Staying in touch with the NZ market helped Catherine Shirley-Brown re-integrate on her return home
Catherine Shirley-Brown has come a long way since she entered law school with what she called an “overly romanticised version of what the job would be like.”
Working across a wide range of corporate law matters has ensured that she’ll never be bored, and after a six-year stint in London as a partner at a global firm, Shirley-Brown decided to return to New Zealand in 2018. Her initial concern about coming back to the NZ market after being away for so long was quelled by the fact that she kept her finger on the pulse of the profession, and today, she is a partner with top-tier firm Russell McVeagh.
In this interview, Shirley-Brown talks the importance of maintaining a personal network, Russell McVeagh’s leadership development initiative, staying cautiously optimistic on the market during the COVID-19 pandemic and completing the redecoration of her home in the next year.
What made you choose a career in law?
I had never considered being a lawyer—I was very keen on being a vet until I took an after school job in a vet clinic; I was then leaning towards journalism. But when I was in sixth form, a university liaison person came to my school and suggested that it might be a good option for me. I have always been very grateful to him, as I think the law suits me.
That said, I definitely went into law school with an overly romanticised version of what the job would be like, based almost exclusively on US TV shows such as LA Law.
What do you love most about your job?
I love the variety of the work. I have always been a generalist corporate lawyer, rather than being specifically focused on a particular practice area or sector. That has meant I have worked on a large range of transactions—advising a high-net-worth individual on his investment into a Formula 1 team, acting on the refinancing of Canary Wharf in London, acting for Ferrero on various public and private chocolate-related acquisitions, acting for private equity buying a cinema chain and advising the tourism arm of the Abu Dhabi government on a joint venture with LVMH to develop a luxury mall, to name a few. All totally different projects acting for very different clients—it keeps it interesting.
What is going on at the firm? Are there any new programs and initiatives that you’re particularly interested in?
We're focusing on leadership development for partners, senior lawyers and managers across the firm to build on from the partners’ leadership training programme and our other training programmes. We've had feedback that people are keen to see us focus on this, and I think it will help to support and embed Russell McVeagh's existing culture transformation, diversity and inclusion work, and enhance the performance of our talent across teams.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the past year and what advice can you give fellow lawyers about it?
One of the biggest lessons I have learned over my career—and one that I would urge younger practitioners in particular to think about—is the importance of developing and maintaining your own personal network. I was concerned about returning to New Zealand after a long absence; however, the fact that I had made a big effort to keep in touch with people while I was away has made my integration back here much easier. It has been great to reconnect with many former clients and colleagues, and that is already bearing fruit in terms of work.
What should law firms focus more on?
Taking the time to properly scope out a significant instruction from the outset—what are the commercial drivers, what does the client want the end result to look like, what's the client's risk profile, what is the optimal work product and how can fees be structured so as to provide genuine value for the client. This sounds obvious, but often when we are in a rush to get started on a deal—by way of example, on a due diligence exercise conducted on an urgent timetable—this might get lost in the process. It's vital to take a breath and talk this through, to make sure we deliver what the client actually wants/needs in an efficient and cost-effective manner.
What has been the biggest challenge you and your practice has faced amid the pandemic?
Obviously there has been a drop-off in M&A activity, and it remains to be seen over the coming months exactly how this will play out. However, things have not dropped completely off a cliff—sale processes are continuing and we are seeing new mandates. Having had two “tours” in London, the first immediately post 9/11 and the second right in the eye of the GFC, and having been very busy both times round, I am trying to retain an air of (very) cautious optimism.
What are you looking forward to the most in the coming year?
On the career front, continuing to raise my profile in the NZ market—there is a lot happening in Wellington at the moment, so it is an exciting place to be. On the home front, my husband and I have been house redecorating (we are living on a solid diet of Selling Houses Australia, Make Your House Perfect and Grand Designs)—I am looking forward to that finishing up!