Corrs Chambers Westgarth Graduate Profile Image- James

James McNaught

Monash University
Senior Associate
James McNaught studied a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Law (LLB) (Honours) and is a senior associate at Corrs Chambers Westgarth.

What’s your name and job title?

James McNaught – Senior associate.

What did you study? When did you graduate?

Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Law (LLB) (first class honours), Monash University, graduated in 2010.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the south east of Melbourne. I was heavily involved in sport at high school and all I wanted to do was to be a physiotherapist. As I grew older, I reassessed and focused solely on becoming a commercial lawyer.

How did you get to your current job position? For how long have you had it?
 
I started as a graduate in the Corrs Melbourne office in 2011. I took a leave of absence from Corrs in 2014 and worked for the US law firm Latham & Watkins in their London office, working primarily in leverage finance and structured finance. I returned to the Corrs Sydney office in 2016 as a senior associate and have just recently relocated back to the Melbourne office. Corrs has always been home for me, so it was just a matter of calling my old partners to arrange for my return home.

How did you choose your specialisation? Were you weighing up any other alternatives before choosing this specialisation?

I spent my entire university life and resume-building days thinking that I was going to be a litigator. Banking and Finance (B&F) was the second last thing I ever wanted to specialise in (only before tax). All my law electives, volunteer work and seasonal clerkships focused solely on dispute resolution. As a graduate, it was an incredible shock to me when I ultimately realised that I was far more suited to other types of law. When I rotated through the B&F team I resonated not only with the work but also with the type of clients and other parties involved. I had fantastic mentors who invested in my growth as a junior lawyer. At the end of the graduate program, there was no need to weigh up my options as I knew that B&F was the right practice group for me.

My graduate experience taught me a valuable lesson that I try to pass down to every graduate starting out: ‘Go into your graduate program with an open mind. Avoid being “that graduate” who does all of their rotations in the one practice area.’  While it is always nice to be taken under the wing of a senior partner for the entire graduate program, you run the risk of missing out on a practice area that you might be better suited to and you also miss out on the opportunity to network within the firm with partners and senior lawyers in other teams.

What was your interview process like? What kind of questions were you asked?

Interviewing is always tough and I much prefer being on the recruitment side of the interviewing table!  However, when I was starting out, my policy was to spend less time talking about my strengths and/or weaknesses and rather, to talk about the interviewers and find out as much as I could about them and about the firm. Frankly, very few candidates will know what clients want from their lawyers or what they look for in their legal advice. Interviews are opportunities to find out more about the firm and to give you a sense of if the firm you’re interviewing at is a place that you might enjoy working.

Most candidates will have very similar CVs: great marks, great volunteer experience and great work experience. Differentiate yourself in your CV and be memorable in the interview. I remember explaining to the Melbourne Office managing partner the reference in my CV about being a contestant in the show Deal or No Deal. It was a risk but it paid off. 

What does your employer do?

Corrs is a full-service commercial law firm however in terms of B&F transactions, we represent clients in the following areas:

  • acquisition and leveraged finance
  • asset and structured finance
  • corporate finance
  • debt capital markets and securitisation 
  • project finance
  • property and development finance

What are your areas of responsibility?

While the partner is ultimately responsible for the transaction, the senior associate is the lawyer running the transaction from start to finish. This involves negotiating with lawyers on the other side, obtaining instructions from clients, drafting contracts and/or advices and various bits of legal research. It also involves a significant amount of delegating to juniors, reviewing and providing feedback to juniors, and time management – both client facing and internally. 
 
Can you describe a typical work day? What was the last thing you worked on?

In my experience, there is no such thing as a typical work day. You will have tasks that are important and tasks that are urgent. The trick is to identify and prioritise the tasks that are both important and urgent. This will end up shaping what your day will ultimately look like.

Corrs supports my flexible work hours, which means that I start later in the day at 10.00 am. This gives me time to head to the gym in the morning, walk my two Staffordshire Bull Terriers and read the paper. Of course, this is dictated by whether or not client commitments require me to come in earlier.

What are the career prospects with your job? Where could you or others in your position go from here?
 
The career prospects are endless for B&F lawyers. After six months as a settled B&F lawyer, recruiters will start knocking and sell you the dream of living in some of the most exciting cities in the world and working on the largest and most complex deals. For many, working overseas is considered the B&F lawyer’s rite of passage.

This is basically what happened to me. I accepted a position with Latham & Watkins’ London office where I worked on market-leading and high-profile global deals. The hours were insane and the deals were monstrous. It was the best move of my career. 

Overseas experience is something that is very much encouraged at Corrs and the firm actually regularly helps identify secondment opportunities for our lawyers – so there are also options to experience life as an international lawyer while having the security of a job to come back to in Australia. 

Private practice aside, there are also a large number of in-house opportunities that arise for B&F lawyers, such as working at a financial institution or an ASX listed company. It also opens up opportunities to leave legal practice completely and take up commercial roles.

Could someone with a different background do your job?

While transactional lawyers deal with commercial contracts day in and day out, it takes a number of years and countless deals before you can develop a sense of what is market standard and this is what clients expect (whether you are advising a borrower or the lender). It would be very unwise to go into a negotiation not knowing what is considered to be the generally accepted positions in the market for your transaction. It would be even worse to claim to know what is standard, as you will no doubt be caught out.

What would your career be if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now?

I would be a property developer.
 
What do you love most about your job? Which kind of task do you enjoy the most?
 
The thrill of getting a deal done. No transaction is the same and there are usually challenging matters along the way. After the long hours and late nights, there is nothing better than completing a transaction with a happy client.

What’s the biggest limitation of your job? Do you bear a lot of responsibility? Do you have to work on weekends? Are the stress levels high?

There is a need for all lawyers to be hyper-responsive. Clients are spoilt for choice for law firms and lawyers always need to be ‘on’ (as a minimum). As such, law firms and their lawyers need to be super agile and quick to act. In a busy market, where the hours are long and client expectations are high, you are guaranteed to face prolonged periods of high pressure.

Which four pieces of advice would you give to a current university student?

  • Your law career is a marathon, not a sprint. Take care of yourself first and foremost.
  • Remember that you have internal clients too.
  • Until you have clients of your own, treat partners as if they are your clients. 
  • Get involved with the firm. Make an effort to attend social events and build relationships with your team members – it’s just more fun.