Here at Chamberlains, we are deepening our commitment to maintain and improve the mental health of all of our directors and team members. Starting this year, the firm has invested substantial time and resources in securing external assistance and also kicking off some programs internally. In my experience there is a tendency to give “lip service” to this important issue. We are committed to progressing past that initial (valuable) step and making our commitment to mental health practical – the profession more broadly is taking steps forward in this area, and we take great pride in being a leading part of that.

We are very proud to have launched two initiatives in 2020 furthering our commitment to make sure that any of our services that can go digital do go digital. We like to be thought of as an innovative firm and our chamberlains.subscribe and our chamberlains.wills offerings are two ways we are furthering that effort.

In addition, the firm's continued growth and expansion is exciting. Merging with like-minded firms (like the merger with excellent Canberra firm Howes Kaye Halpin in 2020) and the amount of support given to “senior junior” employed solicitors (of which I am one) in the process of building their practice, has seen Chamberlains move from strength to strength. From this perspective the future looks bright!

What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?

The lesson I have learned is one taught to me by other lawyers, including opponents in sometimes fiercely contested litigation. Again and again over the past year, I have been treated with empathy by other professionals. It is an approach that I have endeavoured to adopt myself, to varying degrees of success. What I have learned is that your client is no worse off if you treat an opponent with dignity and respect. And, indeed, a civil relationship with an opponent may actually give your client more options than a bitter one. It will also make your job more pleasant.

What should the profession and law firms focus more on?

The profession should – and must – come to grips with its failures in diversity of all kinds, including gender identity and background. By way of example, treatment of practitioners who identify as female remains substandard. Some changes are structural or demographic and will take time. However, some changes can take place on an everyday, person-by-person basis. As we edge toward one year since the Dyson Heydon findings, progress still feels glacial.

Like many lawyers who survive the first few years of practice, I am an example of huge privileges that have eased my progress. I am a white, male, cis-gendered, heterosexual, private school-educated practitioner who went to a sandstone university. Each of those categories points to how law used to look. The idea that our future should be similarly monotone is nonsense: first, from the perspective of equity and fairness the idea is offensive. Second, from a more mercantile perspective, diverse views make for better outcomes. To suggest that a firm run solely by white men is going to be as dynamic and prepared for the future as a firm that includes more voices, from more backgrounds (and who understand more potential clients) strikes me as bad business. For whatever reason, change must happen.

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 additional to the above, the challenge of remote work must continue to be met. I am lucky enough to have a home office, and I don’t need immediate supervision to develop my professional skills. But with the rise of remote work, we are forced to ask ourselves: how will new members of our profession learn their skills if not by direct interaction with senior colleagues? Even though remote hearings have their benefits and the conduct of everyone in every remote hearing I have appeared in has been admirable, a return to traditional, physical court hearings as soon as safety allows is desirable.

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

One of the benefits of aging in this profession is pursuing your specialty. I am fortunate enough to now be sought out for work in my areas of interest – and even be invited to speak on them from time to time. Taking a selfish view, I am looking forward to a year of serving my clients and spreading my knowledge on my corporate litigation “pet topics” of corporate oppression and derivative actions. And in 2021 I will hope for more chances to discuss those topics over a coffee!

To some, I am known for using the internet to build my practice, especially via a video and podcast series called Coffee and a Case Note. There, I reflect on recent corporate or commercial decisions in a way I hope is both rigorous and approachable. Having been engaged in this process for a number of years, I would recommend that other lawyers consider something similar.

My reason is: your time, as a lawyer, is valuable. That means you should be highly leveraged in its use. If you have devoted considerable time to, say, drafting advice on a specific area, preparing a blog post for your firm's website or giving a talk for an external provider then I say (with respect) that you are making an error in failing to properly leverage that time. The hours you devoted to your blog post might achieve some traction online, and your considered analysis will no doubt be valuable to your client. However, that effort you applied can be amplified by – for example – founding a podcast for your firm and sharing the same content there in audio format. Alternatively, you might whip your phone out to compose a tweet or even turn it around to record a video! That way, your hard work can have numerous lives and you will be maximising the return on your efforts.

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