A library relocation job almost turned this Mayne Wetherell partner off a legal career

Fortunately, a friend's advice put Jonathan Riley right back on track

A library relocation job almost turned this Mayne Wetherell partner off a legal career

Jonathan Riley almost walked away from law when he had to relocate a “large, dusty law library” for a job in high school, but a friend’s advice resulted in him walking away from a biochemistry degree instead.

Riley has since become a superstar in the legal profession – last month, he made partner at Mayne Wetherell in a promotions round that included Charlotte Garland and Sherryn Harford. The banking and finance specialist loves the challenge of the law, and the young lawyers he gets to collaborate with.

In this interview, Riley talks the opportunities provided by generative AI, how he’s become a better lawyer since he adopted flexible work arrangements, and earning brownie points from the kids if he ever got to represent The Grinch.

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

A high school job involving relocating a large, dusty law library almost put me off law but fortunately a friend encouraged me to attend a law lecture on my first day of university. I quickly came to appreciate the challenge that law provides and I saw a clear career pathway so quite happily dropped my planned biochemistry degree and made law my focus.

I really enjoy the transactional focus of the banking and finance work at Mayne Wetherell and assisting clients to structure both the legal and commercial aspects of new deals. It’s very satisfying navigating a client through a bespoke and complex transaction and ultimately getting the deal across the line.

We’ve also got a great team of bright and enthusiastic young lawyers at the firm and working with them is a big part of what makes the job so enjoyable.

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

The firm has done a lot of work over the last few years on its parental leave policy and I’m very proud of the support and benefits that we provide to our new parents. I’ve got two small kids myself and the extended parental leave and flexible working arrangements that were made available to me really helped with the transition into parenthood. I’m very pleased to see other firms in the market also expanding on the benefits available to parents.

What tech-related initiatives adopted by the organisation, if any, are you most excited about?

Our firm has been actively exploring potential AI uses and I’m very excited about the benefits that generative AI will bring. Some of the potential applications, including for areas like document drafting and information management, will absolutely be game changers and should free up our lawyers to spend more time focussing on the issues that matter most to our clients. The ability for new AI features to be integrated within our existing software and platforms should, in theory, also help make it a smooth transition.

While no doubt AI will create a number of challenges for the legal profession as a whole, I think it’s important to be focussed on the opportunities that it presents.

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?

A key learning for me has been the importance of striving towards a good work/life balance and focussing on wellbeing. After my first son arrived, I moved to a flexible 4-day working arrangement and it’s been hugely rewarding to have the extra time with family while the kids are young. Coincidentally, moving to a flexible working arrangement has, I think, helped me to become a better, more well-rounded lawyer as I now take a much more focussed approach to each week to ensure that I can make time for family and other interests.

Burnout and fatigue are major issues in the legal profession generally and so I would just encourage other lawyers to make sure they are mindful of their own wellbeing and to explore ways to make sure they are working sustainably. Lawyers are, rightly, very focussed on providing great service to clients and I think it’s important to remember that we will be in a better position to provide that great service if we also focus on looking after ourselves and each other.

What should the profession focus more on?

I would like to see more of a focus on creating a supportive and nurturing environment for our junior lawyers to grow and develop. Building the confidence of junior lawyers and ensuring they feel supported and respected will ultimately help them to perform at their best and develop faster. Working in law can be tough at times so, if we want to attract and retain talent within the profession, positive and supportive workplace cultures with opportunities for growth and progression will be essential.

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?

I expect the recent improvements in AI technology will create real challenges across the legal sector given AI’s ability to quickly process a lot of the more procedural, time-intensive aspects of the job. To remain competitive, the profession will need to be flexible and quickly adapt to new technologies and ways of practising, while still investing in training and developing junior lawyers.

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

I’ve been fortunate to assist several clients on sustainability-linked loans and lending facilities, with the terms of those lending facilities aimed at helping support and incentivise corporate borrowers to achieve their ESG/sustainability goals. It’s great to be involved in transactions that have a positive environmental and social impact and I’m looking forward to seeing how this practice area, and green/sustainability-linked lending generally, develops over the coming year.

If you had to defend a fictional antagonist/villain in court, who would you pick, and why?

Would have to pick the Grinch. My two boys (ages 4 and 2) are obsessed with the Grinch at the moment (they even have Grinch pyjamas!) so representing him would no doubt earn me a few brownie points. Also, while he did steal Christmas, his heart was two sizes too small so surely that’s a mitigating factor!

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