Five minutes with… Jamie Wells

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Jamie Wells, partner at King & Wood Mallesons, tells Australasian Lawyer why he’d have JRR Tolkien to dinner if he could.

What made you decide to become a lawyer?
I never had a burning ambition to be a lawyer. Maybe that was a good thing, given that most peers who were committed to the idea from year dot ended up doing other things. I left school with no clear direction, and enrolled in journalism for the sake of doing something constructive. Having struggled with opening pars in introductory print journalism, I decided to switch to law. In hindsight, I nearly missed out, as the entrance score jumped that year. In the end, I just scraped in.

How long have you worked at King & Wood Mallesons and what brought you to this position?
I have been here only a few months, having spent over 20 years elsewhere. The leaving can never be about one thing, after all that time. But I pretty much decided to come here the day I was approached, even though it took a lot longer than that to finalise the nitty gritty. KWM pretty much ticked the boxes I couldn’t tick where I was. At least from my perspective, it has a much clearer view about how to get where it wants to go.

What’s the strangest case you’ve ever worked on/been involved with?
When employment, discrimination, and harassment are in your area, there will always be a range of unusual experiences. Most of the strange ones are not really fair game.  But one I had a lot of fun with was the time I got to advise Big Brother house candidates during the Starburst promotion a few years back. Essentially there was a short list of candidates competing for random entry into the house and, being young inexperienced people, they needed to know what they were signing up to. As you would expect, they were desperate to get into the house, and that made the task much easier. But it was good fun to see, as a hanger-on, the TV cogs turn behind the scenes for a day.

If you could invite three people for dinner, dead or alive and excluding family and friends, who would they be and why?
Oscar Wilde - though unfashionable now, he would still be a walk up start. Margaret Thatcher – whatever you think of her politics, the grocer’s daughter did some remarkable things, particularly given the times. JRR Tolkien – and not because I am particularly into elves and dragons. While best known for his books (which I grew up on), I think of him as much for who he was – an intellect who landed at (and survived) the Somme, lost most of his friends there, and then went on to live the life he did as a quiet Oxford scholar and author. Albert Einstein would be first alternate.

You’re based in Brisbane – where’s the best place to go for a drink and/or dinner after work?
I hardly go anywhere for just one. Most places are good enough, if you’re with people you like. At the near end of town, Esquire is a nice spot for a drink (and very small portions of food). Up the other end of town, I have had some very good times at Survey Co.

What’s the best piece of advice (work or personal) you’ve ever been given?
The one I most regularly bore young lawyers with is – we get paid for our opinions, not our doubts. I was told that one very early on. It isn’t intended to encourage being cavalier, or that you shouldn’t recognise risk. But it does recognise that, although the world isn’t perfect, people ask for your opinion because they want to know what you think. Producing twenty pages hedging against risk doesn’t do that. 

Do you have any hobbies/interests outside of work?
I try and exercise a lot – mainly running, with some pilates to try and undo the damage that running causes. I like to fish, but don’t go often enough. As a spectator, I still go along to Suncorp Stadium and watch the Qld Reds do their best. Unbelievably, the year they won the championship, I was overseas for the semi-final and the final. Both games at home, both games won. I forget who owes me for the tickets I gifted them for that fortnight. I am also trying to get my children interested in hiking, to get us all out of the house, but with mixed results.

Complete this sentence: If I wasn’t a lawyer, I would be…
Unemployed, most probably. I will have to work that out in due course, having no intention of putting on the slippers and dressing gown when I have had enough of mainstream legal practice. Perhaps I should take up an HR role, to give me some real understanding of what those guys go through executing the hard decisions I have the luxury of working through only in the abstract.   

What do you think will be single biggest issue facing the legal space in Australia in 2015?
I suspect it might not be structural over that short timeframe, but rather one of supply and demand. The political climate at both levels seems to be of concern to a lot of the people you meet, and its impact on business confidence. I recall a sense of optimism in anticipation of the last federal election, but the budget and related issues have not helped. But it is remarkable how all that can change very quickly, and effective people will always find a way.   

If you had Tony Abbott’s job for one day, what would you do?
For many of us, the thought of a political career is depressing, even for a day. The entrenched political process seems anathema to constructive government, and we rarely see it in the administration of anything that works well. That said – and given I only have a day - I would address the way the Senate is elected. It looks and acts nothing like what it was designed for, and sprouts out of preference deals few anticipate or really understand. Maybe I would need a full term to get that done (or a second one, or a third).    

What do you love about your job?
While lawyering is often described as linear and dull, and can live up to that at times, it can also offer a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Winning an important tender, getting an important result, working closely with good people for a common end – these are immensely satisfying things that are often overlooked amid the real concerns about the relentlessness of time sheets and budgets. Since moving a few months ago, bringing together at KWM a group from different backgrounds has been a good learning experience for us all. 

What would you change about your job right now if you could?
I think most of us are all looking for the big shift in conventional practice away from time costing and the administrative burden it imposes not only on us, but on the clients trying to manage their own budgets. It has been on the radar for as long as I can remember, but nobody has yet worked out how to do it with universal results. Whoever gets there first will probably do very well, in every sense, while everyone else works it out and catches up. My sense is there is still a long way to go there.
 
 

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